10 Reasons to Hike the January Prairie

“This life is after all a miracle and we ought to pay fierce attention every moment… .” —Brian Doyle

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January on the prairie is underway, a yo-yo between freeze and thaw; snow and sun.

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Walking the prairie on a gray windy morning, contrasts are everywhere.

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Carrion flower still clutches its inedible fruits; some plump, others desiccated.

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Prairie dock leaves evince a weathered beauty that only comes with age and time.

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They are unrecognizable from the green elephant ears they were in July. The air smells of wet earth and cold. Grasses whisper in the wind. A hawk silently bullets by, rapt on its prey. The hum of traffic in the distance is the only sound. So quiet. Peaceful.

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Until—-scritch scritch scritch. Up in a black walnut tree, a fox squirrel rhythmically gnaws a black walnut. The sound ricochets through the January air. How can a squirrel’s teeth grinding on a nut make so much noise?

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There is so much to experience on the tallgrass prairie in winter. Here are ten reasons to hike the prairie in January.

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10. The drama of winter prairie skies, changing like a kaleidoscope from moment to moment.

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9. The sound of water moving through the prairie; music that is more appreciated in January than July.

 

8. The grace of a single seedhead such as Canada wild rye…canadawildryeSPMA1520WM.jpg

7. …or, the joy of massed individuals, like these large swathes of bee balm.

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6. Possibilities for the future in the mowed firebreaks, ready for the prescribed burn to come.

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5. The glories of prairie plants that are more interesting in seed than in bloom, such as Illinois bundleflower.

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4. Small pleasures like the incredible diversity of lichens on a log in the tallgrass.

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3. Large dramas, such as the sweep of the prairie under a dusting of snow.

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2. The fascination of following animal tracks and trying to understand their stories written upon the landscape.

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1. Ice art, in all its unexpected and temporary forms.

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Welcome to a new year on the prairie.

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There is so much to anticipate this month.

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The opening quote is from Brian Doyle’s (1956-2017)  One Long River of Song. If you haven’t read Doyle, this is a good collection to begin with. Known as a “writer’s writer,” Doyle wrote many novels, essays, and poetry collections. He also won numerous awards, including the John Burroughs Medal and four Pushcart Prizes.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby and taken this week at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (top to bottom): mosses and snow; bridge to the prairie; carrion flower (Smilax spp.); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); January on the prairie; eastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger); prairie sky; Willoway Brook; Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); mowed firebreak; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis); lichens on a log; prairie trail; coyote (Canis latrans) tracks;  ice on the trail; bench on the prairie in the snow.

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Please join Cindy at one of her upcoming classes or talks in the new year!

Nature Writing and Art Retreat, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, February 22 (Saturday) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Cindy will be facilitating the writing portion. Sold Out. Waiting list –Register here.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26.  Details and registration here.

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum. For details and registration, click here.   

A New Year in the Tallgrass

“Joy as I see it involves embracing life. … Joy isn’t the opposite of sorrow, but encompasses and transcends sorrow. You know you’re truly connected with yourself when you’re experiencing joy.” — Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge

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Where did 2019 go? The time passed so quickly.

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This year we saw changes on the prairies we love. After the prescribed burns that torched the tallgrass…

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… we marveled at the new growth soon after.

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Watched the early pasque flowers bloom….

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and then, set seeds for the future.

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We stood amazed at the constellations of shooting star, bent and humming with bumble bees.

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Then, were astonished at the July wildflowers. Sure, we seem them each summer. But each year seems like a miracle.

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Now, at the end of December, the prairie has its own sort of loveliness. The beauty of sky and clouds…

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…the delights of a single seedhead.

Pasture thistle.

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Bee balm.

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Blazing star.

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Each prairie plant has a different method of making seeds and ensuring its future. Each has  a story to tell.

Remembering the familiar cycle of prescribed fire, new growth, flushes of color, and fruition of seed are all comforting at the close of the year.

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It comforts us as we remember how, in 2019, we wrote our own stories. Some of us lost people we loved. Had surgery. Battled cancer. Made new friends. Laughed a lot. Cried a lot, too. Weeded, seeded. Planned and worked to make those plans—both on the prairie and off—a reality. Celebrated the successes. Resolved to learn from the failures.

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In 2019, there were the surprises and vagaries of weather. Remember the big snow in April? Then, the cold and wet through the middle of June. Blazing hot in July. Snow on Halloween. Sixty degree days in December. Through it all, the prairie sailed on. The tallgrass  prairie was built for these extremes.

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Woven through 2019 was joy. True joy. The kind that is hard-won. The prairie, with its glories and challenges, defeats and delights, reminds us of this. Fire brings growth. Deep roots hold firm, drawing from long-held reserves when unexpected events throw the season out of kilter. The prairie survives.

It survives, also in part, because of people with vision.  Each prairie is a story of sweat and joy; patience and persistence. Of survival. Like a Polaroid snapshot, stewards and volunteers bring struggling remnants back into sharp focus.

