Tag Archives: beauty

Little Prairie in the City

“Wherever we look, from the dirt under our feet to the edge of the expanding cosmos, and on every scale from atoms to galaxies, the universe appears to be saturated with beauty.”–Scott Russell Sanders

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We went looking for beauty. We found it in the northwest corner of Illinois, on a day both foggy and cold.

The 66-acre Searls Park Prairie and wetland is tucked into a mosaic of soccer fields, jogging trails, picnic grounds, and a BMX bike track. Once part of a 230-acre family farm homesteaded in the 1850’s, today the prairie is a designated Illinois Nature Preserve and part of the Rockford Park District.

Fog drizzles the tallgrass with droplets, but no light sparkles. Staghorn sumac lifts its scarlet torches in the gloom, bright spots of color on this gray, gray day.

This remnant is mostly mesic prairie; or what I call the “Goldilocks” type of prairie—-not too wet, not too dry. Well-drained. Just right. Black soil prairie was once coveted by farmers as a fertile place for crops—farmers like the Searls, no doubt. For that reason, most black soil prairies have vanished in Illinois.

It’s quiet. Even the recreational areas are empty in the uncomfortably damp late afternoon. No soccer games. No picnics. The BMX bike track is closed.

The prairie seems other-worldly in the silence.

Prairies like this, tucked into cities, are important sanctuaries. Searls Park Prairie is known for hosting three state-listed threatened or endangered plant species. I don’t see any of the rare or endangered plants on my hike today. But I do see Indian grass….lots and lots of Indian grass.

Its bright bleached blades are etched sharply against the misty horizon. The colors of the drenched prairie are so strong, they seem over-exposed.

Thimbleweed, softly blurred in the fog, mingles with…

…round-headed bush clover, silvery in the late afternoon.

Canada wild rye is sprinkled with sparks.

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Inhale. Ahhhh. Gray-headed coneflower seedheads are soggy with rainwater, but still smell of lemons when you crush them.

I pinch the hoary leaves of bee balm. Thymol, its essential oil, is still present. But the fragrance is fading.

Mountain mint has lost most of its scent, but still charms me with its dark, silvery seedheads.

Stiff goldenrod transitions from bloom to seed, not quite ready to let go of the season.

Overhead, a flock of tiny birds flies over, impossible to identify. There are rare birds here, although I don’t see any today. On our way to the prairie, we marveled at non-native starlings in the cornfields along the interstate, moving in synchronized flight. I’ve never been able to get this on video, but there are great examples of this flight found here. I’ve only seen this phenomenon in the autumn; one of the marvels of the dying year. Once seen, never forgotten.

On the edge of the prairie, wild plums spangle the gloom.

Such color! Such abundance.

I’ve read there is high-quality wet prairie here, full of prairie cordgrass, blue joint grass, and tussock sedge. We look for this wetter area as we hike, but the path we’re on eventually disappears.

No matter. So much prairie in Illinois is gone. So little original prairie is left. I’m grateful to Emily Searls for deeding her family’s farm to the city of Rockford almost 80 years ago, ensuring this prairie is preserved today.

So much beauty. We hardly know where to look next.

The sun burns briefly through the fog like a white-hot dime.

Dusk is on the way, a little early. We make our way back to the car, just ahead of the dark.

There are many different ways to think of beauty.

It’s always available for free on the prairie, in all its infinite variations.

Why not go see?

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The opening quote is from Scott Russell Sanders’ (1945-) The Way of Imagination. Sanders is professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN, where Jeff and I lived for a dozen or so years. After writing the opening quote, he follows it with “What are we to make of this?” and later “How then should we live, in a world overflowing with such bounty? Rejoice in it, care for it, and strive to add our own mite of beauty, with whatever power and talent we possess.” Oh, yes.

All photos from Searls Park Prairie, Rockford, IL (top to bottom): fog over the Searls Park Prairie; Illinois nature preserve sign; staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); white vervain (Verbena urticifolia); dedication plaque; foggy landscape; indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica); round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata); canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum); fog on the prairie; stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum); indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and wild plum (Prunus americanus); wild plum (Prunus americanus); autumn colors; Jeff on the Searls Park Prairie; sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus) in the mist; foggy day on the Searls Park Prairie; prairie landscape in the fog; unknown umbel.

