“There is always in February some one day, at least, when one smells the yet distant, but surely coming, summer.” — Gertrude Jekyll
Sunday evening, Jeff and I stepped outside at twilight to see bright Venus and Jupiter shining in the west. They’ll move toward “the kiss”—an almost-conjunction in the sky—on March 1.
As we stood outside in the dark, boots squelching in the melting snow, the smell of the air hit me. It was one part fresh mud, one part thaw, one part fresh laundry. The smell of spring.
Spring? It’s here, folks. Wednesday, March 1—tomorrow—is the first official day of meteorological spring for some; others look to the vernal equinox March 20 to declare the season officially open. No matter which date you choose, spring is here in the vagaries of weather.
Ahh. The weather. Monday, two freak tornadoes touched down a few miles from our house. In…February?
Some towns near us saw as much rain in a few hours as they usually receive in a month. Temperatures reached almost 60 degrees. It was the fifth warmest Feb 27 since the 1800’s, according to our Chicago weatherman Tom Skilling.
It’s not only wild weather that says “spring.” Spring is here in the scent of February snowmelt.
The call of the sandhill cranes headed north. The crocus’s purple petals splayed open in a pocket of sunshine between the porch and the house.
Spring is here in the rustle of bleached grasses on the tallgrass prairies.
We can hear “spring” announced by the crash-bang early morning thunderstorms that rattle the window blinds.
Spring drops its calling card in the slop of mud on the prairie trails.
As Jeff and I walked the prairie paths this weekend, we startled a host of American tree sparrows. They are winter residents in the Chicago region, and will soon head to their northern breeding grounds. Cornell University tells me American tree sparrows are a species in steep decline, so I’m heartened to see so many on my walks. I’ll miss them when they leave.
A string of geese pull each other across the sky.
Now there’s a species that’s thriving! I always think of bowling pins when I see them overhead.
There’s a chatter of red-wing blackbirds which screech and swoop, visible at every turn on the prairie trails.
Along the trail, he last seedpods wait for prescribed fire to wipe the prairie clean. A fresh start.
Even at twilight the slant of the sun hints at the new season transition.
Do you feel it? Take a deep breath. Soak it in.
It’s here. At last.
The opening quote is by Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932), known for her garden designs in Great Britain. The author of at least 15 books and thousands of articles, she was a painter until her eyesight began to fail, then her garden design talents moved to the fore.
Join Cindy for a Class or Program in March!
Literary Gardens —In Person— March 7, 7-8:30 p.m,– Hosted by the ELA Library and Lake Zurich Garden Club. Location change — now at St. Matthews Lutheran Church, Hawthorn Woods, IL. Free and open to the public. For more information, visit here.
Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers ONLINE — March 15, 7-8:30 p.m., Hosted by Bensonville Public Library. Free and open to the public, but you must register for the link by calling the library. Contact information here.
Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers ONLINE –March 16, 7-8:30 p.m., Hosted by the Rock Valley Wild Ones. This event was formerly a blended program and is now online only. Open to the public; but you must register. Contact information is here.
Literary Gardens — In Person —– Saturday, March 18, 9am-12:30 pm. Keynote for “Ready, Set, Grow!” Master Gardeners of Carroll, Lee, Ogle, and Whiteside Counties through The Illinois Extension. Dixon, IL. Registration ($25) is offered here.
The Morton Arboretum’s “Women in the Environment Series”: The Legacy of May T. Watts— (in person and online)—with lead instructor and Sterling Morton Librarian extraordinaire Rita Hassert. March 24, 10-11:30 a.m., Founders Room, Thornhill. Registration information available here.
Literary Gardens–In Person — Wednesday, March 29, 7-8:30 p.m. La Grange Park Public Library, LaGrange, IL. (free but limited to 25 people). For more information, contact the library here.
See Cindy’s website for more spring programs and classes.
Bell Bowl Prairie in Rockford, IL, needs your help! Find out more on saving this threatened prairie remnant at SaveBellBowlPrairie.
“Winter is an opportune season in which nature’s legions have time to ready themselves for a new debut come spring and beyond.“–Allen Young
February can’t make up her mind. Freezing temps and blustery winds? Hot sunshine and snowmelt? Every morning is a weather package to unwrap, full of surprises.
On a brutally cold afternoon with abundant sunshine this week, I trek through the snow on the Schulenberg Prairie. I’m a steward here so I’m excited to see the fence along the north edge of the prairie has been taken down. The new 18 acres purchased for natural areas is being cleared. It’s satisfying to see an overgrown area, full of buckthorn and honeysuckle, in the process of restoration.
Ten degrees. Five bluebirds hang around the edges of the prairie in the savanna, their sapphire plumage startling against the bright snow.
It’s our deepest snow of the year. Three inches? Four?
I’m glad for the fluffy stuff. Snow will help replenish the prairie’s groundwater.
I hang over the bridge railing. Yes, there is open water. But look at that ice!
So many winter patterns…
…and ice crystals.
How astonishing! I forget my frozen nose and fingers as I look for other marvels in the water. A fallen angel in the center of the stream, or a flying bird?
Reed canary grass conjures ice sculptures by the stream’s edges.
In other areas along the shoreline, the ice lays on the water surface like plastic wrap on Jell-O.