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Many saved at the eleventh hour.GensburgMarkhambigbluestemWM122719.jpg

2019 was the continuing story of people who care enough to preserve places that aren’t always easy—at first glance–to understand. When I drive by the roughly 105-acre Gensburg-Markham prairie on congested I-294, set aside in 1971, I wonder what most commuters whizzing by this precious remnant think about it. Do they know what was saved, and why it matters? Do they wonder why it was never developed? Or is it just a blur in their rear view mirrors as they speed to their destinations?

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Do the people who drive by the 91-acre Sundrop Prairie, dedicated in 2000 and part of the Indian Boundary Prairies in Markham, IL, know what a treasure these acres contain?

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The tallgrass grows and changes. Our understanding of their importance evolves. And yet, the prairies continue on, as they have for hundreds of thousands of years. There’s a comfort in knowing that when we’re gone, the prairies will continue to survive and thrive under the care of future generations.

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I think of these things as I hike a prairie trail at Fermilab in the last days of the year. According to the Chicago Tribune, “In 1975 when he heard that Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, near Batavia, was looking for suggestions on what to do with the thousands of acres it owned, Bob Betz sat down with then-director Robert Wilson and went over his vision of having a restored prairie on the property. ‘And when Dr. Wilson asked how long it was going to take, Dr. Betz said, ‘Ten, 20 or maybe 30 years,’ then Dr. Wilson said, ‘Well, we better get started this afternoon.’ ” From these beginnings, beautiful prairies were planted and now thrive at Fermilab.

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Prairie remnants like the Indian Boundary Prairies—Sundrop and Gensburg-Markham— require people to discover them, bring them to the attention of the rest of us, and then, care for them with prescribed fire and stewardship. They require organizations like the Nature Conservancy and Northeastern Illinois University and others, and the generous donations of individuals, to ensure their protection. They require vision. And action. I think of Bob Betz, and his work with the Indian Boundary Prairies, as well as with Fermilab’s natural areas.  I think of the volunteers who undertake a hundred different tasks to maintain prairies today.

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Other preserves, like Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL–which has both remnant and planted prairies—shows the rewards of focused funding and care since 1986 by the Nature Conservancy Illinois and later, joined in that care by Friends of Nachusa Grasslands. I think also of the 100-acre Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum just outside of Chicago, and the volunteers, including myself, who dedicate time each season to cut brush, plant new natives, and collect seeds. Such different prairies! Each one irreplaceable.

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Now, it’s time to close another chapter in the life of the prairies. 2019 is a wrap.

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2020 is waiting. So much possibility!

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So much good work to do. So much joy to look forward to.

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The opening quote is included in the book, Poemcrazy: Freeing Your Life with Words by Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge. It’s one of my favorite books on writing; I re-read it at least once a year.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Sundrop Prairie, Midlothian, IL: prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; greening up after the prescribed burn, top of Dot’s Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL: pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens) in bloom, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatiilla patens) in seed, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; July at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; the end of December at Fermilab Natural Areas, interpretive trail, Batavia, IL; pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; blazing star (probably Liastris aspera), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Sundrop Prairie, Midlothian, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Sundrop Prairie, Midlothian, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Sundrop Prairie, Midlothian, IL; backlit prairie plants (unknown), Sundrop Prairie, Midlothian, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; Illinois nature preserve sign, Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; Sundrop Prairie in December, Midlothian, IL; Gensburg-Markham Prairie with bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), grasses, and wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; Fermilab interpretive trail edges at the end of December, Batavia, IL; Carolina horsenettle (Solanum carolinense), Fermilab interpretive prairie trail, Batavia, IL: prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; Wilson Hall from the interpretive trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL;  interpretive trail at Fermilab Natural Areas at the end of December, Batavia, IL.

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Please join Cindy at one of her upcoming classes or talks in the new year!

Nature Writing and Art Retreat, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, February 22 (Saturday) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Cindy will be facilitating the writing portion. Register here.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26.  Details and registration here.

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum. For details and registration, click here. 

Happy New Year! Thank you for reading. See you in 2020.

A Holiday Hike in the Tallgrass

“If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere.”—Laura Ingalls Wilder
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It’s 50 degrees. Can it really be December?

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Jeff and I took a break from wrapping gifts this weekend and went for a hike on the Belmont Prairie, a small remnant in Downer’s Grove, IL. The weather was flawless.

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We were greeted immediately.

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As a prairie steward, deer aren’t a welcome sight. But I enjoyed the fluid grace of this white-tail in motion as it bounded into the treeline. Nearby, flattened grasses showed where the deer may have spent the night.

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Many prairie plants in December are almost unrecognizable. Goldenrod leaves , shaped by weather and age, look like ribbon curls. Remember old-fashioned ribbon candy? It was a staple of my childhood holidays. This stage of the plant brings it to mind, albeit with a little less color.

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Goldenrod gall rosettes are as jaunty as spring wildflowers. It’s difficult to believe an insect is the artist behind this creation.

