Tag Archives: aldo leopold

A Tallgrass Prairie Thaw

To the mouse, snow means freedom from want and fear…. To a rough-legged hawk, a thaw means freedom from want and fear.” —Aldo Leopold

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Drip. Drip. Drip.

I’m raking snow off our roof when I hear it. The sun broke through the gray haze like a white hot dime an hour ago, and I’m grateful for its feeble warmth. The gutters groan and bend under their weight of ice. I’ve knocked most of the icicles down, pretty though they are—-lining the roof’s edge like a winter holiday postcard.

Icicles, Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

We have a foot and a half of snow on our roof. Uh, oh! For the first time in our 23 years of living in the Chicago Region, we’re concerned enough to borrow a friend’s roof rake and try to do something about it. As I rake, the snow avalanches down the shingles and I’m sprayed with white stuff. It’s like being in a snowball fight with yourself. The squirrels wait in the trees nearby, ready to return to their assault on the birdfeeders when I finish. I try to imagine what they’re thinking.

Fox squirrel (Sciurus niger), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Then I hear it again. Drip. Drip. Drip.

The sound of thaw.

Icicle, Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The prairie, slumbering under her weight of white, hears the sound. There’s a faint stirring in the ice, especially where the sun strikes in full.

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Winter is far from over; its icy clasp on the prairie will linger for many more weeks. And yet. There’s something in the air this week, despite the cold haze that hangs over the tallgrass.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie in late February, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Certain sounds—that “drip!” Water trickling in a prairie stream under the ice. Snow melt. The smell of something fresh.

Ice on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2019)

A male cardinal sings his courting call. I stop in my tracks. He doesn’t seem to be daunted by the snow flurries, seemingly stuck on “repeat” this week. He knows what’s coming.

Above the ground, the prairie grasses and wildflowers are smothered in snow drifts. They look bowed and broken by the wild weather thrown at them over the past few months.

Cindy’s backyard prairie patch at the end of February, Glen Ellyn, IL.

A few stalwart plants stubbornly defy the storms and stand tall.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Their long roots—-15 feet deep or more—begin to stir. You can almost hear a whisper in the dry, brittle leaves. Soon. Soon.

It’s been a beautiful winter.

Ice on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

But a long one, as winters tend to seem when you’re half past February and not quite close enough to March.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, viewed through the piled parking lot snow at College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Even as the snow is grimed with soot by car exhaust along the streets, there’s beauty. All around, the particular delights of February. The stark silhouettes of grass stems…

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…the prairie’s geometric lines and angles; devoid of frills and flounces.

Winter at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. (2016)

The gray-blues and rusts of the prairie landscape, seem intensified at this time of year. Everything is clarified. Distilled.

Perhaps because of the long grind of the pandemic, this winter has seemed longer and gloomier than usual. Colder. More difficult.

Hidden Lake prairie plantings, Downers Grove, IL (2019).

But when I open the newspaper over breakfast, the headlines seem less grim. A faint whiff of optimism tinges conversations with friends. I feel hope in the air; hope that we are nearing the end of our long haul through this dark night.

Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

My spirits lift when I see the signs, scent the smells, hear the sounds of a new season on the way.

Spring is coming. Do you sense the thaw? Can you feel it?

Dickcissel (Spiza americana), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. (2017)

I’m ready.

***

Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), whose quote opens this blog post, is best known for his book of collected essays, A Sand County Almanac, published a year after his death. Today, it is considered a critical foundation for conservation and wilderness thinking. Leopold’s book has sold more than two million copies and influences many who work in wildlife and prairie conservation today. Another favorite quote: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Read more about him here.

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Last Chance to Register for February 24 Program! Join me online from anywhere in the world via Zoom.

