“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.
“Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” — Mary Oliver
The last week of the year is a good time for reflection. I’ve been thinking about all of you; the wonderful readers who have joined me on this virtual prairie hike adventure.
Eight years ago this week in December of 2014, I wrote the first post for Tuesdays in the Tallgrass. About 40 people joined me for that initial post, mostly family and close friends, who encouraged me by clicking “follow” and then, reading each week.
Thanks to so many of you who love prairie and the natural world, this week the “odometer” ticked over to 1,000 followers. In the world of social media, of course, that’s small potatoes. But not to me. Each of you are an important part of this virtual prairie community.
Each week, your readership reminds me of how many people love the natural world.
It’s also a reminder of how important it is, as the late poet Mary Oliver said, to “tell about it.” It’s not enough to enjoy the natural world and the prairie for ourselves. Sharing it with others—or as the remarkable Dr. Robert Betz once said—making “a real effort to educate the public about (the prairie’s) importance as a natural heritage and ecological treasure” is an ongoing necessity. If you and I don’t share the wonders of the natural world with others today, how will they make the personal connections that ensure the prairie’s survival in the future?
What a world of wonders the prairie offers us! When you count the Tuesdays over the past eight years, that’s 416 virtual hikes we’ve made together.
It’s a lot of stories; a lot of hikes. Yet, each week we barely scratch the surface of the diversity, complexity, and marvels of the tallgrass prairie and the natural world. There is so much to see!
Tuesdays came no matter where I found myself. So, we’ve dreamed about prairie together as I corresponded on my travels from far-flung Sicily…
… to the deserts of Arizona…
…. to the mangrove swamps in Florida.
But I’ve learned that I don’t need to travel the world to find marvels. The best adventures are waiting for us in our own backyards.
Most of our adventures together have been in the tallgrass, of course. Together, we’ve explored remnant tallgrass prairies, national prairie preserves, cemetery prairies, planted prairies in parks, and large tracts of Nature Conservancy prairies.
We’ve investigated birds on the prairie and at the backyard feeders…
….as well as turtles, snakes, butterflies, bunnies, bees, beetles, coyote, opossum, beavers, muskrats, and anything else that flies, buzzes, or hovers. As I’ve learned more about prairie pollinators and prairie plants, you’ve cheered me on, gently corrected my wrong ID’s, offered ideas on your own favorite places, and said an encouraging word or two at just the right time.
You’ve hiked with me through some difficult times, through my cancer diagnosis and recovery; through a new knee that got me back on the prairie trails again; and through a medical issue that sidelined me for several months this fall, unable to do much more than photograph the prairie plantings and the garden in my yard. Your encouragement and comments have been an important part of the healing process.
As a former bookseller, I couldn’t write about prairie here without also writing about the books I love. Over the years, we’ve rounded up a yearly list of favorite and new prairie books each season, a tradition I’ve come to enjoy (and I hope you have, too!). And, as I’ve penned this blog, I’ve written or co-authored three additional books, all of which took inspiration from the discipline of writing this weekly missive. Every one of you has played a role in my books, because your questions and comments informed and encouraged those writings.
As I write this note to you at the end of 2022, we continue to navigate a world-wide pandemic. Here in Illinois, during the holidays, we are experiencing a “triple-demic” of RSV, flu, and Covid-19. Another daunting aspect of life in 2022 is the lack of civility and care for each other that the news headlines trumpet daily. Sometimes, the world feels like a scary place. But whatever a week brings, I always feel the joy of knowing this little prairie community is here on Tuesday, ready to share with me in the excitement and delight of a virtual hike.
“To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience,” wrote the Irish poet and novelist Patrick Kavanagh. To know the tallgrass prairie—or even the small plantings in my suburban yard—would take several lifetimes. But what an adventure it is!