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The bright sunshine and deep shadows of early afternoon throw familiar plants into unfamiliarity. Rattlesnake master leaves, toothed and deeply grooved, bear little resemblance to the juicy green foliage of spring and summer.

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The rattlesnake master seedheads are brittle and alien-esque in the bright sun.

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Prairie dock leaves remind me of an elephant’s trunk.

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I hum tunes from “The Nutcracker” when I see these picked-over pale purple coneflower seedheads on the prairie. This one looks like a ballerina in a stiff tutu with her hands in the air.

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I love the backlit drum major’s baton of the round-headed bush clover…

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…and the weathered beads of wild quinine, like tarnished silver that needs a little polishing.

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On this unseasonably warm day, I think of the Schulenberg Prairie where  I’m a steward and the volunteer hours my team spent weeding and cutting; planting plugs and seeding this year. Many of them, through patient ID work, discovered several new plant species. By coming out to the prairie at night, we were able to ID almost a hundred moth species new to our site this season. Patiently, volunteers made progress on invasive plant removal. We renovated our prairie display beds. Made our prairie more visitor-friendly. All reasons to celebrate.

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There were some disappointments. I think of a few tasks undone. The seeding that didn’t work out. The back-ordered equipment that never arrived.  New signs that were damaged and now, need to be replaced. All part of caring and preserving precious prairie places. Beautiful places like the prairie where I’m hiking today.

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It’s good to take a moment and pause before the new year begins, with all its planning and possibilities. To feel joy over a year well spent. To be grateful for the many people and organizations who make these prairies possible through their hard work, vision, and support.

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To be grateful for the progress we made. Always, it seems our efforts are three steps forward, two steps back. But always…progress. Worth celebrating.

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, and a Wonderful New Year to All!

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Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose quote opens this post, was the popular author of the “Little House” children’s series. I’ve been reading Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder this week and am struck anew by the hardships and difficulties families experienced through westward expansion, the Dustbowl years, and the Great Depression. Quite a different perspective than I had reading these books as a child! Winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize.

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All photos this week copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL, unless noted otherwise (top to bottom) : thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica); view from the trail looking toward subdivision; white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus); flattened prairie grasses; goldenrod leaves (Oligoneuron rigidum); goldenrod gall rosette (Rhopalomyia solidaginis);  rattlesnake master leaves (Eryngium yuccafolium), rattlesnake master seedheads (Eryngium yuccafolium); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); pale purple coneflower seeds (Echinacea pallida); round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata); wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), the prairie in December; milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pappus; Christmas ornament, author’s yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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Please join Cindy at one of her upcoming classes or talks in the new year!

Nature Writing and Art Retreat, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, February 22 (Saturday) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Cindy will be facilitating the writing portion. Register here.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26.  Details and registration here.

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum. For details and registration, click here. 

A Tale of Two Prairies

“The natural world is the refuge of the spirit… .” E. O. Wilson

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Sunday, my family and I braved the traffic out of Chicago to celebrate Christmas together in northwestern Indiana. There were a surprising number of commuters.

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Probably the holidays.

Any opportunity to travel is an opportunity to see prairies. As we drove toward the Indiana state line, making good time, Jeff suddenly veered off I-294 at the exit for Highway 6. “Let’s revisit Gensburg-Markham Prairie!” he offered. We had dropped by this prairie several years ago, and impressed, always vowed to return.

Oh no! The entrance gate, at the end of a neighborhood cul-de-sac, seemed to be locked.

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Determined, I squeezed through the opening between the fence and the chain-closed gate. Later, I read that the chain is merely draped over the top of the fence. Ha! I could have lifted it off and opened the gate, it seems. Perhaps it was more of an adventure my way.

On the other side, this remnant prairie is full of treasures, even in December.

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Drifts of prairie dropseed swirled through the prairie.

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Mountain mint seeds were mostly gone, but no less beautiful for that.

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Deep in the grasses I found prairie dock leaves. This is my favorite time of year for them. Like “swiss dots” fabric.

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Its Silphium cousin—compass plant—wasn’t far away.

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A few purple prairie clover seedheads remained. I struggle, sometimes, to distinguish the white prairie clover from the purple at this time of year, when the seeds are partially gone. One is grittier, and one is softer and lighter colored. Hmmm.

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White vervain, which occurs in every county of Illinois, curtained the edges of the prairie.

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I walked the mowed trail and listened. Not far away, the Tri-State Tollway traffic roared and billboards signed their temporary depressing messages. Legal services. Gambling. Fast food. Strip clubs.

 

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But the magic of the switchgrass…

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…and the remains of the tall coreopsis and other prairie plants gone to seed were enticing enough to propel me deeper into the prairie, wondering what else I might see. Alas! There wasn’t nearly enough time to explore. We needed to get back on the road.

