“Bees do have a smell, you know, and if they don’t they should, for their feet are dusted with spices from a million flowers.”—Ray Bradbury
August arrives on the tallgrass prairie.
Listen! Do you hear the buzz and zip of wings?
The patter of tiny insect feet?
Let’s hear it for the prairie pollinators!
Bees bumble across the wildflowers.
Ambling beetles browse the petals.
Enjoy the aimless ants. Marvel over the butterflies, looking like so many windsurfers…
Stay up late and enjoy the night fliers…
…with their beautiful markings.
Seek out the wandering wasps, inspiring awe and a little trepidation.
And these are just a few of our amazing pollinators!
Where would we be without these marvelous creatures?
Three cheers for the prairie pollinators!
Long may they thrive.
The opening quote for today’s post is by Illinois author Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) from his classic book, Dandelion Wine. This book was required reading in my Midwestern high school English classes back in the seventies, and a wonderful introduction to his more than 27 novels and story collections.
Join Cindy for a Program in August!
West Cook Wild Ones presents:A Brief History of Trees in Americawith Cindy Crosby on Sunday, August 21, 2:30-4 p.m. Central Time on Zoom. From oaks to maples to elms: trees changed the course of American history. Native Americans knew trees provided the necessities of life, from food to transportation to shelter. Trees built America’s railroads, influenced our literature and poetry, and informed our music. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation—and their symbolism and influence on the way we think—as you reflect on the trees most meaningful to you. Free and open to the public—join from anywhere in the world—but you must preregister. Register here.
“Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder.” — E.B. White
Happy February! January 2022 has come and gone, and with it the realization that I haven’t set in motion some of my New Year’s resolutions. I thought I would have accomplished more of them by now.
But—I’ve been readingAtomic Habits, a new book about getting stuff done, and I’m a little less discouraged by what I haven’t accomplished yet. I’ve got a plan for February. There’s always tomorrow.
One habit that hasn’t been difficult to maintain is hiking, despite the cold. This weekend, Jeff and I headed for the Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, a remnant black soil prairie not far from our home.
I love the juxtaposition of city and tallgrass at this site. The sky seems so immense.
So much sunshine! So much snow. It almost calls for sunglasses. We shield our eyes with our hands instead.
The clouds look newly-laundered in the cold, fresh air. It’s a lovely day to be outside, despite the chilly temperature.
Wolf Road Prairie is crossed with sidewalks, the ghost skeleton of a subdivision that was almost built here in the 1920s. The Great Depression put an end to it. Jeff always loves scraping aside the snow to find the old walkways.
Because of the Save the Prairie Society, a group of people who saw the value of this remnant, Wolf Road Prairie was preserved instead of developed again in the 1970s. Rather than a subdivision, we have this wide-open space, with more than 360 species of native plants.
I don’t have anything against subdivisions. I live in one. But as I hike, I am grateful for the vision of those who recognized this high quality prairie remnant for the special place it was, and ensured it lives on. We have plenty of subdivisions in the Chicago region. Almost all our prairie remnants like this one are gone.
On our hike, we bump into Wyatt Widmer, the site steward, and a group of volunteers out cutting brush and herbiciding woody plants. It’s inspiring to see them caring for this 82-acre preserve; the prairie—and savanna and wetland—that has brought Jeff and me so much pleasure for so many years. People are an important part of prairie.
Seeing them working is a timely reminder that the prairies which seem so “natural” are kept healthy and vibrant today by dedicated staff and volunteers and the sweat equity they invest. Today, without people to put fire to the last of the prairies, weed and cut brush, and collect seeds and redistribute them, what’s left of our Illinois prairies would eventually disappear. Prairies need our help.
As I hike, I think about the prairie where I’m a steward. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to finish my management plan with my co-steward and the natural resources staff at the Arboretum where I volunteer. It feels a little overwhelming to get it done. Our 100-acre prairie has endless numbers of potential projects. What to tackle first?
