“My own feeling for tallgrass prairie is that of a modern man fallen in love with the face in a faded tintype. Only the frame is still real; the rest is illusion and dream.”—John Madson
Today, as we swap sweet valentine notes with friends, family, and loved ones, I’m writing to you, prairie.
I’m talking to you, prairie remnants…
…and backyard prairies, so lovingly planted…
…and front yard prairies, placed where neighbors can see…
…and street prairies, in the midst of suburban hustle and bustle.
Cemetery prairies, where the native plants hung on for dear life as the tallgrass was plowed all around.
Prairies of a hundred acres.
Prairies of thousands of acres.
Prairies tucked into the corners of churches and schools…
…playgrounds and public spaces…
…in industrial parks…
…and in places you might not expect.
Old planted prairies that started a restoration movement…
… and prairies that remind us of the vision it takes to keep tallgrass alive in the hearts and minds of people.
Prairies that gave me new ways to think about the world.
Thank you, my landscape of home, for the thousands of hours of pleasure you’ve offered me.
I’ve pulled your weeds…
…collected your seeds.
Thank you for supporting the native bees…
…and the butterflies…
…and the birds…
…so many fascinating birds….
…and myriad whimsical insects…
…by providing them with a healthy, diverse place to live.
Thank you for your blooms, which add color to my life from March to October.
Thank you, tallgrass prairie, for days full of sound and motion…
…for nights full of discovery…
…for streams to wade through…
…for helping me understand the role of prescribed fire that causes you to flourish…
…and for endless bridges to adventure.
For the cool taste of mountain mint leaves in summer…
…for the delights of prairie thunderstorms…
…and for giving the displaced and threatened a home.
You’ve taught me to see the small things. To pay attention.
Thank you, tallgrass prairie.
This is my love letter…
The opening quote is by John Madson (1923-1995) from his beautiful, thoughtful book on tallgrass prairie, Where the Sky Began.If you haven’t read it, February is the perfect month to do so.
Dragonflies and Damselflies —IN PERSON February 18, 10-11:30 a.m. (Note new earlier date). Hosted by Citizens for Conservation, Barrington, IL. For more information, click here.
Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers—In Person February 20, 7:15-8:45 p.m. Hosted by the Suburban Garden Club, Indian Head Park, IL. Free and open to non-members. For more information, contact Cindy through her website contact space at http://www.cindycrosby.com.
Literary Gardens —In Person March 7, 7-8:30 p.m.—Hosted by the ELA Library and Lake Zurich Garden Club. Location change — now at St. Matthews Lutheran Church, Hawthorn Woods, IL. Free and open to the public. For more information, visit here.
Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers ONLINE — March 15, 7-8:30 p.m., Hosted by Bensonville Public Library. Free and open to the public, but you must register for the link by calling the library. Contact information click here.
Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers ONLINE –March 16, 7-8:30 p.m., Hosted by the Rock Valley Wild Ones. This event was formerly a blended program and is now online only. Open to the public; but you must register. Contact information is here.
See Cindy’s website for more March programs and classes.
Bell Bowl Prairie in Rockford, IL, needs your help! Find out more on saving this threatened prairie remnant at SaveBellBowlPrairie.
“We come and go but the land will always be here.” —Willa Cather
Just when I made a New Year’s resolution to learn the names of cloud types, a sheet of gray stratus clouds moved in last week. Gray. Gray. Gray. That was the story here. There’s something to be said for consistency, I suppose. On a walk with friends along the Fox River this weekend, I looked for color. A few mossy greens. Some russet leaves.
The creek that ran to the river reflected that metallic, stratus-filled sky.
As we watched the Fox River slip by, even the birds seemed to lack color. The Canada geese were spiffed up in their yin-yang tuxedoes.
Common mergansers floated by, intent upon their errands, barely within the reach of my camera.
In the distance, a few common goldeneyes floated just out of reach of my zoom lens. But wait—what’s this?
A tundra swan! A bird I’ve never seen, and one of the more infrequent ones for Illinois. Our friends, who brought us here specifically for this reason, pointed out the ID markers which differentiate it from other swans, including a small amount of yellow on the bill.