Wonder after wonder. I imagine the dragonfly and damselfly nymphs, waiting under the ice for spring. I think of them, and their bright colors aloft in only a few months.
Soon. Very soon.
I feel joy thinking of the dragonflies to come. And delight in the ice and snow of the prairie today. One prairie. Many facets over the seasons. Always something interesting going on.
Just think. I almost stayed home by the fireplace today, with my stack of library books and warm afghan. I would have missed all this.
However, the fireplace sounds good now, as my toes are frozen and my face chapped from the Arctic breezes blowing through the tallgrass.
I give the prairie a last look. Then shiver. Brrrr! Despite the sunshine, the wind is unstoppable. You can feel its bite and snap against exposed skin.
Time to head home.
I hike through the savanna to the parking lot. Will my car start? Fingers crossed.
Thankfully, it does. The heater full blast feels good, and as I sip hot peppermint tea from my thermos I begin to thaw. But what a joy it has been, to hike the prairie in February.
The prairie and its wonders are out there, waiting for you.
Why not go see?
The opening quote is from Allen M. Young from Small Creatures and Ordinary Places. These are thoughtful essays, celebrating katydids, butterflies, bats, odonates, cicadas, mice, hornets and more. I particularly enjoyed his passages on winter. Young also revised the “Golden Guide to Insects” for today’s readers—remember those little Golden Nature Guides you had as a kid? I still have one or two on my shelf. Young is the curator of zoology and vice-president of collections, research and public programs at the Milwaukee Public Museum. Check out Small Creatures here.
Winter Prairie Wonders — Tuesday, February 7, 10-11:30 a.m. Discover the wonders of the prairie in winter as you hear readings about the season. Enjoy stories of the animals who call the prairie home. Hosted by the Northbrook Garden Club in Northbrook, IL. Free to non-members, but you must register by contacting NBKgardenclub@gmail.com for more information.
Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Fliers –— Wednesday, February 8, noon-1:30 p.m. Hosted by Countryside Garden Club in Crystal Lake, IL. (Closed event for members)
The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Charm Shop— Thursday, February 9, 12:30-2 p.m. Hosted by Wheaton Garden Club in Wheaton, IL (closed event for members).
Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers— February 20, 7:15-8:45 p.m. Hosted by the Suburban Garden Club, Indian Head Park, IL. Free and open to non-members. For more information, contact Cindy through her website contact space at http://www.cindycrosby.com.
See Cindy’s website for March programs and classes.
Bell Bowl Prairie in Rockford, IL, needs your help! Find out more on saving this threatened prairie remnant at SaveBellBowlPrairie.
“I can no more get enough of a wide prairie than I can of a sunrise…prairie grass is vivid, as if God had just dyed it” —William Quayle
What a beautiful autumn it’s been! I love the opening days of the month; it always feels like a clean slate. A time of beginnings.
As I hiked the prairies and preserves this week, I felt as if I was in a gallery of Impressionist art. Artist Claude Monet would have loved the tallgrass prairie and the Midwestern landscape in the fall.
How can it be November already? The big holiday season is straight ahead, with a new year on the horizon.
The natural world is in transition. You can smell the crisp fragrance of change in the air.
What an exciting month to go for a hike!
The opening quote is from William A. Quayle (1860-1925), a Methodist minister who lived in Kansas, Indiana, and Chicago. This passage first appeared in The Prairie and the Sea (1905), and is reprinted in John T. Price’s edited collection, The Tallgrass Prairie Reader.
Join Cindy for a class or program!
Saturday, November 5, 2022 (10-11:30 am) —Winter Prairie Wonders, hosted by Wild Ones of Gibson Woods, Indiana, in-person and via Zoom. For more information on registering for the Zoom or for in-person registration, visit them here.
Saturday, November 12, 2022 (1-2:30 p.m.)Add a Little Prairie to Your Garden, hosted by the Antioch Garden Club, Antioch, IL. Free and open to the public, but you must register. For information and to inquire about registering for the event, visit the Wild Ones here.
Wednesday, December 7, 2022 (6:30-8:30 p.m.) 100 Years Around the Arboretum. Join Cindy and Library Collections Manager Rita Hassert for a fun-filled evening and a celebratory cocktail as we toast the closing month of the Arboretum’s centennial year. Register here.
“Listen!—it rains; it rains! The prayer of the grass is heard… .” –Frederick J. Atwood
Rain stormed in with lights and fireworks this weekend, bringing long-needed relief to the Chicago western suburbs. And, a few flooded basements. This was substantial rain; rain that meant business. Rain that overflowed creek and river banks. Rain that soaked deep.
In the prairie planting, asters and goldenrod bowed under the water’s weight. Great blue lobelia and black-eyed Susans, at the mercy of my garden hose for the past week, perked up at a chance for real water. Rain.
Spider webs sprang into view, bedazzled by raindrops.
In the front yard prairie pollinator planting, I parted the sodden flowers of showy goldenrod. Deep inside were sheltering insects, including one rain-soaked bumblebee.
As the clouds passed and the flowers dried, pollinators shook off the wet and took wing. I spent some time on iNaturalist and with various online insect guides before naming this one below. I believe it is the transverse banded drone fly, sometimes called a “flower fly.”