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After our family gathering in Indiana, Jeff and I headed home via some back roads through St. John, avoiding the traffic on the Tri-State Tollway as much as possible. Gray skies promised an early dusk and perhaps, snow on the way. On this route, we always watch for the Shoe Corner, at the intersection of 109th and Calumet—an odd tradition in this part of the Hoosier state of dropping shoes along the roadway. As we braked at a stoplight, Jeff pointed. “Look!”

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We immediately signaled and drove slowly along the edges of the prairie, looking for an entrance. The best spot seemed to be a parking lot with an abandoned building.

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This, I thought, was more forbidding than the locked gate to Gensburg-Markham. I doubted we were at the correct entrance. But a trail mowed along the edge of the prairie offered a way in. As I walked into the grasses, I wondered about the history of this place. Indiana once was about 15 percent tallgrass prairie, according to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Later, I learned that this 34.2 acre remnant was saved from development and dedicated in 1992.

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Reading more at home, I found that according to the DNR, at least 175 species of native plants are here; one federally threatened. Three rare animals. Several rare moths and insects. Biesecker Prairie is also an introduction site for the  federally-threatened Mead’s milkweed; an unusual milkweed that no longer occurs naturally in Indiana. I promised myself to come back in the summer, when we had more daylight and knew where to park and hike.

Beisecker Prairie is a gem in a rough-cut setting. We could have so easily missed it! A defunct business nearby had piled refuse, boats, and old electronics along the far edge of the area. It’s so easy to focus on what is broken and ugly; to only see the damage we’ve done to the beautiful natural areas we once had in Indiana and Illinois.

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But often, beauty and restoration are just around the corner. Literally.

Despite its surroundings, Biesecker Prairie seemed….tranquil. Peaceful, despite the traffic flying by. A little oasis. Like Gensburg-Markham by the Tri-State Tollway.

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I wonder what Biesecker Prairie will look like in spring. From different vantage points at this time of year, you could see common milkweed; tall coreopsis, prairie dropseed, perhaps a little cordgrass. Native prairie plants.  Someone cared enough to preserve and protect this little corner prairie remnant. Someone realized its value.  Its history. And because of this, it survives.

 

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This small prairie remnant in Indiana—and others like Gensberg-Markham Prairie, a remnant carefully preserved in Illinois—still stand despite the odds.  We find these prairies juxtaposed between golf courses and highways. Sandwiched  into neighborhoods, defunct businesses, and Interstates. These precious few acres of tallgrass prairie remain because people paid attention. They cared enough to protect them. Kudos to the volunteers, stewards, and agencies that made it happen—and who continue to steward these tallgrass prairie preserves today.

Two urban prairies. Two different states. Two stories.

Hope for the future.

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The opening quote is by E. O. Wilson (1929-), Professor Emeritus and Honorary Curator in Entomology at Harvard, from Biophilia (1984). Wilson is considered the world’s foremost authority on ants. Blinded in one eye as a child in a fishing accident, he learned to focus on “little things” he could see up close, or under a microscope. Wilson has won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction twice; once for On Human Natureonce for The Ants (with Burt Holldobler). He is sometimes called “the Father of Biodiversity,” and is known for his theory of island biogeography (with Robert Macarthur).

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): possibly cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum), Naperville, IL; gate to Gensburg-Markham Prairie; Gensburg-Markham Prairie in December, Markham, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; mountain mint (probably Pycnanthemum virginianum), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; white vervain (Verbena urticifolia), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; I-294 and Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL;  tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; corner of Biesecker Prairie, St. John, IN.abandoned business close to Biesecker Prairie, St. John, IN; edges of Biesecker Prairie, St. John, IN: Biesecker Prairie in December, St. John, IN; Biesecker Prairie, St. John, IN.

******

Please join Cindy at one of her upcoming classes or talks in the new year!

Nature Writing and Art Retreat, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, February 22 (Saturday) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Cindy will be facilitating the writing portion. Register here.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26.  Details and registration here.

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum. For details and registration, click here. 

A Twilight Prairie Hike

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

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December. The roads are choked with traffic; shoppers busy with the work of preparing for the holidays. Neighborhoods dressed in Christmas lights glow. Chicago radio stations swap out their playlists for Jingle Bell Rock and Frosty; Oh Holy Night and Santa Baby. The temperatures warm into the high 40s and then, plummet into the teens. We think of snow.

Under steel skies, the prairie is quiet, an impressionist study in golds, browns, and rusts.

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Sunday, Jeff and I drove to Crystal Lake, Illinois, where I gave a late afternoon talk on Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit.

signprairieview12819WM.jpg Afterwards, there was just enough light to go for a hike on the prairie, silent in the gathering dark. Mary, my delightful host, told me the prairie was originally a farm, run by Hazel and her husband, Otto Rhoades, president of Sun Electric Company. The 7,500 square foot education center was originally their home built in 1945.

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The McHenry County Conservation District purchased the property in 1993 and began converting the private home to an educational center.  Today, the center serves thousands of McHenry County children and families with low-cost nature programs, camps, and school field trips. These kids will grow up knowing that tallgrass prairie is something special.