Nearby, two other tundra swans floated under the flat, silvered sky.
You can see why the swamp rose mallow would approve! Thinking about the mallow and its magenta leads me down the rabbit trail of other prairie magentas. After I posted the “Viva Magenta” color of the year announcement this week on Facebook, many folks chimed in with their favorite magentas in nature.
Prairie sunrises and sunsets…
The deep, rich magenta of dogwood stems in winter.
The rich magenta of sumac-washed leaves in autumn.
The bramble sharp branches of iced wild blackberry, which winds its way through the prairie, ripping and tripping.
I think of the dragonflies I chase across the prairies in the summer’s heat. None of the Illinois’ species bring the color magenta to mind. But! I remember other dragonflies in other places, like this roseate skimmer in Tucson, Arizona.
Today, here on the Fox River, magenta isn’t much in evidence. But there’s joy in every bit of color along this river, no matter how subtle.
There is delight in remembering the times nature has exploded with “viva magenta” both in flight…
…and in bloom.
And there is happiness in seeing some rarities that while, perhaps lacking in color, don’t lack for excitement and awe.
Who knows what else January may bring? The new year is off to a great start.
Why not go see?
The opening quote is from writer Willa Cather (1873-1947) from O Pioneers! Cather spent part of her childhood in Nebraska, and graduated from University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She wrote compellingly about life on the prairies.
Join Cindy for a Class or Program this Winter
The Tallgrass Prairie in Popular Culture—Friday, January 20, from 10-11:30 a.m. Explore the role the tallgrass prairie plays in literature, art, music—and more! Enjoy a hot beverage as you discover how Illinois’ “landscape of home” has shaped our culture, both in the past and today. Class size is limited. Offered by The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL; register here.
Nature Writing Workshop— Four Thursdays (February 2, 9, 16, and 23) from 6-8:30 p.m. Join a community of nature lovers as you develop and nurture your writing skills in person. Class size is limited. For more information and to register visit here.
“It’s the first day of autumn! A time of hot chocolatey mornings, and toasty marshmallow evenings, and, best of all, leaping into leaves!”—Winnie the Pooh
Happy autumnal equinox! It’s the first day of astronomical fall. Daylight hours shorten. The air looks a little pixeled, a little grainy. Soon, we’ll eat dinner in the dark, sleep, and rise in the mornings to more darkness. Some of us will embrace this change, in love with the season. Others will count the days until December 21, the winter solstice, to see the daylight hours lengthen again.
Wait, you might ask. Cindy—didn’t you say it was the first day of fall back on September 1? Yes indeed, I did—the first day of meteorological fall! There are two ways of calculating when the seasons begin. Meteorological fall begins on the first of September each year. Astronomical fall begins on the fall equinox. Read more about the way scientists calculate the seasons here.
The knowledge that these warm days full of light are fleeting sends Jeff and me to hike Belmont Prairie in Downers Grove, Illinois. The parking lot is full, but the prairie is mostly empty. We love this prairie remnant for its solitude; its timeless grace in the midst of suburbia.
The prairie is dusty. Crisp. Once again, we need a good, steady rain, with none in the forecast for the next ten days. Overhead it’s cloudless; a blank blue slate. I was scrolling through paint samples online this week, and came across the exact color of the sky: “Fond Farewell.” Exactly.
Although the prairie is awash in golds, it won’t be long until the flowers fade and the brightness dims. I remind myself to take joy in the moment.
Big bluestem, blighted by drought, still flashes its gorgeous colors. I love its jointed stems. No wonder it is Illinois’ state grass!
The brushed silver joints are not the only silver on the prairie. Along the trail are the skeletal remains of plants, perhaps in the Brassica family. What species are they? I’m not sure. Whatever these were, they are now ghosts of their former selves.
The flowers of showy goldenrod are busy with pollinators, such as this paper wasp (below). The wasps don’t have the smart publicity agents and good press of monarchs and bees, so are often overlooked as a positive presence in the garden.