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Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization–now booking talks for 2021. Email Cindy through http://www.cindycrosby.com.

Literary Gardens Online: Friday, Dec.4, 1-2:30 p.m.CST– Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby from wherever you live in the world for a fun look at great (and not-so-great) gardens in literature and poetry. From Agatha Christie’s mystery series, to Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Goudge, Rumer Godden, May Sarton, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Gilbert, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, and Lewis Carroll–and many more! This class is online. Register here through The Morton Arboretum.

Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.

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Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org, direct from Northwestern University Press (use coupon code NUP2020 for 25% off), or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during these unusual times.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (phrelanzer). Or visit her website at http://www.cindycrosby.com. See you there!

A Holiday Hike in the Tallgrass

“If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere.”—Laura Ingalls Wilder
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It’s 50 degrees. Can it really be December?

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Jeff and I took a break from wrapping gifts this weekend and went for a hike on the Belmont Prairie, a small remnant in Downer’s Grove, IL. The weather was flawless.

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We were greeted immediately.

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As a prairie steward, deer aren’t a welcome sight. But I enjoyed the fluid grace of this white-tail in motion as it bounded into the treeline. Nearby, flattened grasses showed where the deer may have spent the night.

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Many prairie plants in December are almost unrecognizable. Goldenrod leaves , shaped by weather and age, look like ribbon curls. Remember old-fashioned ribbon candy? It was a staple of my childhood holidays. This stage of the plant brings it to mind, albeit with a little less color.

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Goldenrod gall rosettes are as jaunty as spring wildflowers. It’s difficult to believe an insect is the artist behind this creation.

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The bright sunshine and deep shadows of early afternoon throw familiar plants into unfamiliarity. Rattlesnake master leaves, toothed and deeply grooved, bear little resemblance to the juicy green foliage of spring and summer.

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The rattlesnake master seedheads are brittle and alien-esque in the bright sun.

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Prairie dock leaves remind me of an elephant’s trunk.

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I hum tunes from “The Nutcracker” when I see these picked-over pale purple coneflower seedheads on the prairie. This one looks like a ballerina in a stiff tutu with her hands in the air.

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I love the backlit drum major’s baton of the round-headed bush clover…

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…and the weathered beads of wild quinine, like tarnished silver that needs a little polishing.

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On this unseasonably warm day, I think of the Schulenberg Prairie where  I’m a steward and the volunteer hours my team spent weeding and cutting; planting plugs and seeding this year. Many of them, through patient ID work, discovered several new plant species. By coming out to the prairie at night, we were able to ID almost a hundred moth species new to our site this season. Patiently, volunteers made progress on invasive plant removal. We renovated our prairie display beds. Made our prairie more visitor-friendly. All reasons to celebrate.

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There were some disappointments. I think of a few tasks undone. The seeding that didn’t work out. The back-ordered equipment that never arrived.  New signs that were damaged and now, need to be replaced. All part of caring and preserving precious prairie places. Beautiful places like the prairie where I’m hiking today.

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It’s good to take a moment and pause before the new year begins, with all its planning and possibilities. To feel joy over a year well spent. To be grateful for the many people and organizations who make these prairies possible through their hard work, vision, and support.

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To be grateful for the progress we made. Always, it seems our efforts are three steps forward, two steps back. But always…progress. Worth celebrating.

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, and a Wonderful New Year to All!

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Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose quote opens this post, was the popular author of the “Little House” children’s series. I’ve been reading Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder this week and am struck anew by the hardships and difficulties families experienced through westward expansion, the Dustbowl years, and the Great Depression. Quite a different perspective than I had reading these books as a child! Winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize.

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All photos this week copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL, unless noted otherwise (top to bottom) : thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica); view from the trail looking toward subdivision; white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus); flattened prairie grasses; goldenrod leaves (Oligoneuron rigidum); goldenrod gall rosette (Rhopalomyia solidaginis);  rattlesnake master leaves (Eryngium yuccafolium), rattlesnake master seedheads (Eryngium yuccafolium); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); pale purple coneflower seeds (Echinacea pallida); round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata); wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), the prairie in December; milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pappus; Christmas ornament, author’s yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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Please join Cindy at one of her upcoming classes or talks in the new year!