February 24, 7-8:30 p.m. CST: The Prairie in Art and Literature– Online. The tallgrass prairie is usually thought of for its diverse community of plants, animals, and insects. Yet, it is also an inspiration for a creative community! In this interactive online talk, natural history author and prairie steward Cindy Crosby will explore historical and contemporary writers and artists, musicians, and other creatives working in the prairie genre: from Neil Young to Willa Cather to graphic comic artists, quilters, and jewelers expressing the prairie through their work. See the prairie in a new light! Come away inspired to appreciate and express your love of the tallgrass as you enjoy learning about this prairie “community.” Offered by The Morton Arboretum: Register here.

Naming the Prairie Community

“That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.” —Aldo Leopold

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Spring is here, and with it the smell of toasted prairie.

prescribedburntwoweekslaterSPMA33119-spring.jpg A night or two of rain, some sunshine and rising temperatures, and the burned landscape greens up. Add a dollop of chlorophyll; the scent of wet earth. It’s the scent of spring in my little corner of the world.

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With the obliteration of last season’s desiccated foliage after the prescribed fire, signs of the prairie community are open for investigation. It’s worth taking a hike to go look at the hidden, now made visible for a moment in time.  The fire reveals the tunnels across the prairie. But who uses them? Meadow voles? Prairie voles? Or something more wriggly, perhaps?

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With the tallgrass cover stripped away, a giant ant hill comes into focus. Hmmm. Didn’t know that was there. Did you know a group of ants is called a “colony?” Good name for them.

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This particular mound is a big one. Soon, it will be smothered in lush grasses and wildflowers and for all purposes, invisible until next spring.

The prairie bursts with new growth on this cold, sunny day.  As I hike, Willoway brook, freed of its burden of ice, murmurs in the background.  I feel myself relax.

Almost under my hiking boot, I see a native thistle, lime green against the blackened prairie. Pasture thistle? I think so.  But I’m not completely sure.

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A bird calls from the nearby savanna. I listen, but can’t remember which species goes with the song.  Hmmm… .   I’ll be re-learning bird songs and plant ID from now until fall; saying goodbye the tattered remains of the last year’s prairie….

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… reacquainting myself with plants and birds as they make their appearance.

As I’m looking for the unknown bird calling from the prairie’s edge, I notice a maple’s bark-chewed branch. Squirrels know maple sap flows in early spring, and that they’ll get a tasty treat if they gnaw the bark. Occasionally, when the sap runs from one of the chewed places, then freezes, I break off and lick a “maple sap-sicle” —sweet and a bit earthy tasting. But it’s too warm for maple sap-sicles this evening.

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Squirrels. The collective name for a group of squirrels, I discover, is called a “scurry,” depending on what source you consult. The maple tree has its scurry of squirrels as well as birds. And that mysterious bird is singing again. I take out my phone and record it. I’ll do more research  back home.

Birds are pouring into Chicago. Every day brings arrivals from the south. A group of birds is a flock, I remind myself. Easy, right? But I recently learned that when a mixed group of birds bands together to look for the same type of food, they are called a “foraging guild.” Cool!

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Nuthatches, both the white-breasted nuthatch and the red-breasted nuthatch show up at my backyard feeders by the prairie patch each afternoon, scuffling with the downy woodpeckers for peanuts. On the edge of the prairie, I watch them peck their way around the trees. A group of nuthatches, I discover, is called a “jar.” Not sure what this nuthatch thinks about that.

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The prairie real estate market is booming. In early April, just outside of Fermilab Natural Areas’ prairies and Nachusa Grasslands, you can see large numbers of herons flying with grasses and twigs in their bills, building their nests.

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You may know that herons nesting together form a “rookery” or “heronry.” But did you know a group of these birds is called a “siege” of herons? That’s a new one for me!

Smaller, but just as interesting, are the field sparrows looking for seeds and insects on the blackened ground. I’ve seen the collective name as “host of sparrows,” “knot of sparrows,” and “quarrel of sparrows.” Which one do you prefer?

