April is the cruelest month — T.S. Eliot
Oh what a difference a few hours can make on the tallgrass prairie!
Those of us in the cross hairs of a narrow band of deep snowfall found Sunday’s bizarre blizzard blast a bit of a surprise. Sure, the meteorologists had hyped it, but we’ve heard those gloom and doom predictions before. I paid little attention
On Saturday evening, Jeff and I went for a hike on the Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum. So green!
Sunday afternoon, our view out the back door of our house, just north of the prairie, was a bit different.
At least five inches accumulated over the course of the day. More than 1,000 flights were cancelled out of O’Hare Airport. Flights were also diverted in our backyard. The bird feeders were full of downy woodpeckers, cardinals, nuthatches, and a few shell-shocked goldfinches.
My backyard prairie patch—with its “Monarch Way Station” sign—was barely visible the next morning. No monarchs returning from Mexico here, although the sightings in the Chicago region have already begun.
At 6:30 a.m. Monday morning, my prairie pond is snow and slush.
By 4:30 p.m. Monday, the heavy snow cover is mostly a distant memory, and the marsh marigolds look none the worse for wear. Snowstorm? What snowstorm?
By late afternoon Monday, the sun is bright, our taxes are filed, and the temperatures have topped 50 degrees. Life is good. Sunday’s sudden snowfall is now a great story to tell. My little prairie patch is showing signs of life again , the grass is bright emerald, and the sky is impossibly blue. Outside my window I hear the chorus frogs issuing some tentative trills. There’s the sound of water rumbling out of the gutters, and drip-splash, drip-splash from the roof. Everywhere, puddles mirror the sky.
How mercurial is spring!
This past week, I’ve been reacquainting myself with the plants of the prairie and savanna as they appear in miniature. Earlier this week, I went for a walk on the Belmont Prairie in nearby Downer’s Grove.
Rattlesnake master is up.
Today’s walk, after a prescribed burn, is a scavenger hunt of sorts. There’s a shout-out to baseball season…
…and a nod to the Master’s Tournament in Augusta this past weekend.
I’ve found old wallets full of half-burned money, weeding tools, broken bottles, and a slew of flotsam and jetsam after a prescribed burn. What have you discovered on your prairie walks? Leave me a note at the bottom of this post, and let me know.
On Saturday, hiking the Schulenberg Prairie, I found plenty of empty snail shells.
I don’t notice them much when the grasses and wildflowers fill in, so this time of year is my chance to study them more closely. Recently, I read “The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating,” which won the John Burroughs award for nature writing in 2011. It’s the true story of Elisabeth Tova Bailey, who is bedridden with a chronic illness. A friend brings her a pot of field violets with a small snail hiding under the leaves. She spends her days lying in bed, observing the snail. Of the book, E.O. Wilson says simply, “Beautiful.”
Bailey’s discovery of the amazing life of the snail reminds me of how much life we are unaware of, all around us on the prairie.
I want her powers of paying attention.
Still thinking about the book, I decide to check on the pasque flowers. Last week I found two plants! One had germinated from seeds sowed from the mother plant. It’s tough to see the plants against the rocky grays and browns of the graveled prairie. But now—oh glorious day—there are FOUR blooms. And three plants.
They look tenuous, don’t they? I love these pasque flowers, struggling through the rocky substrate of the prairie before anything else is in bloom here. So fuzzy! That pale color! I’ve read that the common name “pasque” is said to mean “passing by” (Passover, from the Hebrew “pasakh”) or “Easter,” because of their bloom period. These are right on time.
Soon, we’ll transplant our new pasque flower seedlings out to join them, started from seeds we gathered last spring and grew in the greenhouse. We’ll baby them through the summer. Sure, we have hundreds of wildflower species on the prairie, but to lose pasque flowers would leave an impossible void. There is nothing else on the prairie like them.
It’s difficult to see the four pasque flowers on the early spring prairie unless you know where to look. Not true for bloodroot, which has been in bloom all week in the prairie savanna.
As I hike, I admire the bloodroot. I also discover the tiny leaves of purple meadow rue, the pink-veined leaves of shooting star forming tiny clumps, and the pale yellow mayapple missile points bulleting up through the soil. All signs the season has turned, even with this brief snowy setback.
The marsh marigolds in my little backyard prairie pond, the bloodroot on the prairie savanna, and the pasque flowers all whisper spring to me—snow or no snow. Sure, we may see another flurry or two before April is over.
But under the snow melt, the prairie comes alive. It’s all a part of the seasonal dance: snowflakes and sunshine, ice and bloom, freeze and buzz.
No blast of winter is going to stop spring from coming.
The opening quote is from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Eliot is probably best known for his series of poems, The Four Quartets. You can hear him read Burnt Norton here, or learn more about T.S. Eliot here.
All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): half moon over Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie greening up after prescribed fire, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; video of snowfall on Sunday outside author’s back door, Glen Ellyn, IL; goldfinches (Spinus tristis) at the feeder, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; author’s backyard prairie pond under snow, Glen Ellyn, IL; author’s backyard prairie pond at 4:30 p.m. the same day with marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) in bloom, Glen Ellyn, IL; Belmont Prairie clouds, Downer’s Grove, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; baseball, Belmont Prairie Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; golf ball, Belmont Prairie Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; snail shell (species unknown), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; new growth at Belmont Prairie Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; line of osage orange (Maclura pomifera) trees at East Prairie and Ecological Study Area, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL.
Cindy’s Classes and Speaking This Week:
Ongoing: Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online continues, through The Morton Arboretum. Next class is in June, register here.
April 18: Spring Wildflower Walk, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: (Sold out)
Discover other classes and speaking at http://www.cindycrosby.com