Nature Writing and Art Retreat, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, February 22 (Saturday) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Cindy will be facilitating the writing portion. Register here.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26.  Details and registration here.

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum. For details and registration, click here. 

To (Intentionally) Know a Prairie

“So much of our life passes in a comfortable blur… Most people are lazy about life. Life is something that happens to them while they wait for death.”--Diane Ackerman

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As a former independent bookseller, I love words, particularly words that come from books. Why? The best books broaden our thinking, jolt us out of our complacency, and remind us of the marvels of the natural world.  They give us hope for the future. Words also prod us to reflect on our lives. To make changes.

Native American writer N. Scott Momaday penned the following words:

“Once in his life man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth, I believe…

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He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience…

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To look at it from as many angles as he can…

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To wonder upon it…

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To dwell upon it.

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He ought to imagine that he touches it with his hands at every season…

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…and listens to the sounds that are made upon it.

He ought to imagine the creatures there…

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…and all the faintest motions of the wind. 

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He ought to recollect the glare of the moon…

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and the colors of the dawn… 

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…and the dusk.”

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I read Momaday’s words and ask myself: How do I “give myself up” to a particular landscape? When was the last sunrise I noticed? The last sunset? How many creatures and plants can I identify in the place where I live?  Do I know the current phase of the moon? Will I be there to touch the sticky sap of a compass plant in summer, or to follow coyote tracks through snow, even when it is inconvenient or uncomfortable to do so? What will I do to share what I discover with others?

How will I live my life this year? In “a comfortable blur?”

Or with intention?

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Poet, naturalist, and essayist Diane Ackerman (1948-), whose words open this post, is the author of numerous books including A Natural History of the Senses from which this quote is taken. Her book, One Hundred Names for Love, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.  The Zookeeper’s Wife, was made into a movie, which opens in theaters in spring of 2017.

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Poet and writer N. Scott Momaday (1934-) won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his novel, House Made of Dawn (1969). The words quoted here are from The Way to Rainy Mountain, a blend of history, memoir, and folklore. Momaday is widely credited with bringing about a renaissance in Native American literature. His thoughtful words are a call to paying attention in whatever place you find yourself… including the land of the tallgrass prairie.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom) shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Newton County, IN; restoration volunteers, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; storm over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; naming the prairie plants, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie trail, Curtis Prairie, University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum, Madison, WI; discovering the tallgrass, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet wood sorrel (Oxalis violacea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; summer on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; fall comes to the Meadow Lake prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; snow on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) and western chorus frogs (Pseudacris triseriata), unnamed West Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; female eastern amberwing (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; kaleidoscope of clouded sulphur butterflies (Colias philodice), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), Meadow Lake prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; moon over Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; sunrise, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve prairie planting, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County; Downer’s Grove, IL;  sunset, Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL. 

Learning from Leopold

We shall never achieve harmony with the land, anymore than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve but to strive.” –Aldo Leopold

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Getting to know prairie restorations and their communities of plants, animals, and people eventually leads to wanting to see the mother of all prairie restorations. Curtis Prairie, at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum in Madison, is the world’s first known prairie restoration. It’s more than 80 years old, and hosts about 200 different types of birds and 35 species of mammals.

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When I arrive in early December, the prairie is wrapped in fog. The temperature hovers between freeze and thaw, just enough to make the trails through the tallgrass slushy. My hiking boots slurp mud at every step.

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Some of the paths have been cleared; an invitation to explore.

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Whoever thinks December lacks color hasn’t hiked the Curtis Prairie.

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The reds of gray dogwood pushing into the prairie liven up the metallic gold, silver, and bronze of the grasses. Winter elevates some of the humbler, weedier native plants, like this Canada goldenrod below, to new artistry.

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As a prairie restoration steward, I don’t like invasive plants–plants that overwhelm a native landscape. I know too well the damage and havoc they wreak on a prairie. But despite myself, I admire the oriental bittersweet, twining in the tallgrass under the falling snow.  I remember combing the woods as a child with my mother and grandmother in the 1960s, raking vines from trees for Christmas decorations.  Now, I remove oriental bittersweet in natural areas for different reasons.