I’m still learning insect ID (thanks, gentle readers, for your correction of the wasp to the hover fly in last week’s blog), so I’m not 100 percent certain. But by any name, it’s a stunning little insect.
Showers brought out sky blue aster blooms in my front yard planting. I’m delighted to see the three plants I put in this spring made it to the fall finish line, after being nibbled almost to death by rabbits all summer.
The scientific name of this aster—Symphyotrichum oolentangiense—is a mouthful. Originally, the name was in honor of Ohio’s Olentangy River by botanist John Riddell, but the river’s name was misspelled. For a short time, the New York National Heritage Program tells us it was Aster azureus, which is much easier for naturalists like myself to pronounce, until the genus became Symphyotrichum. Ah, well. Nobody said botany would be easy.
I was grateful beyond words for the rainfall, but also, for the cooler, sunny weather of the past week. Meals moved back to the patio as the temperatures swung from “steamy” to “crisp and cool.” This gave us a a front row seat this weekend to keep an eye on the moonflower vine, whose two buds we’ve been watching with rapt attention.
No, it’s not a native plant. But I make a place for it in my prairie garden each season. It’s a long wait from the direct sowing the seeds to that first flower. About two months, most seasons. This year it has been a little longer, likely because of the dry weather, and of the five or so seeds I planted, only one survived. Just this week I noticed it had leapt from the trellis by the patio to the arborvitae. That’s a first! Usually I wind the vining tendrils up and down and across the trellis. This one got away from me.
On Saturday, after reading on the back porch for a while, I put down my book on the patio table and went in to fix dinner. When I brought out dinner, one of the moonflower buds had opened. Wow! Jeff and I “oohhed” and “aahhed” as our dinner cooled and we admired the first bloom of the season. It must have been waiting for the Harvest Moon to open. Our moonflower has a light fragrance, something like vanilla. After dark, I went to admire it one last time before bed.
The song “Nights in White Satin” comes to mind. We never have very many moonflowers; frost kicks in around the first or second week of October in our part of Illinois and crumples the vine just as it gets going in earnest. Each bloom only lasts one night. By morning, this one was only a memory. Such a fleeting pleasure! Is it worth it to give it a space? I’ve always thought so. Night-blooming flowers are rare in my region, and this one’s a beauty.
However, not all vines give me this much pleasure. Last week I mentioned I was besieged with the non-native perennial vine sweet autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora). It covers part of my garden like a snowdrift. Or maybe kudzu. The doc says I can’t pull weeds for three more weeks, so I can only stand back and sigh. At least it smells pretty! But, it is suffocating my two pricey spice bush saplings, my blazing star, my white wild indigo, my….well, you get the idea. It’s out of control. It makes my rambunctious native arrow-leaved asters look well-behaved.
I wrote last week that I was considering replacing the sweet autumn clematis next year with virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana), an Illinois native. One of the reasons I love being a part of the prairie and garden community is learning from my readers, who sent me emails and comments this week strongly recommending against it. Evidently, virgin’s bower plays nicely on prairies and savanna edges, but goes berserk when planted in some home gardens. Espie Nelson, one of my favorite prairie experts (and long time steward with her husband, Don) wrote to me saying one of her native virgin’s bower vines had taken over a 15 foot area in her yard. She plans on totally eliminating it this season. Another reader, Mary, told me virgin’s bower is a “thug.” She had to pull it out when it invaded a neighbor’s yard.
As Espie wisely wrote me, “Don’t trade one exotic plant for a native plant that has the same vigorous growth patterns.” Good advice. I’ll enjoy virgin’s bower in my favorite natural areas, and not in my yard. Looks like I’ll invest in more non-vining natives, instead.
Meanwhile, another reason for dining on the back porch—besides watching moonflowers—is migration. Monarchs are moving through, although my backyard has only attracted them one at a time. Jeff and I saw a small swarm of common green darner dragonflies massing over the backyard this weekend, doubtlessly headed south. Cornell University said it also expected us to see “massive” bird movement this past weekend, with an estimated 316 million to 400-plus million migrating birds moving through each night across the United States. If I sat on the patio and squinted against the bright blue sky, I could make out a few birds high up, moving south.
I filled the feeders, and crossed my fingers. But, the backyard seemed to only harbor the usual suspects; goldfinches pulling out cup plant and hyssop seeds for their supper, and a few hummingbirds browsing the zinnias….
…and at the nectar feeders.
Hummingbirds seem to be everywhere right now, passing through my backyard on their way to Mexico and Panama. Can you find the one in my next-door neighbor’s oak tree? It’s scoping out the competition at my nectar feeders.
Hummingbirds arrive around the end of April in Chicago’s western suburbs and vanish by mid-October. I’ll miss their whizz-whirr of wings and their tiny chirps when they’re gone.
We’ll have to enjoy other backyard wildlife. Chipmunks, perhaps. They’ve set up house under the patio, and play tag across the patio as I drink my coffee in the mornings. And the squirrels, busy burying their nuts in the lawn.
Yep. We won’t lack for squirrels. Too bad ours are so camera shy.
We’ve learned not to leave breakfast on the patio table unattended. Ahem.
