A Merry Prairie Christmas

“In late December I feel an almost painful hunger for light…It’s tempting to think of winter as the negation of life, but life has too many sequences, too many rhythms, to be altogether quieted by snow and cold.” — Verlyn Klinkenborg

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Christmas morning dawns, cold and overcast. The scent of snow is in the air.

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On the prairie this week, it’s been mostly sunny. Quiet.

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Willoway Brook provides the December soundtrack: water moving fast over rocks. Ice lingers in the shoreline’s shadows.

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Wildflower seedheads silhouette themselves along the edges of the stream.

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Prairie dock leaves, aged and brittle, offer their own late season beauty. Lovelier now, perhaps, than in their first surge of spring green. Spent. No towering yellow blooms to distract us. The marks of age—wrinkles and splotches—will soon end in a flurry of flames.

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Along the edge of the prairie, fragrant sumac fruit could pass for furry holly berries—with a bit of imagination.

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Blown out stars of sudsy asters froth along the gravel two-track.

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Crumpled leaves of pale Indian plantain create stained glass windows when backlit by the winter sun. The woods are often called “cathedrals'” by writers. A bit of a cliché.  But it’s not much of a stretch to call the prairies the same. The tallgrass offers its own benedictions to those who hike it. Especially in solitude.

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Flattened by an early November blizzard, the prairie reminds me of the ocean, washing in grassy waves against the coast of the savanna. I think of Willa Cather, who wrote in “My Antonia”: “As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea…and there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow to be running.”

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The end of the year is just a breath away.

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Who knows what wonders we’ll see on the prairie in the new year? I can’t wait to discover them. How about you?

Happy holidays and Merry Christmas to all!

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The opening quote is from Verlyn Klinkenborg’s The Rural Life. Klinkenborg (1952-) was raised on an Iowa farm. He teaches creative writing at Yale University. Listen to Klinkenborg speak about his writing here.

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All photos (copyright Cindy Crosby) in the blog post today are from the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, except where noted (top to bottom): bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); the Schulenberg Prairie in late December; Willoway Brook reflections; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) seedheads; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica); unknown aster; pale Indian plantain leaves (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium); prairie grasses and savanna; sunset at College of DuPage’s East Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

December Prairie Delights

“Since we go through this strange and beautiful world of ours only once, it seems a pity to lack the sense of delight and enthusiasm that merely being alive should hold.” — Sigurd Olson

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As the days shorten, hurtling us toward the Winter Solstice Friday, a sunny day is especially welcome.  A prairie hike seems in order. Where to go? On the edge of a subdivision not far from where I live, hedged in by apartment buildings, two interstates, and a golf course, lies the Belmont Prairie Preserve.  A little unplowed prairie remnant, barely hanging on in the suburbs. Let’s go!

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I move slowly on the overgrown path, recovering from knee surgery that will get me back in tallgrass action come spring.  So I take the trail a little more deliberately than usual, which of course, has its own rewards. When you don’t rush, the prairie opens up more of her secrets to you. All around me, the morning frost evaporates. Ragged compass plants look otherworldly, backlit by bright sunshine.

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The melting ice glitters on the grasses.

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A few compass plant seedheads, with their seeds mostly stripped away, silhouette themselves against the deep blue winter sky.

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Its last leaves are wearing away, barely attached to the stem.

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Looking at them, I think of Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Dillard’s remark in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: “I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along. I am aging and eaten and have done my share of eating too. I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wondering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for…and whose beauty bats and shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them.”

It’s difficult to imagine anything nibbling the sandpapery compass plant leaves in December. But all grasses and forbs are parsed down to their essence. I continue to study the compass plants. Rough, cracked stems are patched with resin. Scratch the patches, and you’ll inhale a tang of pine fragrance.

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Compare the rough and ready compass plants to the fluidity and grace of big bluestem. Sure, big bluestem is dried out and desiccated now; most of its seeds disappeared into the beaks  of birds. When green, its foliage is so delicious for wildlife, the plant is sometimes nicknamed “ice cream grass.” But its beauty is only enhanced as the focus shifts from waving turkey-foot seedheads to dry, ribbon-like leaves and hollow stems, flushed with subtle pastel colors.

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Another contrast nearby: Pale purple coneflowers still hold their forbidding seedheads. You can see why the scientific name “Echinacea” means “hedgehog” or “sea urchin.” Handle with care! The seeds inside are mostly long gone, harvested by goldfinches and grassland birds.