After conducting a plant inventory in 2016, our group is anxious to replace some of the plants that have gone missing; get them back into circulation. But how to choose? Where to start? We also have a brush problem. A reed canary grass issue. And sumac? Don’t get me started.
Seeing these volunteers and the site steward working at Wolf Road Prairie prods me to finish that plan. February is a good time to dream, to make lists, and to be pro-active, rather than re-active. February is a good time to get things done.
I want to be intentional about how the new season on the prairie unfolds.
But of course…
…the prairie has a mind of its own.
No matter how many lists I make, plants I order, or projects I envision, Mother Nature will have a say in what happens this year. There will be random events; occurrences I can’t plan for.
Drought, windstorms, flooding, hungry mammals, and yes—Covid—may all play a role in our 2022 season. Even the best planning won’t ensure 100% execution and success.
But a plan is necessary. And part of my management plan is to be flexible.
To adapt to whatever comes in 2022. To remind myself that when my planning fails, there’s always next year. Keep moving forward. Step by step. Little by little.
Good reminders, for the prairie and for myself. We’ll see how it goes.
The opening quote is from E. B. White (1899-1985), who was the author of several beloved children’s books including Charlotte’s Web.Writers also know him as the co-author of The Elements of Style. Early in his newspaper career, he was fired by The Seattle Times, and later went to Alaska to work on a fireboat. When he eventually joined the staff of The New Yorker, he was painfully shy, and would only come into the office on Thursdays. There, he met his eventual wife Katharine, the magazine’s literary editor, whose son Roger Angell from her first marriage is the baseball writer and fiction editor at The New Yorker today. In the introduction to Charlotte’s Web, White is quoted as saying “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” It showed.
Join Cindy for a class or program this winter!
February 8-March 1 (Three evenings, 6:30-9pm): The Foundations of Nature Writing Online —Learn the nuts and bolts of excellent nature writing and improve your wordsmithing skills in this online course from The Morton Arboretum. Over the course of four weeks, you will complete three self-paced e-learning modules and attend weekly scheduled Zoom sessions with your instructor and classmates. Whether you’re a blogger, a novelist, a poet, or simply enjoy keeping a personal journal, writing is a fun and meaningful way to deepen your connection to the natural world. February 8, noon Central time: Access self-paced materials online. February 15, 22, and March 1, 6:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Central time: Attend live. Register here.
March 3–Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online –online class with assignments over 60 days; one live Zoom together. Digitally explore the intricacies of the tallgrass prairie landscape and learn how to restore these signature American ecosystems. Look at the history of this particular 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 prairies and key insights into how to restore their beauty. You will have 60 days to access the materials. Register here.
“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.
“There is another alphabet, whispering from every leaf, singing from every river, shimmering from every sky.”–Dejan Stojanovic
Do you know your August prairie ABC’s? Let’s go for a hike in the tallgrass together and take a look at a few.
A is for Ashy Sunflower, a harbinger of late summer.
B is for Big Bluestem, Illinois’ state grass; Missouri’s as well.
C is for TallCoreopsis, in full bloom at a prairie near you. Collecting seeds from this plant in October is an exercise in smelly hands. Such a pretty plant; such stinky seeds.
D is for Dragonfly, those glints of glowing color across the grasses.
E is for Echinacea, the purple coneflower, attracting pollinators. Its sister plant, the pale purple coneflower, is more likely to be found on prairies in my area.
F is for Flowering Spurge, Euphorbia corollata, in the same genus as poinsettia.
G is for Gaura, one of the few August pinks.
H is for Hawk, which spirals on thermals high overhead. Sometimes, a little reminder floats down into the tallgrass.
I is for Indigo, now going to black-podded seed. Will the weevils save any seeds for us? Difficult to know. This pod has been ransacked.
J is for Joe Pye Weed, that butterfly magnet on the prairie’s edges.
K is for Kankakee Sands, where bison roam.
