“My own feeling for tallgrass prairie is that of a modern man fallen in love with the face in a faded tintype. Only the frame is still real; the rest is illusion and dream.”—John Madson
Today, as we swap sweet valentine notes with friends, family, and loved ones, I’m writing to you, prairie.
I’m talking to you, prairie remnants…
…and backyard prairies, so lovingly planted…
…and front yard prairies, placed where neighbors can see…
…and street prairies, in the midst of suburban hustle and bustle.
Cemetery prairies, where the native plants hung on for dear life as the tallgrass was plowed all around.
Prairies of a hundred acres.
Prairies of thousands of acres.
Prairies tucked into the corners of churches and schools…
…playgrounds and public spaces…
…in industrial parks…
…and in places you might not expect.
Old planted prairies that started a restoration movement…
… and prairies that remind us of the vision it takes to keep tallgrass alive in the hearts and minds of people.
Prairies that gave me new ways to think about the world.
Thank you, my landscape of home, for the thousands of hours of pleasure you’ve offered me.
I’ve pulled your weeds…
…collected your seeds.
Thank you for supporting the native bees…
…and the butterflies…
…and the birds…
…so many fascinating birds….
…and myriad whimsical insects…
…by providing them with a healthy, diverse place to live.
Thank you for your blooms, which add color to my life from March to October.
Thank you, tallgrass prairie, for days full of sound and motion…
…for nights full of discovery…
…for streams to wade through…
…for helping me understand the role of prescribed fire that causes you to flourish…
…and for endless bridges to adventure.
For the cool taste of mountain mint leaves in summer…
…for the delights of prairie thunderstorms…
…and for giving the displaced and threatened a home.
You’ve taught me to see the small things. To pay attention.
Thank you, tallgrass prairie.
This is my love letter…
The opening quote is by John Madson (1923-1995) from his beautiful, thoughtful book on tallgrass prairie, Where the Sky Began.If you haven’t read it, February is the perfect month to do so.
Dragonflies and Damselflies —IN PERSON February 18, 10-11:30 a.m. (Note new earlier date). Hosted by Citizens for Conservation, Barrington, IL. For more information, click here.
Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers—In Person 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.
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 click 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.
See Cindy’s website for more March programs and classes.
Bell Bowl Prairie in Rockford, IL, needs your help! Find out more on saving this threatened prairie remnant at SaveBellBowlPrairie.
“Given the fragile nature of landscapes with high natural quality, there is no substitute for their preservation and proper management. No amount of de novo restoration can obviate concern over their passing.” —Gerould Wilhelm
“Save the Bell Bowl Prairie.” What? I was perplexed. “Bell Bowl Prairie?” Where was that? Suddenly, last week, there were news references everywhere to this prairie, about to be destroyed in an expansion project at the Chicago-Rockford International Airport. I’ve hiked many prairies in Illinois—but this was not one of them. So I began reading.
I learned that Bell Bowl Prairie is a remnant dry gravel hill prairie. Uh, oh. While I find this exciting, is there nothing less sexy than “dry gravel hill prairie” to those who don’t know and love prairies? I kept reading.
A remnant is simply a tract of original tallgrass prairie that has never been plowed or developed. At one time, Illinois had almost 22 million acres of original tallgrass prairie. The Illinois Natural History Survey estimates we have only about 2,300 high quality acres of original remnant prairie left in Illinois. Where did our original prairies go?
Much of the fertile tallgrass prairie was lost to agriculture after the invention and mass marketing of the John Deere plow in the mid-1800’s. At the same time, as early European settlers moved in, the fires that kept the tallgrass prairie healthy—fires set by lightning and Native Americans—were suppressed. Shrubs and trees quickly took over. Developments were built that included “prairie” in the names of streets, businesses, and apartment complexes, even as they erased the very prairie from which they took their name.
Are these developments bad things? Was John Deere a terrible man?” Of course not. We need places to live and to work. I love to eat, and I bet you do, too. And yet.
Even as we gained agriculture and homes and shops we lost something valuable. We didn’t realize how valuable it was, until the eleventh hour, when the original prairies were almost completely eradicated. As Joni Mitchell sings, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”
What was left were small patches of prairie. Remnants. And remnant prairies, as Gerould Wilhelm, co-author of Flora of the Chicago Region,tells us, are irreplaceable.
The Bell Bowl prairie may be destroyed by the Chicago-Rockford International Airport in Illinois in the airport’s November expansion. Why does it matter? With all of our advances in learning to plant and restore prairie, we haven’t learned how to replicate an original remnant. Remnant prairies are finite natural resources. You can’t plant another one. When we lose a prairie remnant, it is gone forever. And Bell Bowl Prairie, because it is a remnant prairie, cannot be replicated. We can’t replace this prairie.
Why can’t we dig up the soil and move the prairie remnant to another location? Would that work? Experts say no. Moving pieces of the Bell Bowl Prairie would destroy it. And many of the creatures there, including the federally endangered Rusty Patched Bumble Bees, would be in peril.
Balancing the needs of people and the natural world is fraught with tension. There’s nothing wrong with an airport expansion. Until it takes away one of the last pieces of the prairie we have in Illinois. Until it erases an important part of our heritage. Until “The Prairie State” no longer protects our landscape of home.