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More contrasts: Thimbleweed holds its soft clouds of seedheads aslant in the cold. I rub the cottony tufts between my fingers, admiring their softness. Like Q-tips.

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The thimbleweed is echoed close by in the brushy, bristly seedheads of round-headed bush clover. A fun name to say out loud, isn’t it? Try it. Its scientific name, found at the end of this post, is just as enjoyable.

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It’s these little nature preserves, like the Belmont Prairie remnant, that encapsulate the future of restoration. On a beautiful sunny winter’s day like this one, the future seems full of possibilities.

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So many delights for the senses to be discovered on a remnant prairie in December! And in a world where so many of our natural resources are in jeopardy, isn’t it encouraging to know that here, at least, the tallgrass prairie will live on. As long as we continue to hike it, protect it, and share it with others so they will love and protect it, too.

What other delights will you find this month on the prairie? Go take a look, and find out.

 

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Sigurd Olson (1899-1982) was the Chicago-born author of many books and key environmentalist instrumental in bringing attention to and preserving the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. His writings about wilderness, including the opening quote of this blog post taken from the chapter “Aliveness” in Reflections from the North Country, continue to inspire those who care about the natural world.  Read more about Olson here.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby, and taken at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve in Downer’s Grove, IL: Belmont Nature Preserve in December; backlit compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); grasses matted down after the blizzard and glistening with frost;  compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) seedheads;  thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica); round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata); Belmont Prairie in December.

5 Reasons to Hike the December Prairie

“Curiosity, imagination, inventiveness expand with use, like muscles, and atrophy with neglect.”  —Paul Gruchow

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December mornings dawn bright and clear. Venus dazzles in the southeast, just before first light.

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Step outside. Brrrrr! Hello, December, with your mercurial weather and often-frigid temps.

It may seem like a daunting month to hike the prairie. After all, there’s not much going on, right?

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Wrong. For those who venture out to the tallgrass, there are wonders to be had.  Here are five reasons to bundle up, get outside, and go take a look.

1. Critters 

Love ’em or can’t stand ’em, you can’t get away from squirrels in December. Despite their inroads on my backyard bird feeders, I’m a bit of a fan. Walk through any prairie savanna or check the trees scattered across the prairie, and you won’t have to look too hard.

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Check out this tree on the edge of the prairie. How many squirrels can you see?

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I counted at least a dozen, possibly more.  A group of squirrels like this one is called a scurry. Perfection, right?  Those leafy nests high up in the trees are the squirrel condos. You can see one in the above photo, on the left. Squirrel homes, and sometimes a squirrel family group, are called a drey or sometimes, dray.

Most squirrels were enjoying a snack. The scritch scritch scritch scritch of so many furballs gnawing on black walnuts was the soundtrack to our prairie hike.

Not a squirrel fan? Walk on… .

2. Ice Capades

Temperature ups and downs on the prairie leave ponds and streams a virtual canvas for weather to paint its delights upon. Crystals, ice shelves, frozen droplets…the scene changes from moment to moment with the rays of the sun.

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Unless you visit the prairie in December, you’ll miss the magic.

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Isn’t it important for us to witness the beauty in the world?

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As Annie Dillard writes, “Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”

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3. Shifts of Weather

Woolly bear, woolly bear, what do you see? Traditionally, the banded woolly bear caterpillar is the foreteller of winter weather. The longer the black stripes, the longer the winter. This little bear looks as if it’s predicting a mild winter, doesn’t it? But it was out in 17 degree weather! And, we’ve already had one blizzard in the Chicago region. Hmmm.

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The woolly bear caterpillar will emerge in the spring as the isabella tiger moth. Woolly bear, you’re cute.  But I might stick to watching meteorologist Tom Skilling’s weather report.

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4. The Splendors of Grass

We think of grass as juicy, green, and supple. But one of the many delights of prairie grass is its winter wardrobe. Nuanced, ranging through metallic tones of bronze, silver, and gold, the tallgrass changes colors with the slant of the sun.

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Sure, the recent snows flattened the tallgrass. Take a look, and see how your perspective on the prairie changes when the grasses and forbs, towering over your head just a month or two ago, no longer obstruct the view. New vistas open up. Grass takes on different role in December.