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On the two-weeks-burned Schulenberg Prairie, the male mallards are paddling along Willoway Brook, looking for mates.  Spring is the beginning of the mating season for many birds in the prairie community.  The ubiquitous Canada geese, which mate for life, are already scouting out nest sites. (Groups of geese are called “a gaggle” or a “skein.”).

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Even the mallard ducks have special names. I’ve seen the word “sord” or “sword” used; also the more expected “flight”or “flock”. Even “daggle” of ducks and “doppling” of ducks.

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Which brings us full circle to where this “group-of-living-things” tangent began, doesn’t it? It’s fun to learn the collective names of members of the tallgrass community.

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What are some of your favorites? Leave a comment and let me know. I enjoy puzzling over bird songs and plant seedlings; thinking about collective names, feeling the sun on my face and the nip of the still-sharp spring air on my nose.

But its not all delight at this time of year on the prairie. There is loss, as well. On my hikes after the burn I find the charred bones of small mice and voles, who couldn’t out-scramble the prairie flames. A raccoon with a luxurious pelt, which looks asleep, but has been felled into eternal slumber by distemper. Feathers blowing across the trail, doubtless from an arriving spring migrant that became a fox or coyote’s snack.

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It’s all part of the deep joy I feel on the prairie. Not some superficial feeling. But rather, the feeling that comes with the reality of the tallgrass. Beautiful? Yes. But it’s no Hallmark  greeting card. There is life here, with all its glorious growth and bad luck; successes and failures.

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The contrast of life and death; the familiar and the strange; cold nights and warm days; loss and renewal; all mingle together in a mish-mash of community on the just-burned prairie. So much to observe. So much to learn.

So much to love.

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So much to pay attention to.

*****

Aldo Leopold is best known for his book, A Sand County Almanac (1949); and also, as the father of wildlife ecology, wilderness systems in the United States, and conservation ethics. Read more about him and his work here.

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All photos and video clips copyright Cindy Crosby—today’s posts are from the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL unless otherwise noted: Schulenberg Prairie about two weeks after the prescribed burn; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) sprouting; unknown tunnel after the burn; ant mound or hill on burned prairie; Willoway Brook video clip; probably native pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor); old prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) leaf; sugar maple (Acer saccharum) branch gnawed by squirrels; white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis); white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis); great blue heron (Ardea herodias) rookery, North Aurora, IL; field sparrow (Spizella pusilla) ; Canada geese (Branta canadensis) in flight; male mallard duck (Anas platyrhynchos) (notice the band on his leg); male mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) on Willoway Brook; sunset in the Schulenberg Prairie savanna; Schulenberg Prairie after the prescribed burn;  black walnut (Juglans nigra) and new growth.

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For more on group names for living things, check out the book A Charm of Goldfinches by Matt Sewell, and these lists of collective names from the Baltimore Bird Club and MNN.com. The names used here came from these and other sources. Have fun!

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Cindy’s classes and speaking this week:

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online continues through The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Nature writing online and in-person concludes tonight at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Just released! Order from your favorite independent bookseller or Ice Cube Press here.

With grateful thanks to our sponsors: The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Friends of Neal Smith Wildlife Preserve, Grinnell College Center for Prairie Studies; and The Tallgrass Prairie Center at the University of Northern Iowa. Great places, great folks.

Tallgrass Conversations cover Cindy Pick9a

A “Prairie Love” Shack

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” –Aldo Leopold

***

Some people swear they need to see Bob Dylan in concert before they die. Others vow they’ll climb Mt. Everest. Or aspire to drive the length of historic Route 66.

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But for many of the almost 200 people who gathered for The Aldo Leopold Foundation‘s  “Building a Land Ethic” Conference in Baraboo, Wisconsin, this past week, their goal was  this:

To see “The Shack.”

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No, not the “Love shack, baby,” (with apologies to the B-52s). Although this shack is “set way back in the middle of the field” as the song says.