Speaking of food. In last week’s post, I mentioned something about the tomatoes “slowing production.” The garden must have been listening. Although the tomatoes are indeed slowing down, and Jeff pulled some of the plants that won’t set anymore ripe fruit before frost, the pole beans are pumping out Kentucky Wonders at a steady rate. There’s also plethora of sweet peppers that needed picked…
…and the thornless ichiban and prickly black beauty eggplants are in overdrive. This summer, I planted two plants on my south wall of the porch, with concrete at their feet. It’s the hottest spot in the garden.
I’ve picked almost a dozen in the past week, which is more eggplant than I know what to do with. After giving some away, I tried making the Mediterranean dip baba ganoush for the first time. Loosely following a recipe from Cookie & Kate, I cut the eggplants in half, brushed them with olive oil, then roasted them at 450 degrees Fahrenheit for 45 minutes. When they cooled, I scooped out and strained the insides, then mixed the goop with tahini (a sesame seed paste), fresh garlic and parsley from the garden, a little cumin, and lemon juice. Yum! It’s now my favorite way to eat eggplant. And it uses up a lot!
As I walk around the garden and prairie, I’m aware of the lowering slant of the sun, the cooling temps. Monarchs and dragonflies heading south. Prairie wildflowers and grasses going to seed.
September is a dynamic month, exploding with color and change. I’m glad I’ve got a front row seat, here in my backyard prairie and garden.
Words from Kansas poet Frederick J. Atwood’s poem “The Breaking of the Drought” (1902, Kansas Rhymes and Other Lyrics) open the blog today. This short poem continues: The thirsty ground drinks eagerly; As a famished man eats bread; The moan of the trees is hushed; And the violets under the banks; Lift up their heads so gratefully; And smilingly give thanks. Thanks to Kansas on the Net for republishing the poem.
Join Cindy for a Program or Class this Autumn!
Monday, September 19 –-A Brief History of Trees in America, Downers Grove Garden Club, Downers Grove, IL. In-person, free and open to the public, but please visit here for details and Covid protocol.
Saturday, September 24 —In-Person Writing and Art Retreat at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, Spend a day immersed in nature with guided writing and art workshops. Set aside time to disconnect from the day-to-day and focus on the natural world through writing and art. Sessions will explore nature journaling, sketching, developing observation skills, and tapping into your creativity. Throughout the day, you will learn from professional writers and artists, take in the sites of the Arboretum, and explore nature with fellow creatives. Appropriate for all levels. Cindy will be teaching the morning sessions. Click here for more information, Covid protocol, and to register (only a few spaces left!).
“I sit beside the fire and think of all that I have seen; of meadow-flowers and butterflies in summers that have been; of yellow leaves and gossamer in autumns that there were; with morning mist and silver sun and wind upon my hair…”—J.R.R. Tolkien
You can see the beginnings of seasonal change in the garden, where there is a turn from harvest to decay. The tomatoes have slowed down production. The tomato foliage is yellow and browning, especially on the species that aren’t as disease resistant. Despite my efforts to experiment with mesh bagging the best ripening fruit on the vines, the squirrels have triumphed.
Yup. Bites right through the bags. Back to the drawing board. I’m thinking about cutting my losses and asking Jeff to pull out most of the tomato plants for me this week. Perhaps use the tomato real estate for some quick growing lettuce or kale as the season winds down. We’ll see. Nearby, in the long prairie border, a flush of goldenrods brightens the garden. Solidago speciosa, Solidago ohioenses, and that old invader, Solidago canadensis.
The gold flowers are a magnet for insects like this Hover Fly.
At least…I think that’s what it is! In Heather Holm’s remarkable book,Pollinators of Native Plants, it shows some of the incredible variety of insects that visit goldenrod and other prairie plants. Holm notes that square-headed wasps, which I first confused this insect with, perch on plants to scout for flies, which make up their primary meals. There are more than 1,500 square-headed wasp species! Wow. And I’m continually amazed at how many other types of wasps there are to learn. And, evidently—hover flies!
It’s tough to change your relationship with a group of insects like wasps from one of avoidance to appreciating them for their diversity and their work as pollinators. Knowledge and curiosity pave the road to understanding and enjoyment. But sometimes it’s a long road.
It’s going to take a little time—and more reading—to not automatically flinch when a wasp hangs out with me on the back patio.
A brief shower this weekend gave us a respite from watering the garden and prairie plantings. I took a stroll around the backyard in the splattering rain and marveled at what the doctor-mandated “no weeding” looks like after two weeks. Morning glories twine everywhere, the remnants of a planting a decade ago.
The Sweet Autumn Clematis I planted 20 years ago (and quickly realized was a mistake) rampages through the spicebush, old roses, and bird-sown asparagus.
Sure, the Sweet Autumn Clematis is pretty! And it smells lovely. But how I long to yank it all out!
It’s a menace. I’ve spent the last two decades pulling it from the garden and prairie plantings. Every fall, I think I’ve eradicated it. Every fall, when it blooms, I realize I’ve failed. Garden catalog copy mentioned it was “vigorous.” Seasoned gardeners know when you hear the word “vigorous” alarm bells should go off. If I could turn back time, I’d order Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana), a native vine that might have played more nicely in the garden. It pairs beautifully with asters. It’s almost identical to the non-native Sweet Autumn Clematis, although the leaves are shaped a bit differently.