5. Mindful Hiking

What does the prairie have in store for you in December? Smell the tang of cold air. Feel the hot sun on your face on a frigid day. Listen to the sounds of the winter residents of the prairie and the prairie savanna; woodpeckers drumming along the edges, the rustle of squirrels dashing from tree to tree on the prairie edges. Taste the last dollop of snow. Check out the coyote scat on the trail to see what “trickster” has been sampling. Persimmons? Meadow vole? The fur and seeds tell the story for those who take time to look. Check the ponds and streams and see who is hanging out there.

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It’s easy to get caught up in the baking, shopping, socializing, and other activities of the holiday season. Need a break? A walk on the prairie may be just the thing to clear your head. What are your motivations to hike the December prairie? Please share them in the comment section below.

Because we all need a little extra push to get outside this month.

Happy hiking!

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The opening quote is from Boundary Waters: Grace of the Wild by Minnesotan Paul Gruchow (1947-2004). Gruchow writes compellingly about the rural life and the natural world in his books. If you haven’t read him before, try Grass Roots: The Universe of Home, or A Prairie Journal.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Venus in the dawn sky, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL: little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; eastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) on the edge of the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; three eastern fox squirrels (Sciurus niger) on the edge of the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ice on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: ice crystals on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  ice on author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; ice on the author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; woolly bear (Pyrrharctia isabella) caterpillar on the prairie trail, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; snow patches on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: bridge in December on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blue heron (Ardea herodias) with a few mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), East Branch of the DuPage River Restoration, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

2018 Holiday Prairie Reading List

“A truly good book…teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint…What I began by reading, I must commence by acting.” —Henry David Thoreau

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Mornings dawn on the prairie, cold and wet. After the blizzard that dropped eight inches of snow on the tallgrass last week in the Chicago region…GEbckyardpr1118WM.jpg

…the weather suddenly vacillates. Tentative, indecisive. We go to sleep to the pyrotechnics of thunderstorms and tornado warnings; wake to snowmelt in flood.

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A downpour and high winds chase the heavy snow cover into memory. The grasses are soggy. Pummeled into submission.

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Light dustings of snow follow, turning the Midwest magical.

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The sun suddenly illuminates the prairie. Snow melts. Again. All this in the course of a week.

Best way to cope with all this weather indecision?

Time to curl up in your favorite chair with something hot to drink, an afghan, and a good book. What book, you may ask? Read on, and discover some prairie recommendations that will engage your mind and expand your heart.

2018 Tallgrass Prairie Holiday Reading List

As a former indie bookseller, one of my greatest joys was matching the right book with the right reader. Years later, I can’t resist the impulse to recommend a book. Here are a few from my bookshelves to consider for gift-giving or for personal indulgence.

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There’s no better introduction to the literature of the tallgrass prairie than The Tallgrass Prairie Reader. In this edited collection of essays from John T. Price, spanning the 19th through 21st Centuries and organized by those time periods, you’ll encounter writings from Charles Dickens who toured the prairies (and wasn’t impressed) to Mark Twain to more contemporary writers such as Benjamin Vogt and Steven Apfelbaum; Mary Swander, Lisa Knopp, and Thomas Dean.  Price’s volume includes Louise Erdrich’s essay, “Big Grass,” which is one of the finest lyrical essays written on tallgrass prairie. The Tallgrass Prairie Reader also serves as a springboard to investigating some of the longer works sampled here, such as John Madson’s “Where the Sky Began,” and William Least Heat Moon’s “PrairyErth. History buffs, as well as prairie aficionados, will enjoy this read.

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My go-to prairie writer is the late Paul Gruchow. His essays on the rural life and the prairie are a solid introduction to the tallgrass for anyone who enjoys excellent, thoughtful literature or just a darn good read. In Grass Roots: The Universe of Home, Gruchow reminds us of the emptiness of power and money and the power of paying attention.

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In another of his books, Journal of a Prairie Year, Gruchow takes us on walks through the tallgrass, month by month, mixing observation with personal reflection. If you enjoy reading observational writing of the seasonal variety, this little book will wear well. I re-read it every year.

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One of the most down-to-earth, enjoyable reads about prairie in the past decade is Steven Apfelbaum’s Nature’s Second Chance: Restoring the Ecology of Stone Prairie Farm. Set in Wisconsin, Apfelbaum tells the story of his efforts to restore 80 acres of old farmland to prairie, wetland, and savanna. Don’t miss Chapter 10, “Getting to Know Your Neighbors,” which chronicles a hilarious encounter between the author and a farmer, who wants to rent some of Apfelbaum’s “weedy mess” which he sees as fallow fields. Apfelbaum is principal ecologist and chairman of Applied Ecological Services, a design, consulting, and restoration firm in the Chicago region, so there’s good restoration information throughout, as well as lovely memoir. Warm, personal, and well-written, this is highly recommended. You can see my copy is pretty worn out!