“The Shack” is a remodeled chicken coop and iconic Wisconsin weekend retreat that provided inspiration for conservationist Aldo Leopold’s book, A Sand County Almanac, published in 1949.

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In his series of essays, Leopold eloquently writes about the tension between humans and nature. He was inspired by the prairies, marshes and woodlands that surrounded The Shack, as well as other places he had worked at or traveled to. Leopold’s words are an eloquent plea to change the way we think about–and care for—our world.

 

In the 1940s, not every publisher thought people were ready to hear this University of Wisconsin professor’s conservation ideas. Look at this letter Leopold received from a publisher considering his manuscript:

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Thank goodness Leopold persisted in keeping his “monotonous” ecological theories in the book!  Although he died before A Sand County Almanac went to print—with a different publisher—he had the joy of knowing his conservation ethics would be shared with a larger audience.

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What Leopold couldn’t know was that his ideas would become the foundation upon which we build many of our conservation ethics today.

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For those who care for prairies, woodlands or other natural areas, it is difficult to choose a favorite Leopold quote. One of his most famous is this: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

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A favorite of mine: “We shall never achieve harmony with the land, anymore than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve, but to strive.”

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Or this quote, which is frequently circulated in prairie restoration circles: “What a thousand acres of Silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo is a question never again to be answered, and perhaps not even asked.” A bit depressing, isn’t it?

The Silphiums refer to four prairie plants:

Compass plant, which blooms right around the summer solstice, sending periscopes of yellow flowers across the sea of grasses.

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Cup plant, whose opposite leaves join around the stem to “cup” water after a rain. The perfect goldfinch drinking fountain.

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Rosin weed and prairie dock complete the quartet.

I think Leopold would be happy to know that today, almost 70 years later, many of us are restoring tallgrass prairie.

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We won’t reclaim all that was lost, but perhaps we are following his direction: “To keep every cog and wheel is the first rule of intelligent tinkering.”

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The Silphiums are just four of those many critical “cogs” and “wheels” we plant, tend, and celebrate. Today,  at larger prairie restorations in the Midwest, it’s possible to see a thousand acres of prairie—with Silphiums–“tickling the bellies of bison” again.

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Leopold’s love for prairies, woodlands, marshes, and the natural world continues to influence and inspire those of us who volunteer and work in restoration today.

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Visiting “The Shack” reminds us of the power of words. They can change the world.

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Which of Leopold’s words resonates with you?

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The opening quote is from the foreword to A Sand County Almanac (1949) by Aldo Leopold (1887–1948). His groundbreaking ideas continue to influence the way we care for the natural world today. If you haven’t read A Sand County Almanac (And Sketches Here and There), consider beginning with one of these essays: “Thinking Like a Mountain,”  “A Marshland Elegy,” or “Good Oak.” To discover more about Leopold and his conservation ethics, you might also read Curt Meine’s excellent book, Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): monarch (Danaus plexippus) on butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), International Crane Foundation prairie, Baraboo, WI; outside “The Shack” with daylilies (Hemerocallis fulva), Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm, Baraboo, WI; outside Aldo Leopold’s Shack, Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm, Baraboo, WI;  inside looking out a window of “The Shack”, Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm, Baraboo, WI; yellow hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens), Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm prairie, Baraboo, WI; letter,  Leopold Center, Baraboo, WI: black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm prairie, Baraboo, WI: foundation with prairie planting,  Leopold Center, Baraboo, WI; leadplant (Amorpha canescens), International Crane Foundation prairie, Baraboo, WI;  spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), Leopold Center, Baraboo, WI: compass plant (Silphium lacinatum), The International Crane Foundation prairie, Baraboo, WI; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm prairie, Baraboo, WI;  pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Leopold Center, Baraboo, WI; widow skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa), International Crane Foundation prairie, Baraboo, WI; bison (Bison bison) with their ten offspring, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; goat’s rue–also called “the devil’s shoestrings” (Tephrosia virginiana) Leopold Center, Baraboo, Wisconsin; hairy beardtongue (Penstemen hirsutus), International Crane Foundation prairie, Baraboo, WI. 