I love how Virgin’s Bower looks when it goes to seed on the edges of the prairie.
I make a mental note to order Virgin’s Bower in the spring. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the Sweet Autumn Clematis show for another September.
In my prairie plantings, the rambunctious native Grey-headed Coneflower finished blooming, and has left me with delicious, lemony-fragrant seedheads. I love crushing them between my fingers and inhaling the scent. Mmmmm.
The grassy mounds of prairie dropseed planted under my living room windows spray the air with buttered popcorn fragrance. Such tiny seeds to make such an olfactory difference!
Swamp milkweed seeds refuse to parachute from the mother plant. Instead they damply cluster in the rain. I think of all the possibilities wrapped up in those seeds.
Hope for the future.
There’s plenty to look back on in this first week of September. And so much to look forward to as a new month is underway.
I can’t wait to see what’s around the corner.
The opening quote was made by Bilbo Baggins in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring from Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. The old hobbit sang these verses to Frodo as he reflected on his years on Earth and readied Frodo for his quest to destroy the “one ring that ruled them all.” The three books in the series plus The Hobbit are well worth revisiting.
Join Cindy for a Program or Class this Autumn
Monday, September 19 –-A Brief History of Trees in America, Downers Grove Garden Club, Downers Grove, IL. In-person, free and open to the public, but please visit here for details and Covid protocol.
Saturday, September 24 —In-Person Writing and Art Retreat at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, ILSpend a day immersed in nature with guided writing and art workshops. Set aside time to disconnect from the day-to-day and focus on the natural world through writing and art. Sessions will explore nature journaling, sketching, developing observation skills, and tapping into your creativity. Throughout the day, you will learn from professional writers and artists, take in the sites of the Arboretum, and explore nature with fellow creatives. Appropriate for all levels. Cindy will be teaching the morning sessions. Click here for more information, Covid protocol, and to register.
“Life regularly persists through winter, the toughest, most demanding of seasons.” –Allen M. Young
It’s the Winter Solstice. Light-lovers, rejoice! Tomorrow, we begin the slow climb out of darkness.
There is still no significant snowfall here in the Chicago region. Jeff and I joke that we know the reason why. We’ve shoveled our driveway by hand the past 23 years, but after three back-to-back heavy snow events last winter we said, “No more!” This summer, we bought a small snowblower. We figured our purchase should guarantee a snow-free winter. (You’re welcome).
But…I miss the snow. Despite December 21st being the first official astronomical day of winter, the prairies and natural areas around me seem to say “autumn.” The upside? Without that blanket of white thrown over the prairies, there are so many visible wonders. Plant tendrils…
…and their swerves and curves.
Ice crystals captured in a shady river eddy.
The bridges we regularly hike across are geometry lessons in angles and lines.
There is life, even here. The lichens remind me of the tatted lace antimacassars so beloved by my great-grandmothers. It also reminds me I need to learn more lichen ID. Winter might be a good time to focus on that.
The soundtrack of the prairie in late December is the castanet rattle of White Wild Indigo pods…
…and the wind’s sizzle-hiss through the grasses. This December in the Midwest, wind has been a significant force. Harsh. Destructive. Here in the Chicago region, we’ve escaped most wind damage. Yet wind makes its presence known. When I’m hiking into it, my face goes numb. My eyes water. Brrrr. But I love the way it strokes and tunes the dry tallgrass, coaxing out a winter prairie tune.
I admire the seed-stripped sprays of crinkled switchgrass wands…
…the bright blue of a snow-less sky, feathered with clouds…
…the joy of spent winter wildflowers.
I spy the mallard and his mate.
Feel delight in the murmur of an ice-free stream.
The way December puts her mark on grasses, leaves and trees leaves me in awe… and happy.
All these wonders! All available for any hiker passing through the prairies or woodlands at this time of year—without a single snowflake in the repertoire.
Sure, I still check the forecast. Hoping to see snow on the radar. But who needs the white stuff when there are so many other surprises? What a treasure trove of delights December has on offer!
Need a New Year’s Resolution? Help Bell Bowl Prairie, one of Illinois’ last remaining native prairie remnants, which is about to be destroyed by the Chicago Rockford International Airport. Please go to www.savebellbowlprairie.org to discover easy ways your actions can make a difference.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to my readers! Thank you for (virtually) hiking with me in 2021.
“Thou blossom bright with autumn dew… .”—William Cullen Bryant
September on the prairie opens with a suite of delights, despite the dry weather in the Chicago region. Skies this past week veered between a celestial milky ice…
…to a startling aquamarine fleeced with clouds.
In my backyard mix of traditional garden and prairie, a Cooper’s hawk keeps an eye on the bird feeders. She considers the whole spread her personal salad bar. The chipmunks and hummingbirds won’t get close, but the squirrels take a more laissez-faire approach. Not a bunny in sight.
Fall wildflowers and grasses fling themselves into the new month, bent on completing their cycle of bloom and set seed; bloom and set seed; bloom and set seed.
The low light filters through the now-golding tree leaves, a memo from nature that time is running out for warm season pursuits. I love the seed variety in the prairies and savannas. They range from sharp…
Pale asters froth up like foamy cappuccinos.
