“For a relationship with landscape to be lasting, it must be reciprocal.” —Barry Lopez
I heard the cardinal’s spring song this week for the first time this year. Maybe it was practicing. Maybe it was dreaming. Snow is still piled on the ground and my little pond is frozen, but now I listen for that cardinal song anytime I step outdoors. February is half over. There is plenty of snow and cold ahead. Yet the thought of spring persists.
Spring! But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Winter in the Midwest has a lot to recommend it.
Oh yes. Let’s get outside and discover three reasons to hike the February prairie.
Hike the prairie in February, and you’ll be aware of the temporal nature of life.
Everywhere are remnants of what was once a vibrant wildflower, now aged and gone to seed.
Along the trail is wild bergamot, still redolent with thymol.
Dried grasses are broken and weighted with snow.
And yet, life is here, under the ground. Emergence is only weeks away.
Pollinators are a distant memory. What will a new season bring?
These are the prairie’s closing chapters. The hot breath of prescribed fire whispers. Soon. Soon. When conditions are right. By April, this will have vanished in smoke.
Take in every moment of winter. While it lasts.
2.The Joy of Tracking
Who moves across the winter prairie? It’s not always easy to tell.
Follow the streams and you’ll see signs of life. I know a mink lives along Willoway Brook—are these her prints?
Who took a frigid plunge?
The freeze/thaw freeze/thaw over the past week has blurred and slushed the tracks, adding to the mystery.
Who is it that prowls the tallgrass prairie in February? Who swims its streams?
I’m not always sure, but it’s enough to know that life persists in February.
3.The Exhilaration of Braving the Elements
Hiking the prairie in February involves a little bit of risk, a little bit of daring.
See these prairie skies, how they change from moment to moment? Bright—then dim—then bright? What a joy to be outside!
Sure, the temperatures are in the teens. Wrap that scarf a little tighter around your neck. Breathe in that cold, clarifying prairie air.
Sometimes, you may arrive, only to turn back when the trail has iced beyond acceptable risk.
But isn’t it enough to be there, even if only for a few minutes?
I think so. Why not go see? It won’t be winter much longer.
Barry Lopez (1945-2020) was an American writer who loved the Arctic and wolves, and wrote 20 books of fiction and non-fiction exploring our relationship to the natural world. The opening quote for today’s blog is from his National Book Award winner, Arctic Dreams(1986), which is still my favorite of his works.
Join Cindy for a class or program in February!
February 26 — Plant a Little Prairie in Your Yard for Citizens for Conservation. Barrington, IL. (10 am-11am.) Open to the public with registration. Contact them here.
February 26 ––Conservation: The Power of Story for the “2022 Community Habitat Symposium: Creating a Future for Native Ecosystems” at Joliet Junior College. Tickets available at (https://illinoisplants.org/). (Afternoon program as part of all-day events)
“…How swiftly time passes in the out-of-doors where there is never a moment without something new.”– Sigurd Olson
It starts with graupel. Icy pellets of rimed snow. Soft hail. The graupel rattles the windows. Pelts the patio. Bounces like tiny ping-pong balls across my backyard and into the prairie patch. The winter storm is here.
Four mourning doves swoop onto the porch. They peck-peck-peck the scattered millet seed around the bird feeders, then shelter under the eaves. Darkness falls. The wind rattles the windows. And at last, it begins to snow.
A light snow cover has blanketed the prairies this week. Critters leave clues to their identities.
The prairie grasses, overshadowed by wildflowers most of the year, find snow is the perfect backdrop to showcase their charms.
Snow is a stage for tallgrass shadows and silhouettes to play upon.
Turkey tail fungi sift snow, letting it powder each arc of nuanced color.
From a distance, Indian hemp seems stripped of all but pod and stem.
Come closer. A few seeds still cling to the scoured pods, ready to set sail in the high winds.
Everywhere is something to spark wonder. “Even an adult can grow in perception if he refuses to close the doors to learning,” wrote Sigurd Olson in Reflections from the North Country.There are stories to be listened to…
…messages to be read in the midst of the snow, if only we can decipher them. If we keep the doors to learning open.
When the doors to learning stand open, what is there to discover?
Perhaps, diversity is beautiful.
Or, Think of future generations, not just of the needs or desires of the moment.
Remember the past, but don’t get stuck there.
Embrace change, even when it’s difficult. It usually is.
Appreciate what you have today…
…it may not be here tomorrow.
The choices we make aren’t always clear or easy.
There are a lot of gray areas.
But it’s never too late to reflect. To listen. To learn.
And then, to move forward.
There is so much to see and think about on the prairie.
So much to pay attention to.
So much to consider, on a prairie hike in the snow.
Sigurd Olson (1899-1982), whose quote opens this post, was born in Chicago and grew up in northern Wisconsin. He is considered one of the most important environmental advocates of the 20th Century. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area—over one million acres in size—owes its preservation to the work of Olson and many others. Olson worked as a wilderness guide in the Quetico-Superior area of Minnesota and Canada, and his nine books explore the meaning of wilderness and the outdoors. He is a recipient of the John Burroughs Medal, the highest honor in nature writing, for Wilderness Days. If you haven’t read Olson, I’d suggest beginning with The Singing Wilderness. A very good read.
Join Cindy in 2021 for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a complete list of virtual offerings. All classes and programs with Cindy this winter and spring are offered online only. Join me from your computer anywhere in the world.
Begins Monday, February 6 OR just added —February 15 (Two options): Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online--Digitally explore the intricacies of the tallgrass prairie landscape and learn how to restore these signature American ecosystems as you work through online curriculum. Look at the history of this unique type of grassland from the descent of glaciers over the Midwest millions of years ago, to the introduction of John Deere’s famous plow, to where we are today. We will examine different types of prairie, explore the plant and animal communities of the prairie and discuss strategies specific to restoring prairies in this engaging online course. Come away with a better understanding of the tallgrass prairies, and key insights into how to restore their beauty. All curriculum is online, with an hour-long in-person group Zoom during the course. You have 60 days to complete the curriculum! Join me–Registration information here.
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.
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.