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It’s quiet on the prairie, except for the sounds of traffic in the distance. There’s not a soul out on the tallgrass trails today but me.

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Maybe no human souls — but I have company. A red-tailed hawk soars overhead as it scans the grasses for a mouse. About 20 wild turkeys skirt the edges of the prairie and savanna, then head for some nearby crabapple trees. Frozen fruit lies on the ground. They’re enjoying a little cold crabapple cider, no doubt, to spice up their morning stroll.

Gobble, gobble.

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I find the reds of the gray dogwood beautiful in the falling snow. But I know restoration managers are concerned about the encroachment of shrubs into the prairie here. My aesthetic enjoyment is another steward’s headache.

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I think of the quote by Leopold that opens this essay. There is joy and inspiration in seeing what restoration efforts like this one have accomplished. There is also reassurance in seeing that other stewards struggle with the same issues I do–native and non-native plants slugging it out for dominance on the prairie; the efforts to provide easy access for visitors during harsh weather;  the desire to foster an appreciation of the prairie in the colder months. The work of restoration is always a process.

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The amazing Curtis Prairie at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum continues to be a benchmark in restoration for all of us who care for and appreciate tallgrass prairies. Long may it stay beautiful and healthy.

Leopold’s words remind me that perfection is elusive. The important thing is to keep working towards our goals–for justice, for liberty, and for harmony with the land. May we all continue to strive toward attaining harmony, wherever we call home.

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Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), whose quote from “Round River,”(Journals of Aldo Leopold) kicks off this essay, was a professor at University of Wisconsin. He is most famous for his book, A Sand County Almanac, which is part of the foundational study of conservation ethics for many who work in prairie restoration and wildlife management.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby at Curtis Prairie, Madison, WI (top to bottom): entrance to Curtis Prairie; road through the prairie, trail through the tallgrass; Curtis Prairie in December; Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis); oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus); gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa); wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris); gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa)goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) rosette gall.

Advice from John Muir

“Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” –John Muir

 

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You might not be able to climb a mountain, or spend a week in the woods in December, as the opening quote from John Muir advocates. But, a short walk in the winter prairie savanna does “wash your spirit clean.” Come hike with me and see why.

What is a prairie savanna, anyway? Very simply put, it’s a place that’s less dense than a forest, and has its own suite of plants. You may see tallgrass prairie plants, animals, birds, or critters you recognize here, as well. Especially on the edges.

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Look around. In Conrad Station’s black oak savanna at Kankakee Sands in northwestern Indiana, there are traces of human habitation. People once remade this landscape into a place for commerce. But now — with the help of volunteers  and caring people –nature has reclaimed the savanna.

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Dried fern fronds arch over the crunchy fallen leaves.

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A recent rain beads mullein leaves with water drops.

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Oaks, shorn of their fall finery, are decorated with shelf fungi. Elf staircases?

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Seeds…so many seeds. The plant leaves curl as they dry, perhaps more beautiful in death than in life.

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Towers of fungi rise from the savanna floor.

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There are “muffins” everywhere. Mystery mushrooms? What could they be?

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These kinds of questions  will give you many happy hours flipping through ID books later at home. After much searching in field guides, the “muffins” turned out to be purple-spored puffballs.

Moss spangles the trail.

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Oak apple galls dangle from trees, their wasp-y occupants long since fled.

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Open one,  and marvel at the “web” that once held a tiny developing oak apple gall wasp safely inside.

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On your prairie savanna hike, you’ll see things you know. You’ll also discover new plants and other living things you can’t easily find names for. All it takes to “clean your spirit” is a little curiosity; a little energy.

You don’t have to hike alone — ask a friend or two to explore with you. Talk about what you discover.

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Who knows what is waiting for you on your December walk in the prairie savanna?

Wherever you are — make time to go see. Take John Muir’s advice. It will “wash your spirit clean.”

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John Muir (1838-1914)  is known as the father of our National Parks. His love for the outdoors and activism on behalf of natural areas have been formative and inspirational for many naturalists, including myself. Although some find his superlatives heavy slogging, his books have been read by millions and have decorated many a dorm room poster. His words continue to inspire people today to develop a relationship with the outdoors, and care for the natural world.