L is for Liatris, in full purple splendor this month.
M is for Monarch, the Midwest’s poster child for pollination and conservation. Glad they are having such a good year in Illinois.
N is for New England Aster; the first blooms are all the buzz on the prairie.
O is for Oenothera biennis, the common evening primrose, that staple of every farm lane and roadside wildflower stand. It’s native and occurs in every county of Illinois.
P is for Prairie Dropseed. Love the smell? Or hate it? People are divided! I’m a fan.
Q is for Queen Anne’s Lace, that pretty invasive that is celebrated in a Mary Oliver poem and the impetus for many volunteer workdays on the prairie.
R is for Ragweed, an unwelcome native. Poor, innocent goldenrod! It often takes the rap for ragweed’s allergy-producing pollen. Aaaahhhhhh-choo! Although goldenrod isn’t completely innocent. It’s a take-over specialist on the tallgrass prairie.
S is forSilphiums; the cup plant, prairie dock, compass plant, and rosin weed. They are having a banner year in my part of prairie country.
T is for prairie Trails, that lead to adventure.
U is for Underground, where prairie roots plunge 15 or more feet deep, sequestering carbon. Like an upside-down forest.
V is for Vervain, both blue and hoary.
W is for Waterways; the ponds, streams, and rivers that cradle life on the prairies.
X is for sphinXmoths, which pollinate rare plants like the eastern prairie fringed orchid. Here’s one enjoying a wild bergamot bloom.
Y is for Yellow. The prairie is sprinkled with gold this month.
Z is for the Zip and Zag of black swallowtail butterflies, fluttering from flower to flower.
Now you know my August ABC’s. How many of these plants and prairie critters can you find on a prairie near you? What favorites would you add to my August prairie alphabet? Leave me a comment below, and let me know. Then go for a hike and see them for yourself.
Dejan Stojanovic (1959-), whose quote opens this blog post, is a Serbian poet.
Join Cindy for a class or program!
August 17, 7pm-8:30 pm —in person —“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Bloomingdale Garden Club, Bloomingdale, IL. Please visit http://www.bloomingdalegardenclub.org/events-new/ for more information and Covid safety protocol for the event and for current event updates.
September 9, 9:30-11 am– in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Oswego Hilltoppers Garden Club, Oswego Public Library. Please visit the club’s Facebook page for guest information, event updates and Covid protocol.
New to the prairie? Want to introduce a friend or family member to the tallgrass? Check out The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction (Northwestern University Press). No jargon, no technical terms — just a fun guide to navigating prairie hikes and developing a deeper relationship with the beautiful grasslands that make the Midwest special.
“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.
“October is a fine and dangerous season in America . . . a wonderful time to begin anything at all.” –Thomas Merton
I hear them before I see them. Shielding my eyes against the afternoon sunshine, I scan the skies. Three sandhill cranes. A small wave headed south. Their chatter echoes long after they are folded into the deep blue sky and disappear.
More follow. They come and go throughout the afternoon.
It’s bittersweet. Sandhill cranes moving south are a signal of change. Summer is gone, and autumn, it seems, already passes too quickly. Seeing the first waves of cranes reminds me to open my eyes. Pay attention. To intentionally not miss a moment of the month. October is a time for walking the prairies and savannas slowly. For looking carefully. For soaking up whatever sunshine we can before cold weather hits.
Soon, October will be a dim but cherished memory.
The woodlands are a magnet for paparazzi in October; visitors shooting photos of the sugar maples aglow. Hickories and sweet gums change their green leaves to bright colors. But the prairie has its own autumnal palette.
Turn away from the woodlands for a moment, and consider six reasons to hike the tallgrass in October.
1. Goodbye, Butterflies
In my backyard prairie patch and garden, the painted lady butterflies flutter wildly—drunk on nectar—-but not prepared to stop gorging themselves. Only frost will cut them off. Butterflies pile up, two to a bloom, jostling for the best positions, battling skippers and bees. The occasional monarch still floats across the prairie, but not in the numbers seen in September.
