“March came in that winter like the meekest and mildest of lambs, bringing days that were crisp and golden and tingling, each followed by a frosty pink twilight… .” ―L. M. Montgomery
In like a lamb. The first day of March is mild and the forecast shows more of the same. Sunshine, a few clouds. Temperatures that will stretch and hit 50 degrees. The Farmer’s Almanac tells us if March comes in like a lion, it will go out like a lamb. Is the reverse true—will it go out like a lion, then? We’ll find out in a few weeks. Spring is a work in progress.
Wait, what? Spring? Today—March 1—is the first day of meteorological spring and this year, it’s also Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday. Astronomical spring is March 20, so go ahead — celebrate the first day of spring twice! In the Midwest, March is the month for snow and longer hours of sunlight, for the Northern Hemisphere’s vernal equinox, for tornadoes and the first woodland and prairie wildflowers, for St. Patrick’s Day and Lent, and in some years, Easter. Originally, it was the first month of the old Roman calendar. In my garden, March is the month of snowdrops and crocus blooms. Hyacinth and daffodil shoots peek through the prairie dropseed along the warmest side of the house.
This weekend, as Sunday drew to a close, Jeff and I went for a hike at Blackwell Forest Preserve. In winter, it’s a favorite spot for ice fishing and snow tubing. In the summer, kayaks and small motorboats ply the biggest lake as families fish and picnic along the shoreline.
Blackwell is also the site of the Urban Stream Research Center, where the federally-endangered Hine’s Emerald dragonfly is being reared in its nymph stage. When the dragonflies are ready to transform from nymph to adult, they are taken to selected locations and released. The Hine’s Emerald adult dragonfly is on my must-see list. I hope 2022 is the year. I’ve only seen the nymph.
Difficult to believe this nymph will become a beautiful dragonfly, isn’t it? Take a look here to see it in its adult stage.
Tonight, a few archery enthusiasts are out and about the preserve, practicing their skills. A lone ice fisherman collects his gear and heads for his truck. The parking lot is still full of cars, despite the gathering dark. Where is everyone? Perhaps others are out on the trails like we are, enjoying the last half hour before closing time and heading home to start the work week.
As we begin our hike, I admire the prairie restoration signs. I don’t remember seeing them before, or that “prairie” was brought to the attention of visitors. Yay!
I’m happy to spy many of my favorite prairie plants. Switchgrass, turning luminous in last light.
Indian grass limns the shoreline.
A small stand of evening primrose stands out against the grasses.
Wild blackberry canes thread through the prairie plantings, adding a welcome bit of color. I admire the red, even though as a prairie steward, I know how aggressive this native can be.
An alien-looking finger of mullein, ringed with ragged leaves, points toward the sky.
Wild bergamot still holds its minty scent.
The air smells like melting snow and mud.
Cold and exhilarating.
It’s almost closing time, so we turn around and start back to the parking lot. But we can’t resist a detour to the bridge.
There, we watch the sunset and scan the frozen water. The tracks on the lake are human, dark and slushy.
I wonder how recent these footprints are? With the temperatures warming, the ice would have been tricky. Were they foolhardy kids? Or were the footprints made much earlier in the week, when the temperatures were bitter and the lake was frozen solid? Difficult to say.
Someone left a message.
Sweet! I don’t know if mom would have been happy they were out there, but I’m sure she would appreciate the sentiment.
The sun drops behind the trees.
On the opposite side of the lake, the sky becomes a lavender haze.
We head back to the car. What a pleasant way to end the day! A hike at the forest preserve with prairie plants all around, and new preserve signs showing intentions for future prairie restoration.
Signs of hope.
“A work in progress.” After a week of stunned disbelief watching world events, I needed the peace and solace of a sunset prairie hike and a reminder that everything is a “work in progress.” Tomorrow is another day. Another chance for change.
It’s a good way to welcome a new week. I’m ready to usher in a brand new month, full of possibilities.
The opening quote is by Lucy Maud Montgomery (1874-19420, author of the fictional series Anne of Green Gables; her complete body of work includes 20 novels, 500 poems, more than 500 short stories and numerous essays. Most of her novels are set on Prince Edward Island in Canada.
“For a relationship with landscape to be lasting, it must be reciprocal.” —Barry Lopez
I heard the cardinal’s spring song this week for the first time this year. Maybe it was practicing. Maybe it was dreaming. Snow is still piled on the ground and my little pond is frozen, but now I listen for that cardinal song anytime I step outdoors. February is half over. There is plenty of snow and cold ahead. Yet the thought of spring persists.