Read more about the history of Conrad Station Savanna at The Nature Conservancy’s website:

http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/indiana/placesweprotect/conrad-station-history.xml

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby; taken at Conrad Station’s black oak sand savanna at Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Newton County, IN (top to bottom): starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) lifting off on the savanna’s edge; sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina) fronds; common mullein (Verbascum thapsus) leaves; various polypore (bracket) fungi (Family: Polyporaceae); unknown seedhead; white polypore (bracket) fungi (Family: Polyporaceae); purple-spored puffballs-late stage (Calvatia cyathiformis); haircap moss (Polytrichum spp.); oak apple gall (Amphibolips confluenta) on black oak (Quercus velutina); open oak apple gall (Amphibolips confluenta); hikers exploring the savanna (Homo sapiens). 

Giving Thanks in the Tallgrass

“Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.” – attributed to Kurt Vonnegut

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Why would anyone walk the prairie in November? Come and find out.

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See the sandhill cranes, headed south, as they have done from time out of mind. They tell us one season is done; another is unfolding. Are you listening?

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Marvel at the curve of a dried compass plant leaf, which once took its directions from the sun.

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Enjoy the sweep of prairie sky over the bleached grasses. So much contrast!

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Watch the seeds of many different plants lift and float on a breath of wind.

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Others drop and scatter. So many different types of seeds on the prairie! Imagine where they will land…

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…and what each seed might become.  Think about how one seed may eventually give life to other living things.

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Marvel at the spiky rattlesnake master seedheads. So much diversity! It’s what makes the prairie rich and interesting.

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Even the polished spheres of goldenrod galls each hold a tiny insect inside. The humblest prairie plant does its part to provide a home and nourishment for the winter for a prairie creature.

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Miraculous, isn’t it? The world holds wonders. So much diversity; all working together. Everything moving forward.

Take time to look. To  remember. Then, to give thanks.

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The opening quote is sometimes attributed to Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007), shared with me by Carolyn McCready. Vonnegut was a prisoner of war during the bombing of Dresden (1945) and lost many of the people he loved to various tragedies, including divorce, suicide, and cancer. Yet, he still believed the world was a beautiful place.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), St. Stephen’s Cemetery PRairie, Carol Stream, IL; sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) over author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; dogbane or Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; seedheads in the tallgrass at St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; fritillary butterfly (Speyeria spp.) on wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; goldenrod gall, St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL.

Prairie in Unlikely Places

“It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.”–Arthur Conan Doyle

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When you think of “nature,” do you picture large, sprawling preserves or national parks in other regions, filled with wildlife and unusual plants?

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Yes, these are beautiful destinations. But, the most inspirational places in the natural world aren’t always parks and preserves in other parts of the country. Sometimes, it’s the little places where people are caring for nature that move us the most.

You never know where you’re going to find a small patch of planted or remnant prairie. Like these tallgrass plants, hanging out by a graffitied underpass in Bloomington, Indiana.

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Or prairie plants scattered along old railroad tracks, like these grasses in northern Indiana.

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Recently, I visited the St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie in Carol Stream, Illinois; a tiny prairie remnant off the beaten path. It took me three tries to find it. The view around the prairie might be a clue as to why. Not exactly “pristine” or “untrammeled” nature, is it?

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The forbidding entrance — a gravel road through a cement plant, the road lined with buckthorn — echoed the fortress-like feel of the cemetery. Because of vandalism, the cemetery is surrounded by a high, chain-link fence lined with barbed wire.

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When you look through it, you can see the prairie. Like the cemetery, it’s also surrounded by a high, chain-link fence.

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Bob Jacobsen, the 85-year-old volunteer caretaker for the prairie and cemetery, offered me a short introduction to the tallgrass here. The two acres, he said, were originally purchased and intended to be part of an 1852 German Catholic Church’s cemetery expansion. The cemetery stayed small. The little piece of expansion ground, full of prairie plants, escaped the plow that destroyed most of Illinois prairies when this portion of the state was settled.