At the end of 2022 I want to say thank you. Thank you for reading. Thank you for giving me a bit of your time each Tuesday morning. Thank you for the constant stream of well-wishes; of “shares,” and “retweets” and Facebook reposts. Especially thank you to those who take time to click the comment button from time to time and say how much you love prairie, or if you enjoyed a particular post or photograph, or that you want to recommend a book title. Maybe you sent me a link to an interesting website, or you have an idea about how to get rid of buckthorn or honeysuckle, or you wanted to share a “prairie recipe” or tip. Thank you for being a community.
Most of all, thank you for getting outside. If you live in prairie country, thank you for hiking the prairies. For planting prairie in your gardens. For volunteering on a prairie, or dedicating your professional life to caring for prairie, or sharing prairie with a child. Thank you for photographing prairie and sharing prairie with your friends. If you live in a different part of the country, or the world, thank you for admiring prairie and for caring for the natural world, as I know some of my readers do from across the miles. My prairie may be your forest, or wetland, or river. We are all stewards of wherever we find ourselves.
As this year of prairie hikes comes to a close, thank you for caring. Knowing you are out there continues to be an inspiration to me, through the light and dark places as we hike the prairie trails, wade in the prairie streams looking for dragonflies and damselflies, watch for bison…
…and explore the natural world together.
As the poet Mary Oliver wrote, “Paying attention: This is our endless and proper work.”
What a joy that work can be! I can’t wait to hike the trails in 2023 together.
Happy New Year! See you next week on the prairie.
Mary Oliver (1935-2019), whose quote opens this last post of 2022, wrote compellingly about experiencing the natural world. In New and Selected Poems, she writes: “When it’s over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement.” Yes.
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. 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. For more information and to register visit here.
Illinois Prairie needs you! Visit Save Bell Bowl Prairie to learn about this special place—one of the last remaining gravel prairies in our state —and to find out what you can do to help.
***Note to readers: All undated photos were taken this week.
“But the days grow short, when you reach September… .” –Maxwell Anderson
The last days of September have arrived on the prairie.
Bittersweet. Summer, we hardly knew ya.
Smell the air.
Can you catch that slight tang of decay and crisp leaves?
Walk the trails. Feel the crunch, crunch, crunch of the acorns underfoot in the prairie savannas.
There’s no turning back now. Autumn is in full swing. The prairie methodically gets her affairs in order. Cooler temperatures? Check. Grass seeds ripening? Check. Last wildflower blooms opened? Check. September is almost a wrap.
I recently returned from Tucson, Arizona, where September looks a lot different than it does in the Chicago region.
The “monsoon” rains predated my arrival. In response, the desert was green and full of flowers.
With the rains and the flowers came the butterflies.
My plan for hiking Tucson was to chase dragonflies. The butterflies were unexpected. An epiphany. Walking through Tucson was like traveling through showers of confetti. Every flower held a butterfly, it seemed. In one wildflower patch, I counted nine Queen butterflies nectaring.
Everywhere I looked: butterflies. At first I clicked my camera nonstop. Finally, I gave up and enjoyed the experience. So much color, motion, and light!
It was no different on the paths. Butterflies puddled along the trails, looking for salts and minerals.
As I waded Sabino Canyon’s streams, chasing dragonflies, I found a pipevine swallowtail butterfly floating under a spiderweb. It looked like a goner.
Gently, I picked it up. There was a flicker of life! I lowered it into some foliage along the stream, and felt its legs grasp the grass stems.
I left it hanging in the sunshine to dry while I looked for dragonflies in the stream. Keeping an eye on it. The last time I waded by, it was gone. Good luck. Enjoy that second chance.
Meanwhile, I discovered the world of southwestern dragonflies for the first time. Flame skimmers.
I pored over my ID books, learning their names. Each day, I saw dragonflies that were new to me. So many astonishments! It was difficult to get on the plane and come home.
But I knew the prairie would be waiting, with its own suite of wonders.