Spring! But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Winter in the Midwest has a lot to recommend it.
Oh yes. Let’s get outside and discover three reasons to hike the February prairie.
Hike the prairie in February, and you’ll be aware of the temporal nature of life.
Everywhere are remnants of what was once a vibrant wildflower, now aged and gone to seed.
Along the trail is wild bergamot, still redolent with thymol.
Dried grasses are broken and weighted with snow.
And yet, life is here, under the ground. Emergence is only weeks away.
Pollinators are a distant memory. What will a new season bring?
These are the prairie’s closing chapters. The hot breath of prescribed fire whispers. Soon. Soon. When conditions are right. By April, this will have vanished in smoke.
Take in every moment of winter. While it lasts.
2.The Joy of Tracking
Who moves across the winter prairie? It’s not always easy to tell.
Follow the streams and you’ll see signs of life. I know a mink lives along Willoway Brook—are these her prints?
Who took a frigid plunge?
The freeze/thaw freeze/thaw over the past week has blurred and slushed the tracks, adding to the mystery.
Who is it that prowls the tallgrass prairie in February? Who swims its streams?
I’m not always sure, but it’s enough to know that life persists in February.
3.The Exhilaration of Braving the Elements
Hiking the prairie in February involves a little bit of risk, a little bit of daring.
See these prairie skies, how they change from moment to moment? Bright—then dim—then bright? What a joy to be outside!
Sure, the temperatures are in the teens. Wrap that scarf a little tighter around your neck. Breathe in that cold, clarifying prairie air.
Sometimes, you may arrive, only to turn back when the trail has iced beyond acceptable risk.
But isn’t it enough to be there, even if only for a few minutes?
I think so. Why not go see? It won’t be winter much longer.
Barry Lopez (1945-2020) was an American writer who loved the Arctic and wolves, and wrote 20 books of fiction and non-fiction exploring our relationship to the natural world. The opening quote for today’s blog is from his National Book Award winner, Arctic Dreams(1986), which is still my favorite of his works.
Join Cindy for a class or program in February!
February 26 — Plant a Little Prairie in Your Yard for Citizens for Conservation. Barrington, IL. (10 am-11am.) Open to the public with registration. Contact them here.
February 26 ––Conservation: The Power of Story for the “2022 Community Habitat Symposium: Creating a Future for Native Ecosystems” at Joliet Junior College. Tickets available at (https://illinoisplants.org/). (Afternoon program as part of all-day events)
“Show’s over, folks. And didn’t October do a bang-up job? Crisp breezes, full-throated cries of migrating geese, low-floating coral moon. Nothing left but fool’s gold in the trees.” —Maggie Dietz
It’s transition week on the prairie.
This past weekend in the Chicago region we had our first freeze warning. In my garden, I’ve long given up on the tender perennials. Basil and zucchini were zapped by frosts last week. But parsley, rainbow chard, and zinnias still hang on, as do some overlooked cherry tomatoes. I plucked infant “Giant Italian” green peppers from the plants, chopped and froze them. Then, I picked bowlfuls of hard green tomatoes which slowly ripen on the kitchen counter. Each one is a memory of a warmer season past.
October is over. Welcome, November.
Now, the leaves flame into color, then drift through the cold air like confetti in brisk winds.
Now, the late prairie wildflowers transform to seed or are plundered by birds.
Grasses, nibbled and worn by weather and wind, sprinkle their progeny on the prairie soil.
It’s all about the seeds.
And will be, until fire touches the dry grass and wildflowers. Months away.
In the mornings, I brew large carafes of coffee and sip slowly while reading the paper. The news is both encouraging—and disheartening. The pandemic seems to be winding down. Vaccines are widely available. And yet. As of November 1, more than 5 million have died from Covid-19. Who would have imagined this, just two years ago? Later, I pull out my journals and revisit those early days of March 2020, when the pandemic began. Wiping down groceries. Waving at our grandkids from the driveway. Counting how many rolls of toilet paper we had left. It’s been a long haul.
Despite the grim news, I feel hopeful going into the winter of 2021. Much more optimistic than I’ve been since the pandemic’s first days.
There was good news over breakfast. On Monday, November 1, Chicago-Rockford International Airport was to bulldoze the Bell Bowl Prairie. At the eleventh hour, thanks to the tireless work of many dedicated people, it received a stay of execution until March 1, 2022. Perhaps not the type of closure we hoped for. But a step in the right direction. You can read more here.
It feels good to tap into those emotions again.