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As the light fades on the prairie, so do the sounds. We move a short way down the path and realize the day is almost gone. Our hopes of hiking the  six and a half miles of hiking trails through the prairie and savanna restorations, culminating at the banks of the Fox River, won’t happen this time. This short walk will only be a taste of what this place has to offer.

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Just over the horizon a plume of smoke lifts, likely a neighbor burning leaves.

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In the gloaming, the grasses and wildflowers take on a mysterious aspect. The prairie has been called “a sea of grass” in literature, and I can imagine these wildflowers at the bottom of an ocean floor, waving gently in the current.

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As we hike, I think of the old farm and the lives spent in agriculture here. It would be a shock to Hazel and Otto to see these acres, likely wrestled from prairie at one time, turned back to tallgrass prairie again.

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John Madson, in his eloquent book, Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie, talks of visiting the area where his great-grandparents turned tallgrass into farm. He wrote: “What would they think in our time if they could stand in the Walnut Creek Refuge and look over a prairiescape again? They might deplore it as so much foolishness, feeling somehow betrayed by this replication of a wilderness they had been so proud to have tamed. Or would they see it for what it really is—a common ground between their lives and ours?”

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Walking through the tallgrass, I try to envision it as farm in the forties. My imagination fails. Prairie stretches across the horizon. In the dim light, the grasses  become waves crashing into the savanna.

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But the wildflowers have amazing detail and grace, like this goldenrod rosette gall on a goldenrod plant.

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Even the weedier prairie natives, like evening primrose, seem festive.

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A deer emerges from the tallgrass, shadowed, then motionless, so much that Jeff and I almost miss our “Illinois state animal.” The deer reminds me of the book I’ve been reading, Wilding: Returning Nature to Our Farm , by Isabella Tree. Set in Great Britain, Tree tells of the experiment her family undertakes to let their intensive agricultural venture go and then, watch the land recover. They add old English longhorns, fallow deer, red deer, and Exmoor ponies to their land to churn it and fertilize it. They withhold herbicides. Quit planting. Then, they watch the exhausted land become healthy again. As birds and insects return to their thousands of acres, the neighbors are aghast to see good cropland be “wasted.” Of the experiment, Tree writes: “It was an affront to the efforts of every self-respecting farmer, an immoral waste of land, an assault on Britishness itself.

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Reading Madson and Wilding reminds me that our ideas about how to use the land and what we value are always changing, always in transition. Land use isn’t always something we agree on. Prairie, because it is so nuanced, may be seen as land that is “wasted.” Couldn’t that land be better used? But when you build a relationship with prairie, you understand its true value.

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I wonder what my grandchildren will make of prairie, and how they will care for the landscape they’ve inherited. How they will change it. I think of the next generations. What will they value when they explore the prairie trails? Will they see the beauty and sense of history that permeates these places?

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Prairieview ‘s work—and the work of other prairie education programs for families and schoolchildren—gives me hope.  That we will invest in children and their prairie experiences. That we will let them absorb the beauty and mystery of the prairie through personal time spent hiking and exploring the tallgrass. That educators and parents will help them understand the value of its plants and its animals. Then, our children will have a reason to love the prairie community and care about its future.

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We’ve not gone very far into the tallgrass, but it’s time to turn around and head for the car. Dusk has turned to dark. Just a bit of light remains.

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We’ll be back.

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The opening quote is from Rachel Carson’s (1907-1964) The Sense of Wonder. Begun as a magazine essay, the book is a stirring call to nurturing children’s sense of delight and marvel over the natural world.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken this week at Prairieview Education Center, Crystal Lake, IL except where noted: prairie at Prairieview Education Center in December; welcome sign; Prairieview Education Center; little bluestem (Schizachyium scoparium); view from the education center; trails through the prairie; mostly bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); switchgrass (Panicum virgatum); mixed grasses and savanna in the dusk; rosette gall, made by the goldenrod gall midge (Rhopalomyia solidaginis); evening primrose (Oenothera biennis); white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus);  compass plant (Silphium lacinateum); young child explores the prairie, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata); common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).

Thanks to Mary, Barbara, and the good folks at Prairieview who hosted the booksigning and talk on Sunday. And thank you to Dustin, who recommended “Wilding” to me.

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Please join Cindy at one of her upcoming classes or talks in the new year!

Nature Writing and Art Retreat, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, February 22 (Saturday) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Cindy will be facilitating the writing portion. Register here.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26.  Details and registration here.

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum. For details and registration, click here.

A Year of Reading Prairie

“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.” –Jane Austen

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December is here, and my bookshelves are overflowing. Some books are stacked on the floor; other shelves have two rows of books instead of one. And yet…. my Christmas list includes more books. Where will I ever put them all?

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I’ve tried to pare down some of my inventory. But when I get to my prairie books, the winnowing stops. I thumb through old favorites. Sigh over a few that I’ve skimmed and want to spend more time with. I run my fingers over their book jackets and add them to the piles of books already on (and under) the nightstand.