If you’re lucky, you’ll find some New England asters still in bloom as I did, with a few butterflies working the flowers. This cabbage white butterfly is a common one I see all summer on the prairie—and late into the fall. I love its pale, gold-dusted contrast with the purple fringes of the aster.
2. That Prairie Fragrance!
Breathe deep the newly-crisped air with its fragrance of cool damp earth and sweet decay. Bee balm, Monarda fistulosa, still gives up its delicious fragrance when its leaves are broken. So does mountain mint. When I taste the leaves of both, the oils are a bit bitter and harsh in my mouth. I content myself with rubbing the leaves between my fingers. Gray-headed coneflower seed heads, crushed in my hands, are my favorite fragrance of all. After a hike on the prairie, rubbing leaves, I’m scented with “the outdoors” for the rest of the day. Nature’s own prairie perfume.
3. Seed Diversity
Walk the prairie and the prairie savanna this month and you’ll be astounded by the variety of seeds.
Pale Indian plantain, with its fluffy pinwheels.
Tall compass plants, with their unique seedheads, bring the Statue of Liberty to mind, don’t you think?
False Solomon’s seal brightens the prairie edges.
Carrion vine’s mostly-inedible fruits will hang half-hidden in the Indian grass and big bluestem until almost spring.
This week, I searched until I found the quirky seeds of white turtlehead, almost invisible in the prairie now unless you know where to look. We don’t have very many turtleheads, so the seeds give me hope for more of this wildflower in the future.
Without the ka-POW of bright bloom colors blanketing the prairie, structure takes center stage.
Bottlebrush grass, with its skeletal spikes.
You can see it it shares a Genus with Canada wild rye. They are both graceful and needle-like.
Feel the rubbery leaves of pale Indian plantain.
Then contrast them with the sandpapery surface of a compass plant leaf.
6. Fall Color
The sumacs, woven into the prairie grasses, are touched with reds and chartreuse.
Little bluestem sparks its seeds as its stems color up from greens to reds to rusts. The tallgrass prairie in October is just as startling and gorgeous in its own way as the colorful woodlands. Maybe better.
Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was best known for his spiritual memoir, The Seven Story Mountain (1948), the title of which refers to Purgatory in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Merton was an English literature teacher turned Trappist monk, who joined Kentucky’s Gethsemane Abbey. There, he wrote more than 50 books and promoted interfaith understanding. My favorite of Merton’s books is The Sign of Jonas.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken this week at the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, unless noted otherwise: Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) over author’s backyard prairie patch (this photo taken in 2016), Glen Ellyn, IL;October in the savanna;prairie path; Small white butterfly or “cabbage white” (Pieris rapae) on New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-anglia), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) with spider web; pale Indian plantain seedhead (Arnoglossum atriplicfolium); compass plant seedhead (Silphium terebinthinaceum); false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum); probably upright carrion vine (Smilax ecirrhata); white turtlehead (Chelone glabra) in seed; bottle brush grass (Elymus hystrix); Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium); compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); sumac (Rhus spp.); little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium); bridge in the October tallgrass; great blue heron (Ardea herodias).
Join Cindy for a Nature Writing Workshop, online and in-person, through The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL. Click here for registration information. Or see http://www.cindycrosby.com for more classes and events.
Cindy’s forthcoming book is Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History with Northwestern University Press, illustrated by the talented Peggy Macnamara, artist-in-residence at The Field Museum, Chicago. Look for it in Spring, 2020.
“Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.” — John Milton
Did you make a New Year’s resolution? One of mine is to visit nearby prairies and natural areas I’ve overlooked. Today, it’s Ferson Creek Fen Nature Preserve, in the western Chicago suburb of St. Charles.
I have a soft spot for preserves with a mosaic of different habitats. Ferson Creek Fen ticks off a lot of boxes. Restored prairie.