As I hike the prairie trails, I look for some of my fall favorites. White goldenrod, which looks like an aster, is tough to find but worth the hunt. That name! Such an oxymoron.
Hyssop stands out in the savannas; a pollinator plant favorite.
But most of all, I delight in the gentians.
True, the cream gentians have been in bloom for at least a month now.
But the blue gentians are an extra dollop of delight.
As I admire the deep, deep, blues, I think a William Cullen Bryant poem about fringed gentians:
“Blue-blue-as if that sky let fall
A flower from its cerulean wall.“
I don’t find fringed gentians on my walk today, but I’ve seen them in previous years. I do discover, nearby in the tallgrass, the Stiff Gentians, sometimes called “Agueweed.” They are almost ready to open.
Soon they’ll bloom, and add their tiny flowers to the prairies.
Cool breezes! That sunshine. What a day to go for a hike. I want to wander through the tallgrass, spangled with gentians, under September skies. Inhale prairie dropseed fragrance. Feel the tallgrass brush my shoulders. Feel the cares of the past week roll off my shoulders.
Is there a better way to begin the month? If there is, I don’t know what it would be.
Why not go see?
The opening line is from William Cullen Bryant’s poem, To the Fringed Gentian. Click here to read the poem in its entirety on the Poetry Foundation’s website. You may know Bryant’s poetic line, “Truth crushed to earth shall rise again” — made famous by Dr. Martin Luther King Junior in his speech, “Give Us the Ballot.”
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 pending Covid positivity in Illinois, and Covid protocol. Masks required for this event.
September 27, 7-8:30 p.m.–in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Arlington Heights Garden Club. Please visit the club’s website here for guest information, event updates pending Covid positivity in Illinois, and Covid protocol.
Those of us in the tallgrass prairie region know that with March, anything is possible.
Willful, changeable, whimsical March.
March is thaw season. Mud season. Melt season. Even as the ice vanishes by inches in prairie ponds and streams…
…we know the white stuff hasn’t surrendered. Not really.
March is the opening dance between freeze and thaw.
Snow and rain. Fire and ice.
It’s a teasing time, when one day the snow sparkles with sunlight, spotlighting the desiccated wildflowers…
…the next, howling winds shatter the wildflowers’ brittle remains.
March is shadow season. Light and dark. Sun and clouds.
It’s been so long. So long since last spring. So many full moons have come and gone.
We remember last March, a month of unexpected fear. Shock. Grief. Anxiety for what we thought were the weeks ahead…
…which turned into—little did we know—months. A year. Hope has been a long time coming.
But now, sunshine lights the still snow-covered prairie.
Deep in the prairie soil, roots stretch and yawn.
Seeds crack open.
A new season is on the way.
In March, anything seems possible.
Hope seems possible.
The nursery rhyme “March winds and April showers, bring forth May flowers” is likely adapted from the prologue to Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.There, it reads a bit inscrutably for modern readers: “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote, The droghte of March hath perced to the roote… . ” Chaucer, who was born sometime between 1340-45, is called “the first English author” by the Poetry Foundation. Troubled by finances, he left The Canterbury Tales mostly unfinished when he died in 1400, possibly because “the enormousness of the task overwhelmed him.” Chaucer is buried in Westminster Abbey; the space around his tomb is dubbed the “Poet’s Corner.”
Sunday, March 7, 4-5:30pm CST: Katy Prairie Wildflowers, offered through Katy Prairie Conservancy, Houston, Texas. Discover a few of the unusual prairie wildflowers of this southern coastal tallgrass prairie. Register here
Thursday, March 11, 10am-noon CST: Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History is a book discussion, offered by Leafing through the Pages Book Club at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (Morton Arboretum members only) Registration information here.
Friday, April 9, 11:30a.m-1pm CST: Virtual Spring Wildflower Walk —discover the early blooming woodland and prairie plants of the Midwest region and hear their stories. Through the Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Register here.
“A sense of wild is engendered by awareness, a sense of connection with and deep understanding of any landscape. The pavement of any city side street wriggles with enough life to terrify and delight us if we choose to immerse ourselves in it.”—Tristan Gooley
Brrrr! It’s bitter cold—-as it should be in December. The added hours of darkness make it seem more arctic. Whenever the sun shines during these short-lit days, I follow it, cat-like, from room to room, hoping to absorb as much as possible. Soon, the Winter Solstice will arrive, and with it, the return of longer hours of sunshine.
On our Christmas tree, I hang dried orange slices, backlit by the tree lights, which turn the fruit to stained glass. Anything for more light. Color. Beauty.
December darkness is relentless. The pandemic has shadowed this month with more than the usual gloom as well: limiting our activities, sapping our spirits.
For these reasons alone, it’s a great time to get outside. Walk the tallgrass prairie trails. Enjoy brief moments of sunshine, or even a bit of fresh air if the day is gray. Undecided? Worried that it’s too chilly? Here are five more reasons to hike the December prairie.
Unpredictable sightings. I walk the local prairies regularly, yet I never fail to see something that surprises me. This past week, a belted kingfisher rattled from the prairie pond, amusing me with its call—and its “hairstyle.”