By reading these field guides and coffee table books and essays on the tallgrass,  I’m building my relationship with the prairie. That feels good, especially on a day this week when 60 mph winds roared across the tallgrass and kept me indoors.

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When I was an independent bookseller, I believed for every question, there was a book that might help me wrestle with the question—even if the answers were still fuzzy.  As a prairie steward and naturalist, I love the wide range of literature that helps me explore the natural world. You too?

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As 2019 draws to a close, it’s time to take an annual romp through my prairie bookshelves together. The books below are not a comprehensive reading list by any means. Some of the prairie books I own are out on loan and don’t appear here; some of them are temporarily out of sight (likely in that pile by the coffee table) or being used as coasters (!!!). I didn’t have room to include books on gardening with native plants, like the passionate A New Garden Ethic by Benjamin Vogt or Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home…. or even the biographies of prairie heroes, such as Arthur Melville Pearson’s excellent book on George Fell, Force of Nature. These books that follow also have more to do with prairie plants than other members of the prairie community (so no field guides given here on butterflies, mammals, dragonflies–another bookshelf full of great reads to discuss on a different day).

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All are ones that as a prairie enthusiast, prairie lover, and prairie steward I spend a lot of time browsing, recommending, or giving as gifts. They focus specifically on prairie history, prairie restoration, and prairie plants. Ready? Let’s go!

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Is that a prairie plant—or a weed? I get this question a lot. And the answer isn’t always as simple as you’d think. When I first hiked the tallgrass prairie in 1998, I didn’t know foxtail grass from Canada wild rye. I’m still learning my plants. As I wrangle with questions about tallgrass prairie plant ID’s, I look to great field guides like the Tallgrass Prairie Wildflowers Falcon Guide (Doug Ladd and Frank Oberle) (available new and used in several editions). My copy, which replaced a falling apart earlier edition, is dogeared fromuse in the field. Ditto for my well-thumbed Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide by Lawrence Newcomb. An updated edition is available now, although I’d find it difficult to trade my old annotated one in. I appreciate Newcomb’s for general wildflower ID, in the prairie, woodlands, and wetlands.

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I’m a big fan of Andrew Hipp’s Field Guide to Wisconsin Sedges. His easy-to-use guide, with the smart drawings by the talented Rachel Davis, give me hope that maybe this season I’ll learn a few more members of my prairie, wetland, and savanna community. Sedges are hard.

The book behind Andrew’s is Wildflowers of the Tallgrass Prairie: The Upper Midwest by Sylvan Runkle and Dean Roosa. My first edition is long out of print, but the awesome  folks at University of Iowa Press published a second edition with better photographs; check it out here.  Short ethnobotanical stories for each prairie plant make this book a winner, with a bit of explanation on plant scientific names.

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If you’re really serious about learning your grasses and wildflowers—and you live in the Chicago Region—you’ve probably already purchased Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rericha’s Flora of the Chicago Region.

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With 3,200 plant species in the 22-counties it covers described along with each plant’s neighboring plant associations, insect associations, and “C” value (plus some awesome illustrations), this unique book belongs on every prairie steward’s bookshelf.  At $125, the holidays are a good time to put it on your wish list. My copy weighs 10 lbs, so I get a good workout just carrying it around.  After a morning taking notes in the field, I sit down at the kitchen table and browse through its pages.  The essays and other auxiliary matter are absorbing reads for anyone who loves prairie.

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Sure, you can use the excellent, free iNaturalist app on your cell phone for basic prairie plant ID. I use it too! But  there is no substitute for a good field guide.

In preparation for the spring season, I’m working on prairie seedling ID. Like sedges, those new shoots and leaves are a challenge to figure out.  Sure, some seedlings are distinctive from the start, like prairie alum root or wood betony. But the grasses? Tough.

Two books have been particularly useful to me this year: The Tallgrass Prairie Center Guide to Seed and Seedling Identification in the Upper Midwest by Dave Williams (another great Bur Oak book) and the Prairie Seedling and Seeding Evaluation Guide (Paul Bockenstedt, et al.) I picked up the spiral edition of Prairie Seedling on a visit to University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Arboretum Bookstore on a whim, and was glad I did.

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The Tallgrass Prairie Center’s guide has color photographs that highlight the critical points of identification, as well as seed sizes and characteristics. Take a look.

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The Prairie Seedling guide’s spiral format makes it easy to use in the field, and its nod to look-alike plants are a useful tool. Although not comprehensive, it has a solid 54 prairie plants and 26 weed species.

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If you love the tallgrass prairie—but are more interested in its stories than figuring out the plant names—-the best place to begin is with John T. Price’s edited volume, The Tallgrass Prairie Reader. Price presents essays on the prairie chronologically from the 19th to 21st Century. To read the almost 400 pages from start to finish is to begin to understand how people have viewed prairie over time—and how our ideas about prairie have changed. (Full disclosure: I’m delighted to have an essay in this compilation.)