The Fox River.
And yes—a namesake fen. What is a fen, you might ask? Here, think of low lands with peaty soil (usually alkaline—in this case—calcareous) that flood, brimming with wet-loving plants.
A boardwalk stretches through part of the preserve, protecting the sensitive wetlands. You can see the Fox River as a sliver of light in the distance.
It’s quiet in the 50-degree weather of this early January day. Our winter coats feel unnecessary.
A gull flies upstream.
Ice drifts in the current, not yet melted in the bright sun.
Downstream, a few kayakers brave the frigid water. The wetlands are painted with freeze and frost in the shadows. Cold is relative, when the sun is shining unexpectedly and the air teasingly whispers “spring.”
The warm planks of the boardwalk offer secure footing in the sunlight.
A steady hum of traffic to the west, punctuated by the squeaky calls of a white-breasted nuthatch nearby, compose the soundtrack for our hike. In the distance, Jeff and I see half a dozen unknown birds roosting in a tree. We step off the boardwalk to investigate. Hoping for something unusual, we plunge ahead on the grassy trail and discover…
It’s a good reminder for me. There is beauty in the ordinary.
Complexity in everyday things.
All we have to do to is look. Take a moment to reflect. Remember.
And be grateful.
John Milton (1608-1674) was a British poet and writer, best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost. He also wrote the speech, Areopagitica, in a time of political and religious unrest (1644), an argument for freedom of speech, of the press, and of expression. He eventually went blind (probably from untreated glaucoma) in his late forties, then was imprisoned by a hostile regime and forced to leave his home. His poetry and works on religion and politics continue to be read long after his death.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby at Ferson Creek Fen Nature Preserve, St. Charles, IL (top to bottom) common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) with unknown aster seedheads; remains of an unknown sunflower; ice on duckweed(probably common duckweed Lemna minor, but could be greater duckweed Spirodela polyrhiza or star duckweed (Lemna trisulca) and cattail base (Typha, either common latifolia, narrow-leaved angustifolia or hybrid xglauca); floodplain forest; the Fox River in January; view from the boardwalk; boardwalk through the nature preserve; Fox River reflections in January; unidentified gull flying downstream on the Fox River; ice floes on the Fox River; view from the boardwalk; probably a red oak (Quercus rubra) leaf on the boardwalk; grassy trail; mourning doves (Zenaida macroura) roosting in a tree; willow pinecone gall made by the gall midge(Rabdophaga strobiloides); cattails (Typha latifolia, angustifolia, or xglauca) backlit by the sunlight.
Thanks to John Heneghan and Tricia Lowery for telling us about the preserve!
“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
Christmas morning dawns, cold and overcast. The scent of snow is in the air.
On the prairie this week, it’s been mostly sunny. Quiet.
Willoway Brook provides the December soundtrack: water moving fast over rocks. Ice lingers in the shoreline’s shadows.
Wildflower seedheads silhouette themselves along the edges of the stream.
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.
Along the edge of the prairie, fragrant sumac fruit could pass for furry holly berries—with a bit of imagination.
Blown out stars of sudsy asters froth along the gravel two-track.
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.
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.”
The end of the year is just a breath away.
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!
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.
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); theSchulenberg 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.
“I want the experience of the butterfly.” — William Stafford
The first one flew just ahead of us, then disappeared. “Hey—was that a monarch?” my husband Jeff asked. I shaded my eyes against the sun, unsure.
We were at Kankakee Sands in northwestern Indiana, returning from visiting family down south. Needing to get off the mind-numbing, semi-rumbling Interstate 65 that connects Indianapolis with Chicago, we decided to take a more off-the-beaten path route. A stop at this 7,000-plus acres Nature Conservancy site along the way was a no-brainer.