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This little remnant is hanging on — but just barely. Jacobsen reminisced about the dilapidated state of the prairie during the 1970s. Moped riders and motorcyclists used the prairie as a racetrack, he told me. The fence he put up offers protection from people who don’t recognize the prairie’s value.

He has a vision for this little two-acre remnant.

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That it might hang on, despite the build-up all around it. That it will continue, despite the odds. He burns it, weeds it, and hopes for others to carry on the legacy of caring for this little prairie patch in an unlikely place.

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“Nature” — and tallgrass prairie remnants like this one– don’t always have the wow factor of a large, protected refuge, vast open spaces, and innumerable wildlife inhabitants.

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But sometimes, it’s the small, carefully-protected tiny remnants or surprising mini-restorations in someone’s backyard that give me the most hope. They are a spark in the dark. A match, which may strike interest, then kindle love and appreciation for the prairie in those who don’t know it well. Learning to understand and nurture the small places are a stepping stone to greater appreciation and care for the big tracts of land we need in our world that are also irreplaceable.

These small patches are unlikely survivors in a harsh environment. Light, in the darkness.

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Long may those like Bob Jacobsen continue to do their best to keep these small places with original prairie alive and flourishing. And may these remnants and other little prairie reconstructions continue to inspire us to continue our work with prairie. To prompt us to  care for the natural world in the large scenic places. To care for those nooks and crannies full of “nature” in our communities. And, perhaps most importantly, to care for the natural world in our own neighborhoods and backyards, no matter how small they may seem. Paying attention. Making a difference.

***

The opening quote is by Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), the author who created the  Sherlock Holmes detective series.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): snow geese and sandhill cranes, Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, San Antonio, New Mexico; prairie plants and graffiti, Bloomington, IN:  prairie plants along the railroad tracks, northwestern Indiana; cement plant, Carol Stream, IL; warning sign, St. Stephen’s Cemetery, Carol Stream, IL; St. Stephen’s Cemetery tombstones with prairie in the background, Carol Stream, IL; Indian hemp or dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum), St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; wild asparagus seed (Asparagus officinalis), St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; sunset, Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, San Antonio, New Mexico; unknown aster, St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL.

Three Minutes of Hope on the Prairie

“Truly we live with mysteries too marvelous to be understood.”–Mary Oliver

***

Forget politics for a moment. Take three minutes to walk with me. Focus on the wonders of the tallgrass prairie in November.

I need a hike where it’s quiet today — don’t you?

November’s Indian summer sighs, then turns and marches toward the cold. Little bluestem throws its confetti of seeds across the tallgrass  in an extravagant last hurrah; a marvel of color and light.

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Look at the sky, a kaleidoscope of clouds forming and reforming in different patterns.

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It’s an ever-changing painting, so easily taken for granted. Put there…for what? For our joy? For our amazement? The least we can do is take time to look.

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Lose yourself in the architecture, colors, and texture of a prairie dock leaf. It is one unique leaf in an infinite number of leaves in the tallgrass, in an infinite number of prairies. Each is its own work of art. Does your mind boggle at the artistry so lavishly displayed?

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Old tree stumps have stories to tell, weathered by the rains and sunshine of thousands of  days. But you have to stop for a moment. Take time to read. And to listen. What story will they tell you?

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In November, the prairie does a strip tease, shedding seeds and leaves. What’s left are the essentials for the perennials to survive the winter, much of their life invisible underground. The seeds promise hope for the future.

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Even the fuzzy caterpillars that slouch and slinky their way through the tallgrass remind us of future transformation. Moth, you wonder? Or butterfly?

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In November, plant structures are more evident, bleached of their summer and early fall colors.

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Trees silhouette themselves against the sky. You admire them, shorn of the distraction of colorful leaves.

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It may feel lonely in the tallgrass in November. You’re aware of your smallness in the grand scheme of the universe.

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The shaggy bison look tough and well-suited to the coming chill. We, however, sometimes feel fragile wondering what the world may have in readiness for us.

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Listen. There is the sound of water. The prairie creek rushes headlong on its way to some far-flung sea. Everything is connected. We’re not alone.

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Under the surface of the cold water, the drab, beetle-like dragonfly nymphs wait for warmer weather. They listen for the signal to stretch out their wings; don their dazzling array of bold hues. The signal for change is months away, so they concentrate on growing. Soon enough all will be warmth and light.