Then again, if you’ve ever been chased by wasps as I have after disturbing a nest —and been painfully stung—you’ll give them a respectful distance.
Tall coreopsis is almost finished for the season, but a few sunshiny blooms remain.
Sawtooth sunflowers, goldenrod, and tall boneset wash together in a celebration of autumn, now at crescendo.
So much yellow! Sumac splashes scarlet across the tallgrass, adding a dash of red. As a prairie steward on other tallgrass sites, I find this native sumac a nuisance. It stealthily infiltrates the prairie and displaces some of the other species I want to thrive. However, toward the end of September, I feel more generous of spirit. Who can resist those leaves, backlit by the low slant of sun, that echo a stained glass window?
The withering summer prairie blooms are now upstaged by the stars of autumn: asters in white and multiple hues of pink, lavender and violet. New England aster provides the best bang for the buck. That purple! It’s a challenge to remember its updated scientific name: Symphyotrichum novae-angliae. Try saying that three times quickly! A real tongue twister. I miss the simpler name, Aster novae-angliae. So easy to remember. But everything changes as science discovers more about the world. It’s up to us to choose to listen, learn, and adapt rather than just doing what is easy.
The periwinkle hues of the smooth blue aster are unlike any other color on the prairie. I stop to caress its trademark smooth, cool leaves.
Every time I look closely at the asters, I see pollinators. And more pollinators. From little flying insects I can’t identify to the ubiquitous cabbage white butterflies and bumblebees, heavy with pollen. And, yes—those ever-present wasps.
Delicate pale pink biennial gaura, with its own tiny pollinators, is easily overlooked, out-glitzed by the prairie’s golds and purples, but worth discovering. Flies, like this one below stopping by the gaura, are also pollinators, but like the wasps they get little respect for the important work they do.
Soon, the glory of the prairie will be in scaffolding and bone: the structure of the plants, the diversity of shape. You can see the prairie begin its shift from bloom to seed, although blooms still predominate.
Breathe in. September is the fragrance of gray-headed coneflower seeds, crushed between your fingers.
September is the pungent thymol of wild bergamot, released by rubbing a leaf or a dry seedhead.
Inhale the prairie air; a mixture of old grass, wood smoke, with a crisp cold top note, even on a warm day. Chew on a mountain mint leaf, tough from the long season, and you’ll get a zing of pleasure. Listen to the geese, honking their way across the sky, or the insects humming in the grass.
Then, find a milkweed pod cracked open, with its pappus —- silks—just waiting to be released. Go ahead. Pull out a few of these parachute seeds. Feel their softness. Imagine what one seed may do next season! I try to think like a milkweed seed. Take flight. Explore. Plant yourself in new places. Nourish monarch butterflies. Offer nectar to bumblebees. Lend beauty wherever you find yourself.
Close your eyes. Make a wish.
Now, release it to the wind.
The opening quote is from Pooh’s Grand Adventure by A.A. Milne. Before he penned the popular children’s book series about a bear named Winnie the Pooh, Milne was known as a playwright and wrote several mystery novels and poems.
All photos are from Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve in Downers Grove, IL, this week unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): bee or common drone fly (tough to tell apart) on panicled aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Belmont Prairie sign; wildflowers and grasses in September; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); something from the Brassica family maybe? Genus and species unknown; Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis); and other goldenrods; dark paper wasp (Polistes fuscates) on showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); wildflowers of Belmont Prairie in September; staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); new england aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae); smooth blue aster (Symphyotrichum laeve); dark paper wasp (Polistes fuscates) on panicled aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; biennial gaura (Gaura biennis); blazing star (Liatris sp.); gray-headed coneflower seedheads (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (2019); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (2018); common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), Afton Prairie, DeKalb, IL (2017); butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa).
Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization this autumn!
“Nature Writing Online” begins Monday, October 5, through The Morton Arboretum. Want to commit to improving and fine-tuning your writing for six weeks? This is a great opportunity to jump start your blog, your book, or your journal writing while working online from home, supplemented with three evenings of live evening Zoom classes on alternate weeks. Class size is limited; register here.
Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.
“‘Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its own accord.’”– from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, on burning books.