I’m still seeing butterflies in Illinois this week, and will until the frost. They flutter singly through the prairie and my garden. The dragonflies are mostly gone here, except for a few swarms of migrating common green darners. The end of September looks much different in Arizona than in Illinois.
The prairie’s fall colors are in full swing. It’s good to be back.
I’m grateful to have experienced both places in September. And glad to be reminded of the beauty and unexpected delights still to be found wherever I travel.
But there’s no place like home.
Maxwell Anderson wrote the lyrics to “September Song,” which has become a standard cover tune for musicians such as Frank Sinatra, Willie Nelson, Burl Ives, Jeff Lynne (of Electric Light Orchestra), Ian Maculloch (of Echo & the Bunnymen), and Bing Crosby. I love the Willie Nelson version; you can listen to it here.
Join Cindy for a program or class!
Begins October 19, Evenings Online: NATURE WRITING 2: Online guided workshop offered through The Morton Arboretum. Some experience required; please see details. For weekly times, dates, and registration info click here.
December 3: WINTER PRAIRIE WONDERS–ONLINE(10-11:30 a.m.)Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass! Make yourself a cup of hot tea, snuggle under a warm afghan, and join prairie steward and writer Cindy Crosby virtually for this interactive online immersion into the tallgrass prairie in winter. See the aesthetic beauty of the snow-covered grasses and wildflowers in cold weather through colorful images of winter on the prairies. Follow animal tracks to see what creatures are out and about, and see how many you can identify. Learn how birds, pollinators, and mammals use winter prairie plants; the seeds for nourishment and the grasses and spent wildflowers for overwintering, protection, and cover. Then, listen as Cindy shares brief readings about the prairie in winter that will engage your creativity and nourish your soul. Registration information here.
“Wilderness is not a luxury, but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. ” — — Edward Abbey
Displacement is good for the soul; or so I tell myself as I hike the beautiful red-rock trails of Sedona with Jeff under a blazing sun.
Shade? Forget about it. Unless it’s the shade you cast as you hike.
As a prairie lover, the plants and grasses of the desert are a study in contrasts to what I know back home. I’m used to lush foliage. Vibrant wildflowers. In the Chicago region this season, the tallgrass prairie lived up to its name. Rain ensured this. Big bluestem towers over my head whenever I go for a hike; bends over trails with the weight of its tallness.
Sunflowers form jungle-like vegetation along the prairie streams. In places, vegetation is so impenetrable, I’ve had to abandon some of my dragonfly monitoring routes for the season.
But when you look closely—think out of the box a little bit—there are similarities between the prairie I know and the desert I’m hiking today that I don’t know. Here in Sedona, it’s obvious most of the grasses and plants are primed for weather extremes; small amounts of rainfall and harsh heat. There are empty creek beds everywhere that must flash flood from time to time. But today, everything is dusty and parched in the glare of the sun.
You can almost hear the plants whisper advice to each other. Conserve water. Adapt. Adapt.
The tallgrass prairies of home, while receiving around 40 inches of rainfall in a good year, are also primed for weather swings between drought and flood. As I look closely at the yucca on my hike, its foliage reminds me of the tallgrass prairie’s rattlesnake master, whose scientific name, Eryngium yuccifolium pays homage to its prickly, fleshy, yucca-like leaves. What do you think?
Both the desert and the tallgrass have fire in common. There’s a wildfire burning in a wilderness area just a few miles away. Everywhere, there is a sense of caution.
A sign on the highway notes: “Brushfire Danger High: Use Your Ashtray.” Are there still ashtrays in cars? Who knew? Burnout operations — creating small fires to stop wildfires —are underway at night. Evidently, smoke creates less of a breathing hazard for residents at night than in the daytime. Fascinating stuff. I hadn’t thought of the desert, with its cactus and forests and mountains, as a place of fire. But so it is.