As we pulled into the empty “Bison Viewing Area” parking lot, there was nary a hairy mammal in sight. All the bison were grazing far away in the preserve, oblivious to public relations and their responsibilities in promoting prairie at their assigned station. The light slanted low across the wildflowers. September days were shortening. The quiet was tangible, except for the hum of singing insects in the grasses.
Jeff broke the silence. “Look! There’s another one,” he said, pointing. Two more butterflies flew over. Monarchs! And then another. And another. As our eyes adjusted, we began to understand what was in front of us.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of monarch butterflies covered the prairie…
A viceroy butterfly occasionally mixed in. Everywhere we looked, there were monarchs nectaring on stiff goldenrod.
The prairie was a shimmer of motion and color in the late afternoon light.
Wave after wave of orange and black butterflies fluttered across the goldenrod. I began frantically snapping photos with my camera. Click! Click! Click! But…How do you capture the movement and motion of clouds of butterflies? After a few minutes, I put my camera down and tried videotaping them with my cell phone. I soon gave up. One random viceroy butterfly video later, I realized it was futile to try and freeze the magic.
Perhaps, this was a moment to tuck into your heart, instead of trying to capture it with images and technology. We put away the camera and our cell phones. Instead of frantically clicking away, both of us watched the butterflies in silence.
So many butterflies! We couldn’t stop talking about them as we drove home. We knew prairies were great habitat for these amazing insects. But still!
Nachusa Grasslands, a Nature Conservancy site where I’m a steward, has some beautiful butterflies. I love the buckeyes, which seem to be everywhere at Nachusa this month…
…and the uncommon regal fritillaries, which I’ve seen there a few times in the summer. They take my breath away!
The Schulenberg Prairie, where I’m a steward supervisor, constantly dazzles me with its frequent fliers. Like this black swallowtail butterfly nectaring on rattlesnake master just weeks ago.
Fermilab’s prairies, another great place to hike in the Chicago region, continue to delight me with a diversity of butterflies, including the common but charming little eastern tailed blues.
But seeing the massive monarch migration up close for the first time at Kankakee Sands this week brought all the other prairies like these into focus.
This, I thought, is what happens when we try to heal the earth.
This is why we collect native prairie seeds, then go to crazy lengths to dry them and reseed new prairie restorations.
This is why we set the prescribed fires to renew the tallgrass each spring.
This is why we sweat in summer temperatures nearing 100 degrees, caring for prairie. Stay up late at night reading about restoration methods. Help our children and grandchildren raise a few caterpillars that become butterflies to understand the cycle of life. This is why we hike the prairie trails with little ones, so that early on they will experience some of the miracles of the natural world.
This is why we scribble restoration plans and seed collection notes. Cut honeysuckle and buckthorn so it doesn’t encroach into the tallgrass. Go out and speak and teach about prairie and all its creatures. Pull weeds.
This is what can happen when volunteers and stewards and site managers and donors care for the beautiful world we’ve been given.
And, sometimes, on a magical day like this one, we see the tangible results.
William Stafford (1914-1993) is considered to be one of our finest, if sometimes uneven, nature poets. Wrote Steve Garrison of Stafford, “He offers a unique way into the heart of the world.”
All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): late afternoon at the bison viewing area of Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN: monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) and viceroy butterflies (Limenitis archippus) nectaring on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN; trio of monarchs (Danaus plexippus) nectaring on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN; late afternoon at Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN: video of viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) nectaring on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN; buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) on unknown aster (Asteracea), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; regal fritillary (Speyeria idalia) , Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) on rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern tailed-blue (Cupido comyntas), Fermilab Inner Ring, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; September on Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; drying seeds at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; small toddler investigating flowers, Fermilab Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; weeds and work bucket, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands in the rain, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.
Thanks to all the organizations that manage Kankakee Sands, including the Nature Conservancy of Indiana, Division of Fish & Wildlife, Division of Nature Preserves, Indiana Department of Environmental Management, Indiana Heritage Trust, Indiana Grand Company, Lilly Endowment, National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, and Natural Resources Conservation Services. Grateful for the butterfly magic this week.