The January Prairie Blues

“The blues tells a story. Every line of the blues has a meaning.”
— John Lee Hooker
***

“It is the life of the crystal, the architect of the flake, the fire of the frost, the soul of the sunbeam. This crisp winter air is full of it. “
–John Burroughs

***

It’s about that time of a new year when social media and newspapers take up stories about the blues. No, not the music. Rather, seasonal affective disorder; the general malaise of cold, gray days that dampens mood and motivation.

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Got the blues? Forget that trip to Florida to soak up sunshine.

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Instead, consider the prairie.

In January it offers its own particular brand of blues; a little antidote to blues of a more melancholy kind.

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Tune up with these “blues” for a moment or two; see if they chase the other blues away.  Follow me to the tallgrass.

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See how the mice stitch their tracks across the blue tint of the snow?

Consider the pale blue glints of ice crystals that briefly frost the grasses; vanishing in the hot breath of the morning sun.

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Marvel at the blue shadows in the snow, which form a background for the legato ripple of big bluestem leaves.

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Look up. Blue-gray clouds patch the prairie sky, filter sunlight. Trees and grasses change focus as blue sky appears, then disappears: Fade, then sharp. Fade, then sharp.

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A turkey flashes its iridescent feathers, shot through with silky blues. If you’ve got it, flaunt it.

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Notice a  jet contrail or two faintly striped in misty white overhead. Moments ago, there were people suspended in space here, headed for who knows where—and who knows why. Their story is traced across the wide blue sky. It only calls for  your imagination to spin it.

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There is even a home for the littlest “blues” –those feathered harbingers of happiness.

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The tallgrass rolls out the carpet, all blue and white sparkles.

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Embossed with blue shadows that pool in tracks across the snow; a promise of adventure and new beginnings…

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…and, a reminder that the “blues” can be beautiful.  Who knows? You  may even come to love them.

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The prairie blues, anyhow.  The best kind.

***

John Lee Hooker (1912-2001), whose quote opens this post, was a Grammy-award winning blues musician from Mississippi. The youngest of eleven children, he ran away from home at age 14 and eventually made his way to Detroit, where he found success as a guitarist, vocalist, and lyricist (although he was unable to read). He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1991) and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (2000). Listen to clips of his music on YouTube, including this rendition of “Blue Monday”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WNl2wXE90vk&index=318&list=PLu_npSo2nvWSIjcaewEUE9O-gk3W1xnfS

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John Burroughs (1837-1921), whose quote from his book, “Winter Sunshine,” also opens this post, is honored as the father of the modern nature essay. The seventh of 10 children, he grew up in the Catskill Mountains of New York where he learned to love the outdoors. Burroughs later taught school in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, until he returned east to marry and work in banking. He continued writing, and eventually authored more than 30 books. He was a contemporary of the poet Walt Whitman, and kept company with John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt as well as other notables of that time period. Since 1926, the John Burroughs Association, founded in his honor, has awarded the John Burroughs Medal to the author of a book of natural history almost every year. Some of my favorite award winners include: Gathering Moss (Robin Wall Kimmerer, 2005); The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating (Elizabeth Tova Bailey, 2011);  Wind (Jan DeBlieu, 1999); The Control of Nature (John McPhee, 1990); and the classic, A Sand County Almanac (Aldo Leopold, 1977).