A species of prickly pear cactus pops up everywhere in the desert; a relative to a prickly pear cactus we have (oddly enough) in our Midwest tallgrass prairies. Hello, friend. Nice to see a familiar face.
However, I keep a respectful distance. Those sharp bristles are nothing to trifle with.
I try to decipher the hieroglyphics of the trail as I hike. What is the desert trying to tell me?
Maybe the words of Ed Abbey again: “We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may not ever need to go there.”
Being in the desert prompts me to think about wilderness in new ways. Mostly, I’ve thought of wilderness as the North Woods, or maybe the Bob Marshall in Montana, or large swathes of Arctic habitat. And yet, there are ten federally designated wilderness areas in or close to Arizona’s Coconino National Forest, including where I’m hiking on the outskirts of the Munds Mountain Wilderness. Desert has its own version of a wilderness refuge, a place apart. Just as prairies are.
Another similarity between deserts and prairie is that both can be overlooked, misunderstood, and taken for granted. “Once you’ve seen the red rocks a few times, they can be pretty boring,” said the maintenance man who came to fix my hotel door lock in Sedona.
Ditto for a shopkeeper downtown. “It’s so beautiful here,” I said to her (gushingly, I’m afraid.) She shook her head. “It’s ugly!” I’ve heard much the same back home about the tallgrass prairie. “Weeds!” a friend once told me. Perhaps familiarity breeds contempt? But, as the venerable garden writer Henry Mitchell rather caustically once said, these remarks tend to come from folks who “don’t see much when they look.” And we’ve all been guilty of that, haven’t we?
So, I remind myself, Look. Look again. Don’t dismiss what you don’t understand. Find connections. Appreciate the differences. Let the desert soak in.
“What draws us into the desert is the search for something intimate in the remote.” Ed Abbey again. As an outsider here, I feel the draw. There’s so much here I don’t understand. I see a lot of other people hiking the trails, climbing the rocks, searching for something…more.
Like the base jumper, defying laws of both gravity and the legal system. As we hiked the trails one morning, we heard a yell of delight. We looked up— just as he leapt from thousands of feet high off of one of the towering red rocks and floated to the ground.
What was he looking for? Did he find it? I wonder.
I want to listen to the wisdom the desert has to offer, even when I don’t always know what I’m looking at. Or, what I’m looking for. Pay attention. Be grateful these places exist, even if this is may be the only time in my life I’ll get to see them.
I want to cherish these diverse places in my memory. Act to protect them for future generations. After all, who knows what these places may have to teach us? We need to tuck them into our hearts. We need them to be there…when we go looking.
Edward Abbey (1927-1989) was a writer, environmental activist, and park ranger. Although personal happiness seemed elusive (he was married five times) and he held controversial views on immigration, women, and environmental sabotage, his writings on American deserts—-leaning toward mysticism—-helped inspire a public appreciation for the desert landscape that continues today. If you haven’t read Abbey, try Desert Solitaire.
All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Bell Rock hiking trail, Oak Creek, AZ; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; Maxmillian sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown desert grasses and plants, Bell Rock hiking trail, Oak Creek, AZ; yucca (Yucca, unknown species), Oak Creek, AZ; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) fire hazard sign, State Highway 169, AZ; prickly pear cactus (probably Opuntia cactaceae or Opuntia phaeacantha) and unknown grasses, Bell Rock hiking trail, Oak Creek, AZ; sand track graffiti on the Bell Rock hiking trail, Oak Creek, AZ; red rocks, Red Rock Scenic Parkway, Sedona, AZ; Bell Rock, Red Rock Scenic Parkway, Sedona, AZ; base jumper off of Courthouse Rock, Oak Creek, AZ; moonrise over Sedona on the Autumn equinox, Sedona, AZ. Any plant ID’s from my desert friends are welcome! Grateful to all of you who work to care for these amazing desert places, including Neil Chapman at TNC’s Hart Prairie in northern Arizona. Thank you.
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.