While hiking an unfamiliar prairie this past weekend, I came to a stream, limned with ice.
The bridge spanning the waterway was gone. Hmmm. My choices were simple. I could turn back. Hop from slick rock to slick rock. Or, wade the shallows to the other side, and get my feet wet. Reluctantly, I chose the path of least resistance and retraced my path. The rest of the prairie would have to wait for another day’s exploration, better footwear, or the bridge repair.
As one who seeks to know new places more intimately, I’m reminded that the loss of bridges—connecting points—-matter.
As a writer, I get that as well. Words are bridges. They have the capability to connect us to places—and to dynamic ideas. They elicit memory. They provoke action. They stimulate emotion. They are a springboard for the imagination.
How many times has a parent told you, “Her first word was—-.” Or a grieving person: “His last words were—–.” Words are significant! Our ancestors also knew the importance of words. The First Amendment notes, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press… .” Words matter. Losing words matters.
When we lose particular words about place, we lose part of the collective memory of our people. These words comprise a slice of our identity. They are the language of the place in which we live. More specifically, when we lose prairie-related vocabulary, we break links that join us to the tallgrass; specific identifiers that bind us to a place.
Words are one way we give human voice to a land that speaks in prairie dropseed, bobolinks, and dung beetles. Naming things brings them to our attention, just as learning the name of someone we meet makes them more memorable, more “real” to us.
When we learn the name for a particular sedge or a specific bee, we can visualize it, even when it isn’t in front of us. In a time when tallgrass prairie is dubbed one of the most threatened natural areas on earth, to lose any of these names is to lose some of our momentum in cherishing and caring for it.
We’re lazy. We don’t have enough time, do we? It’s easier to use non-descriptive, bland words that trip easily off the tongue. Ecosystem. Landscape. Grasses. Plants. Bugs. Use generalities and the prairie becomes a blur, a non-entity.
There is rhythm and motion in the prairie vocabulary; joy in the particulars. Delight in the common names: Canada wild rye. Regal fritillary. Hoary puccoon. Cream wild indigo. Try saying some of the scientific names out loud: Bison bison. (That double whammy! Like a drumbeat.) Or, Monarda fistulosa. Spiza americana. Let thesedescriptive words roll off your tongue: Mesic.Mollisols. Loess.
Speak the words. Keep them in front of people.
It’s a fragile hold we have on these words. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
As we draw toward the winter solstice on Thursday—the shortest, darkest day of the year—remember the light that words can bring into the world. Words of color and sound. Words of hope. Words of restoration. Words of promise.
Specific words matter.
Let’s use them.
Ray Bradbury’s (1920-2012) short, powerful book Fahrenheit 451, written in 1953 about a post-literate society,seems almost prophetic more than six decades later. Bradbury’s writing spanned many genres, from science fiction to fantasy, as well as a terrific book, Zen in the Art of Writing on the craft of putting words together well.My favorite is Dandelion Wine, his fictional memoir of growing up in Illinois.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blown-out Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) seedheads on Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL; mixed grasses with smartweed (Polygonum spp.) around the pond at Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL; mountain mint (probably Pycnanthemum virginianum), Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve DeKalb, IL; mixed grasses including Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) on Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL; mixed grasses with little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) on Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL; Canada wild rye, Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL; unknown sunflower seedheads (Helianthus spp.) with Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis) Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL; wild cucumber (Echinocystis lobata), Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL; sunset, Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL.
Thanks to John Heneghan and Tricia Lowery for taking us to Afton Prairie for our first visit there. And thanks to Joshua Clark and the good folks at DeKalb County Forest Preserve who care for Afton Prairie and its associated beautiful natural areas. Once again, a big shout-out to Paul Marcum and the ID gurus at Illinois Botany Facebook page for help with wild cucumber.
Cindy Crosby is the author, compiler, or contributor to more than 20 books. Her most recent is "Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History" (Northwestern University Press, 2020). She teaches prairie ecology, nature writing, and natural history classes, and is a prairie steward who has volunteered countless hours in prairie restoration. See Cindy's upcoming online speaking events and classes at www.cindycrosby.com.