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More inspiration: If you live in the Midwest, and enjoy biographies of prairie and natural resource restoration heroes, you’ll find Arthur Melville Pearson’s Force of Nature a powerful read. I had no idea who George Fell, the founder of the Nature Conservancy, was, nor did I know the critical role he played in saving natural areas, especially in Illinois. Critical reading for Midwestern restorationists, or for those who like to immerse themselves in a fascinating biography. Illuminating!

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Pearson, a volunteer at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, is currently writing a book about Midewin and his experiences there, which should be a welcome addition to prairie literature.  He’s also an excellent speaker and blogger. You can find out more about Pearson here.

And—speaking of Midewin—although The Way of Coyote by Gavin Van Horn is not a book about prairie per se, it includes a lovely essay, “Desire Lines,” about Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL, and Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and the author’s experiences there.  Van Horn is the Director of Cultures of Conservation at The Center for Humans & Nature, where he writes compelling about finding beauty in urban landscapes. Hot off the press.

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Looking for something different? A unique approach to tallgrass prairie are these booklets by comic artist and PhD student Liz Anna Kozik. A welcome entree in restoration literature, and a great avenue to see prairie in new ways.

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Although Kozik concentrates much of her work in Madison, WI, anyone interested in tallgrass prairie restoration will find a treasure trove of information in these slender volumes. Delightful illustrations! Check out more about Liz and her work here.

As a prairie steward, I’m constantly looking for books to help me with specific restoration issues on the prairie. My go-to book is this comprehensive guide from The Tallgrass Prairie Center Guide to Prairie Restoration in the Upper Midwest by Daryl Smith (et al).  If you are planting prairie at home, volunteering on a prairie, managing a restoration site, or just want to understand how prairie restoration is done, you can’t do better than this thorough, extensive treatment of tallgrass prairie. The Tallgrass Prairie Center also has some fabulous short downloadable technical guides that should be in every prairie steward’s toolbox. They span topics such as seed collecting to propagating native plants to evaluating stand establishment. Check them out here.Prairie Read 4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At 120 pages, its companion guide, the slim but equally lengthy-titled The Tallgrass Prairie Center Guide to Seed and Seedling Identification in the Upper Midwest has helped me navigate the mysterious world of prairie seedlings and seeds and their ID—invaluable in the early spring, when prairie plants are coming up, or in the late autumn, after seed collecting. I’m not gonna lie: when those early prairie grasses are first emerging, I still struggle with distinguishing big bluestem from switchgrass. This book is helping me work on strengthening my grass seedling ID. Fingers crossed.

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More than two decades old—but still packed with excellent restoration information—is another technical guide edited by Chicago region restoration guru Stephen Packard and Cornelia Mutel. The book takes you through the nuts and bolts of planning a prairie restoration,  monitoring wildlife, and conducting controlled burns, plus much more. This classic  belongs on every prairie steward’s bookshelf.

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If you want to dig deep into just one aspect of prairie, woodland, and savannas–such as the world of sedges—it’s difficult to do better than Dr. Andrew Hipp’s Field Guide to Wisconsin Sedges: An Introduction to the Genus Carex. Filled with Hipp’s approachable writing and Rachel Davis’ excellent drawings, it’s been invaluable to me as I’ve navigated the confusing world of sedges with my prairie volunteers this past summer. The sedges are difficult. This book makes learning sedge ID seem feasible.

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If you’re looking for an overview of the tallgrass prairie: its history, its ecology, and its management, the seminal book to read is John Madson’s “Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie.” It was the first book I read on the tallgrass prairie that grounded me in understanding what a precious landscape it is. From glaciers to fire to Madson’s beautiful reflections, this is an enduring read. Prairie Read 14

 

 

 

 

 

 

At more than 350 pages, Madson’s book is a deep dive into prairie, which delights some of us, but is a barrier from those who are time-crunched. With this in mind, I wrote The Tallgrass Prairie Reader: An Introduction specifically for those new to prairie, or those who wanted a book they might give a friend or family member who didn’t understand why they were so excited about the whole “prairie thing.”