The prairie walks I take are a part of that optimism. They’ve kept my spirits up through the pandemic. Kept me in touch with the wonders that are always all around, no matter how grim the headlines.
I hope wherever you find yourself, you’ll go for a walk today. Pause. Soak up whatever beauty you see.
Then, say a “thank you” for wonders, big and small. And “thank you” for a little good news.
The opening lines for today’s post are from the poem “November” by Maggie Dietz is a native of Green Bay, Wisconsin. Her first book of poems, Perennial Fall, won the Jane Kenyon Award. Read more about Dietz here. She lives in New Hampshire.
Thank you to everyone who helped write letters, make phone calls, create art, music, and poetry, and give time to the Save Bell Bowl Prairie campaign. The prairie isn’t safe yet, but there is hope for its future.
Join Cindy for a class or program!
Winter Prairie Wonders: Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass!Dec. 3 (Friday) 10-11:30 am (CST): 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. This is scheduled as a Zoom event through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.
“Oh, do you have time to linger for just a little while out of your busy and very important day…?” — Mary Oliver
Come linger with me for a few moments in my backyard.
Let’s see what the last week of July is up to.
Now, the heat rises from the ground; the air like a warm, soggy blanket out of the dryer that could have used an extra ten minutes. Dew beads the grass blades.
I hear a buzz-whirr in my ear as a ruby-throated hummingbird zings by me, heading for sugar water. Ruby-throated hummingbirds appreciate my nectar feeder—-and they love the wildflowers in my garden.
I planted scarlet runner beans, just for them.
I delight in that kiss of red! More of this color is coming in the backyard. The hummingbirds will be glad when the cardinal flowers open. Almost there.
Hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees enjoy the bee balm—-or if you prefer, wild bergamot—which blooms in wispy drifts across the garden.
Myriad pollinators also visit the zinnias, which I have an abiding affection for, although zinnias aren’t native here in my corner of suburban Chicago.
Other flowers wrap up the business of blooming and begin moving toward seed production. Culver’s root candles are almost burned out. Only a few sparks remain.
The bird-sown asparagus has a single seed.
Other flowers are just beginning their cycle of bud, bloom, go to seed. Obedient plant’s green spike is a promise of pretty pinky-purple flowers to come.
I enjoy the July transitions.
A giant sunflower is a magnet for the squirrels and chipmunks. They assess. Climb. Nibble. Any day now, I expect to find the stalk snapped.
Skipper butterflies patrol the garden, ready to plunder the flowers.
Black swallowtail caterpiIlars munch on the parsley. I don’t begrudge them a few plants when I know how lovely the butterflies will be. I watch for monarch caterpillars without luck on my butterfly milkweed and common milkweed plants. Where are they this year? What I do see are hordes of oleander aphids that gang up on my whorled milkweed.
I don’t control these non-native aphids. I let them be. If I did try to get rid of them, it would be with a strong spray of water rather than a pesticide. Whorled milkweed is a host for monarch butterfly caterpillars, just like its better-known milkweed kin in Illinois. The leaves are un-milkweed-ish, but the flowers are a give-away.
In my larger prairie planting, tiny eastern forktail damselflies chase even tinier insects for their breakfast. The damselflies’ bright green heads and neon blue abdominal tips help me track them through the grasses. I’m reminded of a morning last week when I waded through Willoway Brook on the prairie, and oh! The abundance of damselflies that I found. So many damselflies! American rubyspots. Stream bluets. Ebony jewelwings.
I stood in my hip waders, knee-deep, for about ten minutes, watching a variable dancer damselfly toy with a small bubble of dew.
Damselflies don’t play with dew drops. Do they? Perhaps not. But it was difficult to characterize the damselfly’s actions as anything other than playful as it batted the droplet back and forth along the grass blade. Think of all these wonders happening every second of every hour of every day.
If only we could be present to them all.
In the backyard, a low thrumming of insects pulses through the prairie patch. Uh, oh. It looks like Queen Anne’s lace has infiltrated part of the prairie planting. I need to pay attention before it takes over.
The cup plants—topping six feet now—are awash with lemon-colored blooms. Each flower is a platform for jostling insects, from honeybees to … well… tiny bees I can’t identify. I try checking them my phone app, iNaturalist, which seems as perplexed about them as I am.
So many insects! So many different bees. How will I ever learn them all? A lifetime isn’t long enough, and following my birthday last week, one of the big ones, I’m aware of the window of time closing.
It’s a reminder that each walk in the garden—each hike on the prairie—is time worth savoring.