How can you help save the Bell Bowl Prairie? Check out the links included at the end of this post. And then close your computer, turn off your phone, and go for a hike on a prairie close to you. While you’re there, say a little prayer for the Bell Bowl Prairie. That this prairie will be here for our children. Our grandchildren. Our great-grandchildren. Whether or not they ever see the Bell Bowl Prairie, future generations will know that we cared enough to make a difference by speaking up.
They’ll know we said, “This matters.”
Writes Gerould Wilhelm in Flora of the Chicago Region:
“If we continue to preserve and manage remnant landscapes, one can hope that if nascent generations and generations yet unborn develop an abiding empathy for the free-living world of nature, perhaps there will be enough diversity to begin to knit together and reclaim lands around us with much of their comely diversity and complexity.Perhaps, one day, children could grow up, seeing themselves as part of nature, in an environment so beautiful and composed that it can inspire not only the healing of the landscape but the nourishing of the human soul as well… .”
I’ve never stepped foot on the Bell Bowl Prairie. And I never need to do so. It’s enough to know these precious remnants still exist in Illinois.
Bell Bowl Prairie is slated for destruction. There’s no time to waste. What are we waiting for?
Let’s save it.
Want to learn more about Bell Bowl Prairie and what you can do to ensure it survives for future generations? Explore the links below:
Join an online meeting tonight, Tuesday October 12, from 6-7:30 p.m. Click here.
Read this piece about the Bell Bowl Prairie from WTTV.
Tell others about Bell Bowl Prairie, so they can help too!
Gerould Wilhelm is co-author with Laura Rericha of Flora of the Chicago Region: A Floristic and Ecological Synthesis, an indispensible guide to floristic quality and plant and insect associations for any steward in the Chicago Region. The quotes from Flora of the Chicago Region here are used with his permission.
Join Cindy for a program or class!
Tomorrow—Wednesday, October 13, 10-11:30 a.m. (CT): “A Cultural History of Trees in America” ONLINE! Offered through The Morton Arboretum. Join Cindy from the comfort of your couch and discover the way trees have influenced our history, our music and literature, and the way we think about the world. Register here.
Friday,December 3: WINTER PRAIRIE WONDERS–ONLINE, 10-11:30 a.m. (CT): 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.
“The month of June trembled like a butterfly.” —Pablo Neruda
Mother Nature ushered in the summer solstice Sunday with plenty of drama; severe drought here in my part of Illinois, followed later that night by wicked thunderstorms and a tornado touchdown nine miles from our house. If it was March, we’d say the solstice “came in like a lion.” Our hearts go out to those affected by the storm.
Weather aside, it’s been a week full of wonders in the tallgrass.
While chasing dragonflies at Nachusa Grasslands, I spotted a dozen or so regal fritillary butterflies, flying through the pale purple coneflowers, prairie coreopsis, and white wild indigo.
And almost always—a dragonfly. Seeing them is often the stated motivation for so many of my summer prairie hikes.
But even when I’m monitoring, clipboard in hand, my prairie hikes are about so much more than counting dragonflies. I go for the solace I feel under a wide-open prairie sky.
The joy of discovery. The delight of the unexpected.
My body is tuned to “prairie time.” The signs of summer are there to be read in the opening of wildflowers, the arrival of birds, the explosion of insects, the shifts of weather. The prairie tells us we are closing in on the Fourth of July. How? Lead plant lights its floral fireworks.
The orderly unfolding of summer on the prairie is a reassurance in a time where we crave normalcy. The tallgrass is a spendthrift; it keeps on giving. Brimming with bugs, overflowing with wildflowers.
There is so much to take in.
So much to be grateful for.
The opening quote is from the poem “The Month of June” by Chilean poet and politician Pablo Neruda (1904-1973). Neruda won the Nobel Prize for Literature (1971) and is known for his passionate love poems.
Join Cindy for a program or class this summer!
Beginning Dragonfly and Damselfly ID: online Monday, July 12 and Wednesday, July 14 (two-part class) 10-11:30 am. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. The first session is an introduction to the natural history of the dragonfly, with beautiful images and recommended tools and techniques for identification of species commonly found in northern and central Illinois. You will then put your skills to work outside on your own during the following week in any local preserve, park, or your own backyard. The second session will help you with your field questions and offer more advanced identification skills. To conclude, enjoy an overview of the cultural history of the dragonfly—its place in art, literature, music, and even cuisine! You’ll never see dragonflies in the same way again. To register, click here.
Virtual Summer Prairie Wildflower Walk: Offered through The Morton Arboretum. No matter where you live, join us on Zoom to see the amazing summer tallgrass prairie wildflowers and hear their stories of uses in medicine, folklore, poetry, and even as love charms! Register here.
Cindy Crosby is the author, compiler, or contributor to more than 20 books. Her most recent is "Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History" (Northwestern University Press, 2020). She teaches prairie ecology, nature writing, and natural history classes, and is a prairie steward who has volunteered countless hours in prairie restoration. See Cindy's upcoming online speaking events and classes at www.cindycrosby.com.