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At about 140 pages, it’s a quick window into understanding what a prairie is, and why it matters. It’s also been a good starting point for new volunteers, or those who move to the Midwest and are unfamiliar with prairie and want to understand its importance, or achieve a basic grasp of prairie restoration vocabulary.

There are some good regional books which are of interest, no matter where you live, in broadening our view of the tallgrass. This autumn, Joel Sheesley, Artist in Residence for The Conservation Foundation in Illinois, has published a stunning collection of his plein air paintings and essays on the Fox River and the prairies, wetlands, and woodlands that surround it.

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This would be a superb gift for that hard to buy for person who lives in the Chicago Region. A visual treat, as well as a thoughtful read.

And a little further to the north, co-authors Ryan O’Conner, Michael Cost, and Joshua Cohen’s Prairies and Savannas in Michigan: Rediscovering our Natural Heritage, combines lovely photography and thoughtful essays on some of Michigan’s beautiful natural areas.

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Want a more exhaustive regional volume? Joel Greenberg’s 500-plus page A Natural History of the Chicago Region covers everything from prairies to wetlands; mussels to bison; glaciation to fire. It’s a must-read for anyone who lives in the Chicago region. Warning: Greeenberg’s book, with its extensive overview of so many natural history subjects, will send you on rabbit trails of additional reading as well as sparking myriad trips to prairies, beaches, and woodlands in the region.

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And of course, if you want to make a prairie restoration fan’s holiday memorable—or treat yourself—dig deep into your pocketbook and splurge on Dr. Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rericha’s Flora of the Chicago Region (about 1400 pages, color and b&w illustrations, $125). As a prairie steward, I find it’s an invaluable reference in understanding the plants of my region and their insect associations.

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It would be difficult to talk about prairies in the Midwest without mentioning bison. One of the most fascinating books on this topic is Dan O’Brien’s “Buffalo for the Broken Heart: Restoring Life to  a Black Hills Ranch. Vegetarian warning: O’Brien came to bison by way of cattle ranching, and his dream is to blend conservation and a viable ranching business. A poignant, thoughtful read! Find out more about O’Brien’s conservation efforts and bison ranching here.

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It’s difficult to stop! But-but-but–What about the prairie field guides? Books on prairie ethnobotany? And—Cindy—you didn’t  mention the large format prairie coffee table books?  Children’s books?

As the old saying goes, “So many books…. so little time.” I’ll leave the rest on my bookshelves for now for a future post, as well as the  books on my Christmas wish list, such as Benjamin Vogt’s A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion for an Uncertain Future.  This holiday, season, please support your local bookstores by putting a few of these prairie and natural history books on your bookshelf–or someone else’s bookshelf—for the new year. It’s a gift that you can open again and again!

Still looking for just the right prairie book and didn’t see it here? Have a prairie book to recommend? Please leave a note in the comment section at the end of this post so we can all enjoy more prairie book recommendations and learn from each other.

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May your holidays be happier for finding a new book or two to enjoy or to give. Happy reading!

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Henry David Thoreau (1817-62) was a leading transcendentalist, philosopher, poet, essayist, and abolitionist. He’s best known for his book, Walden, and his natural history writings.  One memorable quote from Walden: “Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.” He is also famous for his essay known as Civil Disobedience. You can read more about Thoreau here.

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All landscape photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): blizzard hits the prairie patch, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; snowmelt on the prairie pond, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; flattened prairie patch, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; rural Illinois farm with a light snow cover next to Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL;  sunset, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Transformed by Prairie Snow

“How is it that the snow amplifies the silence, slathers the black bark on limbs, heaps along the brush rows?”–Robert Haight

Love it, hate it, delight in it, complain about it—it’s here. Snow. A blizzard dropped almost eight inches of snow on  the western Chicago suburbs overnight this week.  According to our Chicago weather guru Tom Skilling and friends, this month is now tied for the third snowiest November on record here.

A snowfall can transform the prairie in a matter of hours.  Brittle grasses and spent wildflowers, under the influence of snow, become something otherworldly.  Magical, even.

Trees are down, cracked and slung to the ground by the weight of the wet white stuff.  On the prairie, the tallgrass is broken and smothered, reshaped  by wind and weather. Snow has given the prairie sharp new geometric angles; while at the same time softened some of the rough edges.