Not far away, a partially dismantled osage orange fruit lies on the tallgrass trail, appearing as some alien Christmas ornament.. Despite its name, it’s related to the mulberry, not the orange. I’ve seen them here before, but they always give me pause. So strange!
Nearby, in a stand of tall goldenrod, a plant displays two types of galls on one stem. Huh! That’s a new one for me.
You can see the ball gall–maybe two of them? —topped by the rosette or bunch gall. Nice to see the insects are sharing housing arrangements. It was a big year for goldenrod—-and galls—on this particular prairie.
Piles of cut branches are everywhere; the sign of ongoing maintenance to keep woody shrubs and trees out of the tallgrass. It appears staff or site stewards tried to whack back this persistent tree.
What a stubborn will to live! You have to admire its determination.
2. That peculiar slant of light. December has a certain type of light unlike any other month; low and piercing.
When the sun breaks through the clouds, the prairie ponds and wetlands dazzle; almost too too bright to look at directly. The light turns the landscape monochromatic in places.
The sun scrolls through the sky, hugging the horizon and leaving the grasses and forbs alight.
Aster seeds, seen in this light, may be more beautiful in December than when they were in bloom.
Their puffs of brilliant white brighten gray days.
3. The sounds of winter. As I type, half-asleep at the kitchen table in the early hours, a THUNK snaps me fully awake. A Cooper’s hawk is perched outside, scanning the area for breakfast. Looks like it hit the window—ouch!—but missed its prey. No wonder the feeders have been mostly empty all morning.
I watch the hawk preen its feathers, then hop down and sift through the prairie dropseed planted around the porch. Looking for voles, maybe? Or a frightened sparrow? It’s the hungry season for hawks. After a few minutes, it flies away. The backyard is quiet for a long time afterwards.
Out on the prairie edges, juncos flit from tree limb to limb, their wings shuffling through the dry leaves. Geese honk their way over the tallgrass, headed for a nearby empty soccer field.
There’s a sound of water running. Listening, I feel the tension in my muscles loosen and I relax. Water music has that effect on us. The brook runs free and clear. And, I imagine, cold.
Ice laces the edges.
I think of the legions of dragonfly and damselfly nymphs waiting under the water to emerge. So much life unseen! Water on the prairie—whether pond, brook, river or wetland—-is ever-changing. Never dull. Always interesting. There’s always something new to see, no matter the time of day, or the season of the year.
4. Those December skies! What will each day bring? Steel gray scoured clouds, snuffing out the sun? Burnished blue cloudless skies, warming up the 20-degree temperatures? Veils of milky cirrus?
Or wind-combed clouds, streaming toward some destination far away?
This week, the prairie’s night skies will fill with meteor showers, the best holiday light show of all. By night or by day, the prairie is a front-row seat to the life of the skies. Don’t forget to look up.
5. That feeling of well-being that a good prairie hike brings. Clear your mind of Zoom meetings. Inhale the fragrant smell of December—frozen earth, wild bergamot seedheads, the tang of ice and decay. Turn off the news. Put paid to politics. Silence your cell phone. Go for a prairie hike.
You’ll be glad you did.
The opening quote is from Tristan Gooley, who has authored many books on reading and navigating the landscape. Thanks to my son and daughter-in-law for the boxed gift set of Gooley books—I am enjoying them immensely. Check out Gooley’s website at The Natural Navigator.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at College of DuPage Natural Areas, East Prairie, unless tagged otherwise (top to bottom): unknown vine with berry from invasive honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica); author’s Christmas tree, Glen Ellyn, IL; belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon); osage orange (Maclura pomifera); ball galls (Eurosta solidaginis) and rosette gall (Rhopalomyia solidaginis) on tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima); unknown tree sprouting; last leaves; prairie pond; COD East Prairie and line of osage orange trees (Maclura pomifera); unknown aster (Symphyotrichum sp.); Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; Canada geese (Branta canadensis) flying over COD East Prairie; Willoway brook ice, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; East Prairie skies; East Prairie skies; bench at COD East Prairie.
“Young prairie plants put down deep roots first; only when these have been established do the plants invest much energy in growth above ground. They teach us that the work that matters doesn’t always show.” -Paul Gruchow
The cold, gray days of November are here. Beautiful? Yes, in their own way. They offer time for reflection on a year mostly past.
The sky becomes a slate backdrop to plants which spike and angle and curve. Like silhouette cut-outs.
Grace notes. Some more interesting now in seed and shape than they were in bloom.
It’s easy for me to overlook what’s good about November. Easier to long for sunshine and warmth; for the fireworks of July wildflowers—purple leadplant spikes and bright orange butterflyweed and lemon-yellow coreopsis. The fresh emerald spikes of grasses pushing through the dark prairie soil in spring. Or even the golds and violets of the autumn prairie.
Seems like we missed part of that season with our early snows.
As I walk, I think of John Updike’s poem, November:
The stripped and shapely
The loss of her
The ground is hard,
As hard as stone
The year is old
The birds are flown…..
Much of what I see on the prairie is a matter of focus. In November, I have to remind myself that beauty is here. That the work of restoration is moving forward. It’s a more difficult season than spring when everything is full of promise and possibility. The “prettiness” and promise of the prairie is more obvious in the warmer months. November’s calibration of what constitutes headway, success on a prairie, is different.