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When we shake our heads over the state of the world, remember. These prairie skies, this grass, the wildflowers, the seeds, those large shaggy creatures and small flying winged ones–and furry ones, too–are also the world.

And what  a beautiful and hopeful place the world can be.

****

The opening quote is from Mary Oliver’s “Mysteries, Yes.” The next lines of the poem read as follows: “Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous to be understood/How grass can be nourishing in the mouths of the lambs/How rivers and stone are forever in allegiance with gravity/ while we ourselves dream of rising.” Mary Oliver (1935-)  is winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and writes extensively about the importance of paying attention to the world around us. The complete poem is included in her book: Evidence: Poems.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie in November, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; old tree stump, Fame Flower knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seed pod, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; great leopard moth (Hypercompe scribonia) caterpillar, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; silky aster (Symphyotrichum sericeum) in November, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  trees in November, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  Clear Creek, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; white faced meadowhawk (Sympetrum obtrusum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Reflection, Rather than Reaction

“Alert to the slow rhythms of nature, we can appraise more soberly the hectic rhythms of the headlines.” — Scott Russell Sanders

On this first day of November, we find ourselves in a mess. Perhaps it comes from paying  too much attention to angry voices in the media pre-election, polarized around money, sex, and power. It’s easy to be reactive to the headlines, and then let our anger spill out onto people, through our words and actions. To respond with venom to the those who disagree with us, instead of love.

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The rhythm of the seasons helps dispel this tendency toward reacting without really listening. Walk, quiet your mind, turn off your phone. Let the wind blow away your frustration. Breathe. Issues will come and go. Politicians will explode into the spotlight for a brief time, then fade away. Yes, issues are important. But so are other things in the world.

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Look around. See the colors of the prairie at the beginning of November! Scarlet and gold leaves are everywhere to delight us, although they are fading fast. It’s so easy to forget the miracles all around us and focus on the tense voices loudly clamoring for our attention.

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There are more subtle washes of color in the grasses now, with few wildflowers to punctuate it with bright color.  The tallgrass community is entering a season of rest.

Quiet.

“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall…”

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Sit for a while on the rocky outcrops of St. Peter’s sandstone, overlooking the prairie. Do  you feel the ageless stability of rock in the face of change?

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It’s easy to lose sight of what is real, and what is hype; what is true and what is fabrication; what is worth believing, and what is deception. There are no easy answers, nor have there ever been. But there is reflection.

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Then, action. However, action without reflection often feeds hate, distrust, and ultimately, regret. Any time we feel certain that we are right, we need to stop. Think. Make time for reflection. Listen. And stay open.

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It’s easy to get caught up in what everyone “like us” is thinking or doing, to follow the dictations of a group we identify with…even to the point we feel mud-slinging is somehow justified.

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We are not somehow more “in the know” than others, in daily life or in politics. We are imperfect humans in community with our families, our towns, our states, our nation, our world.  We work toward the common good with others we don’t always agree with –indeed, others we plain just can’t stand!–but can learn from, no matter how much they are different from us. There is room at the table for everyone.

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We strike poses on social media to show we are the right thinkers; we aren’t like the “other side.” What has happened to civil discourse? To a willingness to agree to disagree? Polarization brings with it the fear of others, or a need to distance ourselves in public from other points of view, rather than acknowledgment of what we have in common and what we share. When we stop listening and reflecting, we close ourselves off to any hope of understanding.

A walk in the tallgrass is a way to give ourself space. Alone, we reflect on our place in the greater community. We listen, yes–and then, begin to sort out what we believe. What is wisdom? What do we want to discard? It’s a time to think about the legacy we want to leave for future generations. A legacy of fear and suspicion of each other? Or a legacy of love? How will I act?

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“Do not wait for leaders,” said Mother Teresa. “Do it alone, person to person.”

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What time will you make this week to reflect on the world and your place in your community–wherever you find yourself?  What small things will you do that make a difference, even to one person? How will you treat those you disagree with who are part of your community, no matter how much you dislike their personal choices? Will you speak with love? Or will  your voice be strident and secure in the knowledge that “I know what is best?” What can we learn from each other in our differences? How are we alike?