The blizzard-strength gusty winds, greater than 35 mph, pounded snow into the bird feeders by my backyard prairie patch. As the storm slowed Monday morning, hungry birds began lining up at the feeders like planes at O’Hare Airport. This downy woodpecker, below, was working hard to get peanuts without much success until my husband, watching the bird hammer fruitlessly on the snowed-over tube, took pity and trudged outside to chip the ice off.

In nearby forest preserves and natural areas, coyotes took advantage of the weather to go for a stroll and admire their tracks.

These coyotes, birds, and other fauna of my backyard and the regional prairies are grateful for temps that hover in the low thirties. Ponds and streams, limned by snow, none-the-less stay open. Drinking water is secure. The dark open water of my backyard prairie pond is an inkblot in the bright, white snow.

Under periodic sun, the snow-sprayed prairie sparkles. It’s impossible not to marvel, especially this early in the season when a snowfall hasn’t lost its power to enchant us. Later in the winter, of course, we’ll become less captivated by its charms. Does snow have its downsides? Sure. Ask those who threw out their backs shoveling driveways, or  my neighbor whose tree crumpled under the heavy white stuff and smashed her family room window. The family who is—24 hours after the storm—waiting for power to be restored to their neighborhood. Those whose flights are cancelled. The drivers who wait for a tow truck, after sliding off the icy roads.

Snow can be dangerous, and at a minimum, an inconvenience.

But, as you scrape off your car windshield this morning, or add those extra scarves, gloves, and warm layers to prepare for your morning commute, take a moment to consider the grace of snow. How it transforms the familiar to the unfamiliar.  How it takes the prairie and the rest of our world by storm, then gives it a makeover.

After a snowfall, I see the world differently.  The transformation of the November prairie overnight by snow jolts me out of the ordinary;  gives me pause. If this large-scale transformation of the landscape can happen in such a short time, are there other transformations, less visible, that are possible for myself?

This massive snowfall, which altered everything I see around me, reminds me of how much change is possible in only a day. How everything can be renewed, on a large scale as well as small. I’m prompted to see—again—that the world is a beautiful place; full of wonder. 

I needed this encouragement, here at the end of November. You too?

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Robert Haight, whose thoughtful words about snow begin this blog,  is a writer and environmentalist who teaches at Kalamazoo Valley Community College in Michigan. Among his books of poetry are Feeding Wild Birds and Water Music. You can read the full poemHow is it that the Snowhere.

Robert Haight is a writer who teaches at Kalamazoo Valley Community College.  Among his books of poetry are 

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL: virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana) Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: author’s prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) at the  feeder by the author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; Schulenberg Prairie Savanna with coyote (Canis latrans) at sunset a few years ago at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; wild grape vine (Vitis unknown species) in winter, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Tallgrass Thank You Notes

“…I hear a sound, sometimes a little more than a whisper, of something falling, arriving, fallen, a seed …there is no trace of regret in the sound or in the stillness after the falling, no sound of hesitation on the way, no question and no doubt.” M.S. Merwin

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I’ve been catching up on my thank-you notes this week, nudged by the upcoming holiday that reminds me to be grateful. Ironic, isn’t it? A week in the Midwest in which we dedicate ourselves to be thankful falls in one of the gloomiest seasons of the year.

What if Thanksgiving fell in July? Easy to get in a thankful mood.

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Or May, when shooting star blooms carpet the prairie after a long, cold winter; everything seems bathed in joy and delight. Do I feel thankful then? You bet!shootingstarSPMA51918wm

But November! Well, she makes no apologies for who she is.  November’s given me a lot to be grateful for. So, as I write my thank-you notes to people in my life this week, I figure I should write a few to November as well.

Here goes…

Thanks, November–your gray days are a foil for aspects of the prairie I’d otherwise overlook.  Would I notice the dangling seedpods of white wild indigo if they appeared this way in sunny July? Perhaps not. They seem to take on added charisma on gray, snow-spitting days.  “Prairie bling” of a certain kind.

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I appreciate how some of the less exciting plants get their moment in the spotlight this month, November. Late figwort isn’t a particularly glamorous plant, but this month, it gets a makeover. Without the pops of bright July wildflower color or distractions of butterflies and bees, the eye is drawn to figwort’s kitschy structure. Looks a bit like some management diagrams I’ve seen,  or maybe an organizational flow chart.