“While we are born with curiosity and wonder, and our early years full of the adventure they bring, I know such inherent joys are often lost. I also know that, being deep within us, their latent glow can be fanned into flame again by awareness and an open mind.”– Sigurd Olson
I’m thinking about the above quotation as I hike through prairie snow. The temperature? Below zero. Not an optimal day for outdoor adventures. But after more than five decades of wanderings—and at the beginning of a new year—I’ve been wondering. How do I keep my sense of curiosity and wonder in a cynical world? How do I “fan the flame;” “stay aware” as Olson writes? It’s so easy to become insular.
Then, I look around.
Time outdoors. Perhaps that’s always the answer.
Even a short walk in the brutal cold is a mental palate cleanser. It sweeps clean the heavy holiday fare. Too much travel. Noise. Not enough time to think.
I breathe in. The air sears my lungs; seeps into my gloves, painfully nips my hands. Then all feeling recedes.
Above me, the wild geese fly in formation over the prairie, calling to each other. The sound carries clearly in the cold, crisp air. I inhale again, and feel the fuzziness in my mind begin to dissipate.
I think of Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese.” When I worked as a ranger on a wilderness island, one of my many non-glamorous tasks was sweeping the visitor center floor at the end of the day. As I’d push the broom, back and forth, back and forth, I’d try memorizing a new poem each week, written on a card in my pocket. It made the task more pleasant. “Wild Geese” was one poem I memorized that became a favorite.
Lost in remembrance, I almost miss what’s under my feet. The prairie and meadow voles have been busy tunneling through the snow, on a seed-finding mission.
The short winter list of prairie birds and animals are easier to name than the lengthy roll call of plant species. Winter plant ID is a guessing game. The once-familiar wildflowers have shed their leaves and bleached their colors. Some I can be fairly certain of, like these thimbleweeds, with their tufts of seeds in various stages of blow-out along a sheltered edge of the prairie.
Or the pasture thistle, in its familiar spot next to the path.
The compass plant leaf, even when cold-curled like a bass clef, is unmistakable.
But other wildflowers, sans identifying colors, scents, or leaf shapes, are a mystery. Is this one an aster? Sure. But which one? I realize how limited my naturalist skills are every winter.
Such a jumble of seasonal botanical leftovers! All in various stages of decay. Monarda? Check. Blackberry canes? Check. And is that tiny curl a bit of carrion flower vine? But which species?
Hours could be spent in this fashion; looking, listening, hypothesizing, thinking, remembering. It takes so little to rekindle the spark of curiosity and wonder. To wake up. To be refreshed.
Just a short hike. A moment’s attention toward what’s happening around your feet. A glance at the sky.
And suddenly, you feel it: the embers of curiosity and wonder begin to glow again.
Sigurd F. Olson (1899-1982) wrote nine books, including my favorite, The Singing Wilderness. Many of his essays are about the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and North Woods, and a few are about the prairie.Some include beautiful scratchboard illustrations from artist Francis Lee Jaques, who was born in Illinois. Olson was a conservation activist and one of the greatest advocates for natural areas in recent times. The quote that begins this blog post is from his book, Listening Point.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): West Side bridge, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Orland Grassland, Forest Preserve Districts of Cook County, Orland Park, IL; Orland Grassland, Forest Preserve Districts of Cook County, Orland Park, IL; fence line at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Canada geese (Branta canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie vole (Microtus ochrogaster), or meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus) tunnels, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; thimbleweed(Anemone cylindrica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasturethistle(Cirsium discolor), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant leaf (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; aster (unknown species), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blackberry canes (probably Rubus argutus), beebalm (Monarda fistulosa), and carrion vine (Smilax, unknown species), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Saul’s Lake Bog and Prairie, Land Conservancy of West Michigan, Rockford, MI; sunrise, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL.
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.