For a complete list of winners, see: research.amnh.org/burroughs/medal_award_list.html

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): on the way to Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; beach umbrellas on Sanibel Island, FL; blue sky with big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL;  ice crystals, interpretive trail, Fermilab, Batavia, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sky over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), Curtis Prairie at The University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum, Madison, WI; interpretive trail, Fermilab, Batavia, IL: eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) nesting box, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; sparkly snow with bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; people (Homo sapiens) tracks, Schulenberg Prairie savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; heart-shaped deer (Odocoileus virginianus) track, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Learning from Leopold

We shall never achieve harmony with the land, anymore than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve but to strive.” –Aldo Leopold

***

Getting to know prairie restorations and their communities of plants, animals, and people eventually leads to wanting to see the mother of all prairie restorations. Curtis Prairie, at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum in Madison, is the world’s first known prairie restoration. It’s more than 80 years old, and hosts about 200 different types of birds and 35 species of mammals.

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When I arrive in early December, the prairie is wrapped in fog. The temperature hovers between freeze and thaw, just enough to make the trails through the tallgrass slushy. My hiking boots slurp mud at every step.

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Some of the paths have been cleared; an invitation to explore.

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Whoever thinks December lacks color hasn’t hiked the Curtis Prairie.

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The reds of gray dogwood pushing into the prairie liven up the metallic gold, silver, and bronze of the grasses. Winter elevates some of the humbler, weedier native plants, like this Canada goldenrod below, to new artistry.

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As a prairie restoration steward, I don’t like invasive plants–plants that overwhelm a native landscape. I know too well the damage and havoc they wreak on a prairie. But despite myself, I admire the oriental bittersweet, twining in the tallgrass under the falling snow.  I remember combing the woods as a child with my mother and grandmother in the 1960s, raking vines from trees for Christmas decorations.  Now, I remove oriental bittersweet in natural areas for different reasons.

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It’s quiet on the prairie, except for the sounds of traffic in the distance. There’s not a soul out on the tallgrass trails today but me.

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Maybe no human souls — but I have company. A red-tailed hawk soars overhead as it scans the grasses for a mouse. About 20 wild turkeys skirt the edges of the prairie and savanna, then head for some nearby crabapple trees. Frozen fruit lies on the ground. They’re enjoying a little cold crabapple cider, no doubt, to spice up their morning stroll.

Gobble, gobble.

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I find the reds of the gray dogwood beautiful in the falling snow. But I know restoration managers are concerned about the encroachment of shrubs into the prairie here. My aesthetic enjoyment is another steward’s headache.

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I think of the quote by Leopold that opens this essay. There is joy and inspiration in seeing what restoration efforts like this one have accomplished. There is also reassurance in seeing that other stewards struggle with the same issues I do–native and non-native plants slugging it out for dominance on the prairie; the efforts to provide easy access for visitors during harsh weather;  the desire to foster an appreciation of the prairie in the colder months. The work of restoration is always a process.

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The amazing Curtis Prairie at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum continues to be a benchmark in restoration for all of us who care for and appreciate tallgrass prairies. Long may it stay beautiful and healthy.

Leopold’s words remind me that perfection is elusive. The important thing is to keep working towards our goals–for justice, for liberty, and for harmony with the land. May we all continue to strive toward attaining harmony, wherever we call home.

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Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), whose quote from “Round River,”(Journals of Aldo Leopold) kicks off this essay, was a professor at University of Wisconsin. He is most famous for his book, A Sand County Almanac, which is part of the foundational study of conservation ethics for many who work in prairie restoration and wildlife management.

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby at Curtis Prairie, Madison, WI (top to bottom): entrance to Curtis Prairie; road through the prairie, trail through the tallgrass; Curtis Prairie in December; Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis); oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus); gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa); wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris); gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa)goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) rosette gall.

Aldo Leopold’s Compass

One of the first prairie plants I learned the name of and remembered was the compass plant. It towered over my head in August– unmistakable! Identifying it gave me the confidence to learn the names of other prairie inhabitants.IMG_8321

The compass plant’s name refers to the leaves, which point loosely north and south. It’s an adaptation  to help the leaves retain moisture during Illinois droughts. Smart plant.

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The tall, old woody stems are a favorite dickcissel perch.