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Another of John Price’s books, Not Just Any Land, explores our relationship to prairies through personal experiences. Paul Gruchow also loved the tallgrass prairie and wrote volumes about it; his Grass Roots: The Universe of Home (Milkweed) includes the iconic essay, “What the Prairie Teaches Us” that I’ve read aloud and shared with numerous nature writing classes, my prairie volunteers, and my tallgrass ecology students.

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Another of Gruchow’s marvelous books, Journal of a Prairie Year is a series of reflections and hikes on the prairie, month by month. I re-read it every year.  Other books that explore our relationship with prairie include William Least Heat-Moon’s PrairyErth, specifically focusing on Chase County, Kansas; Seasons of the Tallgrass Prairie, with Paul Johnsgard’s passion for prairie birds front and center; Buffalo for the Broken Heart which tells of Dan O’Brien’s work with bison and prairie in the Black Hills; and two books of spiritual essays, Jeffrey Lockwood’s Prairie Soul, which includes an exploration of religion and science, and my own By Willoway Brook, which I wrote on prayer as I was beginning to explore the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum.

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Tom Dean and I released a reflective book of full-color photographs and essays this spring that explores the connections between people and prairie: Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit.  Short “conversations” are paired with images of prairie as we explore how the prairie has much to tell us about wonder, loss, home, joy, change, restoration, healing, and more.

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Tom and I are both big Paul Gruchow fans, so you’ll see Gruchow’s influence in the book.  There’s a little poetry in the pages as well.

 

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Images have a lot of power to engage people with the tallgrass prairie. In the books below, the photographs and drawings make a compelling combination. John Madson and Frank Oberle team up for the Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie; Aimee Larrabee and John Altman put their talents to work in the gorgeous coffee table book accompanying their PBS documentary,  Last Stand of the Tallgrass Prairie; the incredibly talented artist Liz Anna Kozik puts a new twist on prairie restoration in her Stories in the Land; and Michigan’s prairies get a shout-out in the lovely Prairies and Savannas in Michigan by Ryan O’Connor, Michael Kost, and Joshua Cohen.

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Prairie aficionado? Plant nerd? Either way, these three books below on prairie ethnobotany — how people have used plants over time—will absorb you for hours on end. Native American Ethnobotany by Daniel Moerman is a compilation of the human uses of 4,000 plants, including many of the prairie, by specific tribes. Fascinating reading! Kelly Kindscher’s dynamic duo Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie and Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie are geared toward the prairie plants of Kansas, but I find plenty of useful information  when I teach prairie ethnobotany in Illinois. Plus, all three books give you a glimpse of a different time, when we were tightly connected to prairie as our grocery store, pharmacy, hardware store, craft supply, and love charm shop.

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What if you’re just beginning your journey to know and understand the prairie? These three books are a good place to start.  The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction assumes no prior knowledge of the prairie and invites the reader to explore, engage with, and build a relationship to this amazing landscape of home. I wrote it for my new prairie volunteers, prairie visitors, and friends and family members that were intrigued by the prairie, but didn’t want a long or complex read. Like longer books? Richard Manning’s engrossing Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics and Promise of the American Prairie is a satisfyingly deep dive into the subject, as is the poetic and beautifully written Where the Sky Began by the late John Madson.

For the prairie steward, restoration landowner, or prairie volunteer in your life who is serious about restoration and management techniques, check out these three books: The Tallgrass Prairie Center Guide to Prairie Restoration in the Upper Midwest (Daryl Smith, Dave Williams, Greg Houseal, and Kirk Henderson) is one of my go-to guides when I’m trying to figure out what to plant, herbicide, burn, or collect next. The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States is a terrific guide from the generous and inimitable blogger (The Prairie Ecologist) and Nature Conservancy’s Director of Science in Nebraska, Chris Helzer.  I learn a lot from Chris! Stephen Packard’s and Cornelia Mutel’s edited volume of essays, The Tallgrass Restoration Handbook is a classic, and one of the first books I purchased on prairie almost 20 years ago (there’s a newer edition available now) .

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There are beautiful prairie books for young readers.

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I confess I enjoy reading them myself. I love Carol Lerner’s out-of-print Seasons of the Tallgrass Prairie, which has solid information for elementary aged kids and up. Look at the page on deep roots, as one example.

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Claudia McGehee’s A Tallgrass Prairie Alphabet, (a beautiful Bur Oak book shown next to Carol’s book on the left),  is not just for kids. Check out this entry for the letter “X.” Wow.

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Any children’s book that has a sphinx moth and eastern prairie fringed orchid on the same page has my heart. ♥

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These are just a few of the books I turn to in order to deepen my relationship with native plants and the tallgrass prairie. These books have been mentors, friends, and companions in the field. They are a way to connect with prairie when the cold winds and weather keep me inside with a hot beverage and a warm afghan. They remind me that others are musing over the same questions I have about prairie ID and prairie stewardship; they help me feel companionship as I hike the prairies and reflect on how others have experienced them over time.

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This list is not exhaustive by any stretch of the imagination. Rather, it is presented here for your enjoyment and discovery. Maybe some will end up on your bookshelves!