Gray. Beige. Black. Brown. The prairie smells of wet earth. Snowmelt. Decay. You’d think this would be distressing, but it’s strangely pleasant. Invigorating. It’s the fragrance of a work in progress. The cycling of nutrients. The prairie finishes its work of the growing season, then lays the groundwork for the future.
Sometimes, I look at the November prairie and all I see is the unfinished work of a prairie steward. The native brambles taking over, arcing their spiny branches across the prairie and shading out wildflowers.
It’s discouraging. Impatience surges. Are we really making a difference here? Or are we like Sisyphus, rolling a boulder uphill, only to have it roll back.
Then, I remember. There was a time when I didn’t think about these “brambles” because the invasive buckthorn, honeysuckle, and sweet white and yellow clovers were consuming all my stewardship hours. It’s a luxury now to have most of these problem plants licked (Hubris, don’t strike me down!) and room to think about how to tackle new management issues.
Despite my self-reassurance, as I hike I see other potential issues. Are the native grasses dominating the wildflowers? Is the false sunflower spreading too aggressively in the corner by the bridge?
I tuck my cold fingers into my pockets and stand on the bridge over Willoway Brook. Reed canary grass chokes the shoreline. A never-ending problem. Then I look closer. I’m missing the lovely configurations of ice and stream; leaf and stone.
Just across the bridge is a new “menace.” The past several years I’ve moaned about Illinois bundleflower making inroads into the prairie; it has become a monoculture in spots. Is it a desirable plant? Sure. It belongs on the prairie. But how much is too much? Decisions about how to manage it causes me some frustrating hours. But today, I take a few moments to admire it. Wow. Look at those seed pods.
There are plants that “don’t belong” on a prairie restoration, and other plants that do, yet get a bit rambunctious. It’s so easy to focus on what’s wrong. Sometimes its tougher to remember what we’ve done well. To focus on the beauty, instead of the chaos.
Nearby are ruined choirs of cup plants; taller than I am, growth-fueled by rain. Cup plants are the bane of my backyard prairie patch—aggressive thugs that elbow my Culver’s root and spiderwort out of the way.
But here, on the 100-acre prairie, they are welcome. When I think about it, I realize I’ve not seen them in this area before. They are part of the first waves of prairie plants making inroads in an old field we’re restoring by the Prairie Visitor Center. A sign of success. A sign of progress.
Among the rusts and tans, there are bright bits of color. Carrion flower, now gone to inedible seeds.
The last flag-leaves of sumac.
Sumac is also an issue in parts of this prairie. But for now, I relax and enjoy the color.
Nuthatches call from the savanna. The breeze rustles the grasses. Looking over the prairie, focusing on its draining colors and dwindling seedheads…
… I remember what Paul Gruchow wrote about the tallgrass prairie: “…The work that matters doesn’t always show.”
The day suddenly feels brighter.
Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) was a Minnesota writer who wrote such beautiful books as Travels in Canoe Country; The Boundary Waters: Grace of the Wild; Journal of a Prairie Year; The Necessity of Empty Places; and Grass Roots: The Universe of Home from which this opening quote was taken. There’s nothing like the power of a good book—especially those passages that stick in your mind and are available when you need them the most.
John Updike’s lovely poem “November” is found in A Child’s Calendar, first published in 1965. If you’re unfamiliar with his poetry, check out Facing Nature: Poems, Collected Poems: 1953–1993, and Americana and Other Poems (2001).
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken on the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, unless noted: Willoway Brook in November; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); maple leaf (Acer saccharum) by the Prairie Visitor Station; silky wild rye (Elymus villosus) and log; prairie under snow in November; common blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides); Willoway Brook; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) and unknown asters; cup plants Silphium perfoliatum); carrion vine (probably Smilax ecirrhata); staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides).
Please join Cindy for one of these upcoming classes or talks:
Saturday, December 7, 1:30-3 p.m.—Sterling Stories from the Arboretum Stacks: Grab a friend and spend a lively hour together sipping hot beverages while you enjoy little-known stories about the Morton Arboretum. What’s that old fountain doing in the library? Why was there a white pine planted in the May Watts Reading Garden? Who is REALLY buried in the Morton Cemetery—or not? What book in the Sterling Morton Library stacks has a direct relationship to a beheading? Why does the library have glass shelves? How has salt been a blessing —and a curse—to the Arboretum over its almost 100 years? Listen as 33-year Arboretum veteran library collections manager Rita Hassert and Cindy Crosby spin entertaining tales of a place you thought you knew….until now. A lovely afternoon enjoying little known Arboretum’s stories, and a quiet respite from the holiday hustle and bustle. Register here.
Sunday, December 8, 2-3:30 p.m.: Tallgrass Conversations at Prairieview Education Center, 2112 Behan Road, Crystal Lake, IL 815-479-5779 Book signing after the talk! Free and open to the public.
Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online wraps up this month! Watch for the next course in March. Registration opens on November 19 here.
Nature Writing continues at The Morton Arboretum, on-line and in-person through November 20. Next session begins March 3, 2020. Watch for registration soon!
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.