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Other flora and fauna of the prairie are worth a second look in November. Carrion flower, which twines its way through the prairie grasses without a lot of fanfare during the warm weather, is a show-stopper this month. (Nope, it’s not edible—unless you’re a bird or a mammal).

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November even gives the humble bison track some seasonal flair. Glitzy!

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Thanks for the unexpected, November. The rhythm of sandhill crane migration through prairie skies is an expected pleasure this month. But November bird life holds some surprises.

John Heneghen's Varied ThrushWM2 111918 Like this little guy, above. Our friends, John and Trisha, had a varied thrush show up this week in their backyard, not far from their prairie patch. The varied thrush is an erratic migrant from the West Coast not normally seen in the Midwest. Its arrival here in the Chicago region is a November serendipity. People drove from around the Midwest to see and add this colorful thrush to their life lists. Who knows what other avian surprises might appear this month?

Hey, November, thanks for teaching me about adapting and surviving.

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The hairs of the compass plant above speak of hard times. Each hair catches moisture and helps retain water, which keeps the compass plant alive through brutal Midwestern droughts. November peels away all the color and glam of a compass plant, and reminds me of how tough some of our prairie plants are. It’s a memo to myself, as well; a reminder that I have cultivated ways to navigate the difficult times of my life.  Survival skills. Adaptations.

November reminds me, “You’ve got this.” 

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Thanks, November for the transition. Change is good, right? Well, maybe. But change is usually difficult. As much as I enjoy the change of seasons, I also have trouble letting go of whatever season I’m in. As I get older, it seems time moves more quickly, with less time to adjust. November, with its segue from autumn into meteorological winter, helps make the transition to the end of the year a little easier.

willowaybrookSPMA118The photo above of Willoway Brook on the Schulenberg Prairie is a study in transitions. Snow has settled around the stream, which is just a breath away from freezing but still runs free and clear. High quality prairie on the left is juxtaposed with invasive reed canary grass along the shoreline, which prairie volunteers battled to a hard-fought draw this season. The partly-dead reed canary grass hangs over the brook, admiring its reflection, perhaps, and—in my mind—thumbing its proverbial nose at us. We’ve decided to let a certain amount of reed canary grass colonize the streambanks as we focus on other restoration activities on the prairie, a decision made simply from a time-management standpoint. The above photo tells many stories about persistence and patience; resistance and acceptance.

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Which reminds me…

Thanks, November, for the people who care for prairie. People like the site managers and volunteers and stewards. People like the prairie donors and environmental activists who make a difference. Those who take a child out to see the prairie. The person who shares a photo of the tallgrass with a friend. People like you—who care about the natural world.

The curtain is coming down on another year in the tallgrass. As it does…

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…I want to say thank you for reading. Thank you for being a part of the work that keeps the tallgrass prairie alive and thriving. Thank you for sharing your love of prairie with others. And, thank you for your part in keeping the tallgrass prairie visible, both in our communities and in people’s hearts and minds.

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What about you? Is there a thank-you note you’d like to write to November? Leave it in the comments section below as a reminder of what we have to be thankful for this month.

Thank you.

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The opening quote is from the poem, Garden Notes, from William Stanley “W.S.” Merwin’s collection, The Moon Before Morning (Copper Canyon Press). Twice a Pulitzer Prize winner, Merwin (1927-) was our 2010-11 United States Poet Laureate, and is known for writing his grief over our destruction of the natural world. Discover more about him at the Poetry Foundation. Click here to listen to him read his powerful and moving poem, Rain Light.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) except for varied thrush as noted: monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), Nomia Meadow Farms prairie, Franklin Grove, IL; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie in May, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) with snowcap, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica) in November, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, carrion flower (probably Smilax lasioneura) in November, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  icy bison (Bison bison) track, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; varied thrush (Ixoreus naevius), photo courtesy John Heneghan, Kane County, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) seedhead, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale Indian plantain seeds (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; snowmelt on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) in November, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; bench on the Schulenberg Prairie in November, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

With grateful thanks to John Heneghen, who shared his varied thrush photo and story with me for this post, and reminded me of another reason to be thankful for the unexpected serendipities of November.

Making Sense of November’s Prairie

“Don’t you know, some people say, the winter is the best time of them all…”–Neil Young

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I like a good challenge, don’t you? So this mid-November, I’m challenging myself to discover what’s lovable about my least favorite month of the year on the prairie.