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I wouldn’t want to rely on compass plant leaves as a true compass if  I needed to get somewhere. But I’m taken with the notion that this plant knows something about finding your way home when you’re lost.

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In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold writes about finding a compass plant, Silphium laciniatum,  tucked into an unmowed patch of tallgrass in an old cemetery.

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He wrote: Heretofore unreachable by scythe or mower, this yard-square relic of original Wisconsin gives birth, each July, to a man-high stalk of compass plant or cutleaf Silphium, spangled with saucer-sized yellow blooms resembling sunflowers.

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It is the sole remnant of this plant along this highway, and perhaps the sole remnant in the western half of our county.

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Leopold continued: What a thousand acres of Silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo is a question never again to be answered, and perhaps not even asked.

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Isn’t it ironic that a compass plant, named for its ability to show the way forward,  symbolizes something we’ve lost?

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Whenever I see the compass plants, towering over my head in August on the prairie, I’m grateful. Grateful for Aldo Leopold who gave us motivation and direction to move forward with restoration. Grateful we have some of these plants —that once tickled the buffalo bellies— left to admire.

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I’m reminded that the compass plant points the way forward: To a future filled with the hope of restoring a wounded and broken world.

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No matter how hopeless that effort sometimes seems.

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Every small step forward, each action we take toward healing what is broken, makes a difference.

All photos by Cindy Crosby: (Top to bottom: Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) in bloom, Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  compass plant leaves, SP; dickcissel, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL;compass plant leaf, SP; compass plant bloom, SP; compass plant bloom, SP; compass plant leaf, SP; bison, NG; compass plant leaves, SP; compass plant buds and bloom, compass plant leaf close up, SP; prairie trail with compass plant, SP.)

Quoted text is from Aldo Leopold’s classic A Sand County Almanac (1949).

Bison and the Prairie Puzzle

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

I enjoy puzzles. I like the way the full image emerges as I slot each shape into its correct niche. While slowing down and paying attention to the puzzle pieces, I sometimes mentally work through some other knotty problem or issue.

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However, one of the most frustrating moments in finishing a 1,000 -piece puzzle is realizing you lost a piece along the way. Or several pieces. Sure, you got close. But that one elusive piece keeps the image from what it should be. It nags at you.

I think of this as I hike Nachusa Grasslands, a 3,500-plus acre site managed by The Nature Conservancy in Illinois. Nachusa Grasslands is tucked into a patchwork quilt of farms about 90 minutes west of downtown Chicago. Over its 20-plus year history, it has assembled more than 700 native species through restoring habitat.

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You can see everything at Nachusa from threatened eastern prairie fringed orchids to the uncommon ornate box turtles. Close your eyes, and listen to the cheerful warble of dickcissels (shown above). In summer, the prairie blooms wash over the landscape in a changing kaleidoscope of purple, gold, pink and white. The grasses – big bluestem, Indian grass, switchgrass, little bluestem — blend together in the fall and early winter in sweeps of breathtaking color.

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700 species! That’s enough to complete any prairie, right?

And yet.

A piece of the puzzle was missing here. A big piece.

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Bison bison. That’s the scientific name. We know them as American buffalo, which disappeared from Illinois about 200 years ago. Now, since late 2014, through the efforts of restorationists and people who weren’t afraid to dream big, they are at Nachusa Grasslands.  With the bison puzzle piece in place, other lost “puzzle pieces”  — species —may be attracted and restored. A little intelligent tinkering.

When I began hiking at Nachusa several years ago and heard about the plan to restore bison, I wondered. Would the preserve suddenly seem like a zoo? Or one of those exotic animal farms you drive by in rural areas with zebras and llamas? A curiosity?

When the bison lumbered out into the tallgrass to graze, my fears were assuaged. They looked like they belonged there.

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As they do.

(All photos by Cindy Crosby. Author’s puzzle; dickcissel at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; NG in December; bison at NG; bison at NG)