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What prairie books do you reach for? Drop me a note here so we can share book recommendations.

Wahoo!   Books are so much fun…

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…especially on a cold December day. Don’t you think?

Happy reading!

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The opening quote is from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Although her most famous line is likely “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” I prefer her quote about books. Read more about Jane Austen here.

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All non-book photos copyright Cindy Crosby and listed here (some photos appeared previously): unknown seedhead, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  road to Thelma Carpenter Prairie, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; Carolina saddlebags in May (Tramea carolina), Ware Field, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Wolf Road Prairie, Westchester, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Will County, IL; wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus), Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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Please join me for these upcoming classes and talks!

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! $5 per person, registration recommended, details here.

Saturday, February 22 —Writing and Art Nature Retreat — at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Details and registration information here.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online wraps up this month! Watch for the next online course in March. Register here.

Nature Writing Workshop: on-line and in-person begins March 3, 2020. Register here.

Find more at www.cindycrosby.com  

A Prairie Thanksgiving

“Keenly observed, the world is transformed.”–Gretel Ehrlich

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A sunrise and sunset in glorious technicolor bookended Monday this week. Pink lemonade. Orange sherbet. Smudges of charcoal and lavender. It’s not winter yet, but these sky-works feel very much of that season to me. One of the bonuses of the shortening days is they enter and exit with such pizzazz.

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The bigger part of a November day’s sky is often more subtle in its allure. Less color. Less drama. Nuanced.

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On the prairie, the palette is all rich metallics.

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Where we relied on sight and of smell and sound during the warmer months to experience the tallgrass, November is a time of texture. The sense of touch comes into greater play.

The woolly seedhead of the thimbleweed stubbornly holds on to its treasures. Touch it. It’s soft, but not silky. More like cotton.

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There’s a new appreciation for shapes, like the curve of a goldenrod gall ball against the backdrop of an angled Indian grass stem. Run your finger across the surface of the sphere. It’s lightweight and surprisingly smooth.

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As the carrion flower fruits fall apart, we become more aware of the vine’s lines and spirals.

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There is the sparse loveliness of the blazing star, when all evidence of life has fled.

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Even the regimented grasses with their tops hacked off are a testimonial that someone cares about this prairie remnant; cares enough to have cut and gathered the seedheads. Were they out here working on a gray, bone-chilling morning? Perhaps these seeds will be used to strengthen the prairie here, or help begin a future prairie restoration planting.

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November’s range of colors may be less dazzling at this time of year, but what it has lost in color, it has gained in contrasts.

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Forbidding and rough; the seeds long gone inside.

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Other prairie plant seeds remain, so delicate a breath would seemingly cause them to float away. And yet, they hang on.

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The November prairie reminds me to be grateful for seeds and seedheads in all their forms. They promise to take the prairie forward, into the future. A walk through the prairie this month reminds me to thank the stewards and volunteers who pour hours of their lives into keeping prairies vibrant and healthy. Without them, the prairie would fail to thrive, and eventually, disappear. It’s a month to appreciate the tallgrass’s underlying structure; that suite of wildflowers and grasses with deep roots. To offer thanksgiving that prairie remnants and restorations continue to exist—and continue to shape the hearts and minds of those who call it home.

In a time when we may feel jaded, cynical, or even in despair over the state of the world, a walk on the November prairie is an act of thanksgiving. An act of hope.

I finish each hike, feeling grateful.

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Gretel Ehrlich‘s (1946-) The Solace of Open Spaces, from which the opening quote is taken, is one of my all-time favorite reads. “Everything in nature invites us constantly to be what we are,” she writes. Her book is set in Wyoming.

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All photos this week copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve in Downer’s Grove, IL unless noted otherwise: sunrise, author’s neighborhood, Glen Ellyn, IL; gray skies over Belmont Prairie in November; mixed prairie plants, thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica) in seed; goldenrod ball gall; carrion vine (probably Smilax ecirrahta); rough blazing star (Liatris aspera); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida); pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Please join Cindy for one of these upcoming classes or talks before 2019 ends:

Saturday, December 7, 1:30-3 p.m.—Sterling Stories from the Arboretum Stacks: Grab a friend and spend a lively hour together sipping hot beverages while you enjoy little-known stories about the Morton Arboretum. What’s that old fountain doing in the library? Why was there a white pine planted in the May Watts Reading Garden? Who is REALLY buried in the Morton Cemetery—or not? What book in the Sterling Morton Library stacks has a direct relationship to a beheading? Why does the library have glass shelves? How has salt been a blessing —and a curse—to the Arboretum over its almost 100 years? Listen as 33-year Arboretum veteran library collections manager Rita Hassert and  Cindy Crosby spin entertaining tales of a place you thought you knew….until now.    A lovely afternoon enjoying little known Arboretum’s stories, and a quiet respite from the holiday hustle and bustle. Register here.

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

Happy Thanksgiving, and thank you for reading!