Can there really be anything good about November? Every where I see signs of loss. Leaves dropping. Days shortening. Temperatures plunging. I’m not going to lie—I’ve been pretty grumpy about the whole change of seasons so far.

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But what I found as I hiked reminded me of why this season has its own charms, its own distinctiveness. Need convincing? Read on….

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The sounds of the November prairieare so different than the sounds of late summer and early autumn. Sound travels farther and more clearly in cold weather if conditions are right; check out this interesting article here. Next time you’re hiking through the prairie on a frosty morning, listen. See if you agree.

 

SPMAbench111218WM.jpg The wildlife noises are also different than the summer orchestra of insect songs and bee-buzz. Woodpeckers suddenly become the stars of the savanna show after hovering in the background most of the summer. They hang out on the edge of the prairie; their sharp calls pierce the cold air and their drumming adds a staccato beat to the gray days. Nuthatches chatter companionably to each other. Their calls remind me of clown bicycle horns (listen here).

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This week in the Chicago region, the sandhill cranes are scrawling their calligraphy across the skies, migrating south. Their appearance signals a seasonal transition.  What are they saying to each other? Arguing over directions, maybe? If you have never heard sandhill cranes bugle from high overhead, it’s an other-worldly sound that speaks of movement and change. Intrigued?  Listen to them here. 

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A touch-y, feel-y kind of season… November is a wonderful time to engage that tactile side of your personality. Consider a compass plant leaf. Rub your fingers across the rough surface.  Notice the texture. The leaf gracefully arcs, bowing to the inevitable, concentrating its energy in the plant’s deep roots for winter.

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Slide your fingers along the big bluestem “stem.” Feel that polished smoothness? It’s said that early settlers found these stems made a great substitute for lost knitting needles. No word on what gauge size.

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Mmmm… those smells!… Go on, inhale. Wakes you up, doesn’t it? These damp, gray days of mid-November have their own particular scent. Earthy. The sharpness of cold. A whisper of plant decay. A tang of the last wild bergamot, which smells of a cross between Earl Grey tea and thyme. When I sniff the gray-headed coneflower seeds, it brings lemons to mind; maybe even a bit of licorice. The hot buttered popcorn scent of prairie dropseed is long gone; the sweet floral smell of the common milkweed is memory.

But November has its own perfumery.

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Tasty!  Ah, the last leaves of mountain mint. You can still find a few green-ish ones, if you look. They aren’t as pliable as they were back in July, but they retain a little minty zing.  The crumbly rosin of compass plant is still pleasant in the mouth; a bit piney and not as problematically sticky.

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And of course, there is plenty to seefor those who look closely.  The first serious snowfall—you know, where there’s actual white stuff on the tallgrass and not just flakes in the air—can’t help but spark delight. Sure, you’ll hear people  moan, “I’m not ready for this,” but seeing the first real snow on the ground is comforting. Despite politics, shootings, wildfires, and global tragedies, the seasons keep rolling along.

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The often-gray skies of November are a foil for the metallic colors of the grasses, which are a backdrop for the silhouettes of spent seedheads

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It’s a different way of seeing at this time of the year. More difficult to find the beauty. But it’s there.

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Don’t forget…as you use your five senses to explore the November prairie, there is “the sixth sense.” Making the connection of the heart to what we experience. November reminds us of our own mortality—of the cycle of great abundance and heartbreaking loss; growth and rest—that we experience during our short time on this planet.  November on the prairie is homely, humble, and quiet. It reminds us, as that great prairie writer Paul Gruchow wrote in Grass Roots: The Universe of Home,the work that matters doesn’t always show.”

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Like all months, November has its own experiences to offer. New things to teach me. A time for reflection.

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If I have the courage to look November squarely in its seasonal face, instead of avoiding it, maybe I’ll learn something.

So. Bring it on, November. I’m really to learn from you, and experience all you have to offer.

What about you?

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The opening epigram is from Neil Young’s song “Little Wing,” from his much-maligned album, Hawks and Doves. Despite mockery from my friends, this is one of my favorite Young albums. It will grow on you. Promise.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) mixed November leaves, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; trail with light snow, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove Park District and The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove, IL; bench overlooking Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis), Schulenberg prairie edge, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  sandhill cranes  (Antigone canadensis) over author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant leaf (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; November grasses and forbs, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) rosin, Schulenberg Prairie,  The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, United States Department of Agriculture/Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Wilmington, IL; prairie cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL;  bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.