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Let the slow rhythms of nature quiet your mind, open your heart, and allow you to pay compassionate, non-judgemental attention to what is happening in the world.

Reflect. Then act –and choose your words with love.

*****

The opening quote is from Scott Russell Sanders (1945-) in Writing from the Center. Sanders is the winner of the John Burroughs Natural History Essay Award. He lives in Bloomington, IN, and writes compellingly about the importance of community.

The quote from Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997), an Albanian-Indian Catholic nun, is paraphrased, and sometimes said to be a mis-attribution. It’s powerful, no matter what the source. The quote “All people are like grass” is taken from  1 Peter 1:24.

All photographs copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Full moon over author’s backyard prairie spot, Glen Ellyn, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) in seed, Franklin Creek Grist Mill prairie, Franklin Grove, IL; sumac (Rhus spp.) , Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; clouded sulphurs (Colias philodice) and orange sulphurs (Colias eurytheme) puddling in the mud, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Tuesdays in the Tallgrass prairie work group, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  seeds drying in the barn, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; hand in hand at Silver Lake, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL;  finding perspective in the tallgrass, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Finding Our Story in the Tallgrass

“Owning our story can be hard, but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it.” –Brene Brown

***

October is a good month for reflection.

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As I walk the two prairies where I monitor dragonflies, it’s quiet. A few common green darners still buzz drowsily about, but they are the exception. Most of the dragonflies–eastern amberwings, prince baskettails, blue dashers– have migrated south or laid eggs and finished out their brief lives in the tallgrass. The sky and creek banks seem emptier without them.

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At home, I collate my monitoring reports, doublecheck photos against ID’s, rejoice over new species added, and wonder why some of the dragonfly species I expected didn’t show up this season. Or was it me that didn’t show up to see them at the right time? Tough to know.

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I make plans for next year.

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Soak up the satisfaction of another year almost wrapped up, with all the joys and disappointments that it contained.

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It’s not just me that’s evaluating the year. At Nachusa Grasslands,  bison are assessed at an annual round-up this month. The rest of the 364 days, they are free to roam in the tallgrass.

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A round-up is a chance to check-in on their well-being; to count shaggy heads, and to vaccinate bison against potential diseases.

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The bison don’t care for the process much, but monitoring their health and taking a little preventative action ensures they have a more stress-free future. Sure, it takes time and energy to do these assessments –but in the long run, it pays off.

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In October, I find the prairie is a good place for personal reflection; a little self-assessment. Alone in the tallgrass, without the distractions of my cell phone, laptop, or work to be completed, my mind quiets. I think about how the year has unfolded so far. Look with more perspective at the rest of 2016 to come, with its busy rounds of holidays, family, and year-end tasks.

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The hot and sweaty hours I’ve spent on the prairie this season managing weeds, cutting brush, and putting in new prairie plants comes to fruition in the wash of color and foaming of seedheads across the tallgrass in October. The hours I’ve walked, and looked, and written down species and numbers of dragonflies, are finished. I begin wrapping up some projects, and plan what is next.

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What would I choose to do differently, if I could? What do I find difficult to change? What brought me joy?  Did I risk enough? Was I present when I needed to be? Did I show up?

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The seeds I’ve collected and the sheets of dragonfly data are a reminder of what I’ve accomplished…and didn’t accomplish.  How do I want to move forward into the next season?

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It’s easy to let life happen to us, instead of being intentional about life. Each year brings new joys, disappointments, and opportunities. There is so much more ahead.

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I want to be thoughtful about how I embrace each coming day.  Intentional. But open to whatever unfolds. Most of all, I want to be present. To show up.

*****

The opening quote is by Brene Brown (1965-) a research professor and the author of “The Gifts of Imperfection.” The full quote includes this line: “Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky, but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy–the experiences that make us most vulnerable.” Well said.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sunrise, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum) in big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) , Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum)  Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison) roundup, Nachusa Grassland, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison) roundup, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; great blue heron (Ardea herodias) watching for a fish, Fox River, Geneva, IL; October at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; upright carrion flower (Smilax lasioneuron), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; volunteers heading back to the barn with seeds, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bridge at Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.