I want to look back on my life and remember that I paid attention.
The opening lines are from the poem “Invitation” by the late poet Mary Oliver (1935-2019), part of a collection from her book Devotions. Listen to her read one of my favorite poems, “The Wild Geese,” here.
Join Cindy for a class or program this summer!
Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online: Work through online materials and post your stories about prairie to the discussion boards beginning August 2; learn from other prairie stewards and volunteers about their challenges and success stories. Join a Live Zoom with Cindy on Wednesday, August 11, from noon-1 p.m. CDT. The coursework is available for 60 days. Learn more and register here.
August 17, 7-8:30 pm —in person —“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Bloomingdale Garden Club, Bloomingdale, IL. Please visit http://www.bloomingdalegardenclub.org/events-new/ for more information and Covid safety protocol for the event.
Cindy’s book, Chasing Dragonflies, is on sale at Northwestern University Press for 40% off the cover price until July 31! Click here to order — be sure and use Code SUN40 at checkout. Limit 5. See website for full details!
“There is, however, a way out of this mess…It is not only possible, but highly desirable from a human perspective to create living spaces that are themselves functioning, sustainable ecosystems with high species diversity.”—Douglas Tallamy
You know you want to. Go ahead. Grow a few native prairie plants this summer.
I’m prepping this week to teach a class, “Plant a Backyard Prairie.” If I was re-titling the class, I’d probably call it “Plant a Little Prairie In Your Front Yard, Backyard, and Side Yard.” Prairie plants can be tucked in anywhere! If you live in the tallgrass prairie region, there are few things you can do in your yard that will give you such joy as adding a few of these intriguing natives.
But Cindy…. say some of my friends. I love my roses/clematis/iris. Or whatever. You know what? So do I. It’s not an all or nothing proposition. You don’t have to rip out your garden and begin again (although you can, if you’d like). Start small. Invite a few prairie plants to the garden. Choose a few you admire.See how they look mixed with traditional garden inhabitants.
When we moved to our small suburban lot 22 years ago, it was barren of almost anything but Kentucky bluegrass. Odd, you might think, since the previous owners had built the house in 1968, and lived in it 30 years. If I was a betting woman, I’d guess they were shooting for low-maintenance. Easy to mow. Not much clipping or yard work to do. Four towering arborvitae were planted at the corners of the house. After decades, they hit the roof eaves and shot off in all directions. There were a few yews under the kitchen windows; typical sixties’ foundation plantings. Hostas. A burning bush. A barberry. We got rid of almost all of them. And, over time, a whole lot of lawn has been traded in for raised flowerbeds, vegetable beds, and prairie plantings.
I believe that native plants are the best choice for my yard, as they are adapted to the Midwest and nurture many species of birds, butterflies, bees, and other insects. But I also like what writer and gardener Marc Hamer writes in his new book, Seed to Dust: “The truth is always deeply buried in the middle, where it wanders about, vague and unsure of itself.” So don’t be surprised if you visit my backyard this summer and see zinnias. A whole lot of zinnias. They aren’t native to my Chicago region (but rather to Mexico, further south), but I have a deep affection for them, and delight in the bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies that flock to them in the summer.
I also have a couple of non-native peonies and clematis, some self-seeded violas, and a few roses (“The Fairy” is one of my favorites). Raised beds are full of seasonal vegetables. A tropical moonflower vine opens hand-sized vanilla-scented flowers at night during August; an event that sends me out to the patio each summer evening to oooh and ahhh and inhale.
But these plants—while they’ve earned a place in the garden—are not my majority stakeholders. Look again. Prairie dropseed lines the patio.
Native butterfly milkweed and prairie smoke have a seat in the dry spot under the eaves, and gray-headed coneflowers, blazing star, black-eyed Susans, and anise hyssop mingle with non-natives autumn joy sedum and deep blue salvia. Great blue lobelia joins the show later in the summer.
Early in the year, non-native spring bulbs have their turn. Species tulips. Daffodils. Snowdrops. They pop up in the prairie dropseed, fill in the bare spots left by last year’s prairie ephemerals. The natives rub shoulders with the non-natives. Each was chosen for a reason.
Another place the natives and non-natives mix is our small, hand-dug pond with no liner—just suburban clay. It’s a wildlife magnet and dragonfly and damselfly favorite.
It brims with cardinal flowers, marsh marigold, native iris, and blue lobelia.
The bullfrogs like it, too.
Across the back of our property is a “prairie patch” full of taller and rougher prairie natives such as prairie dock, compass plant, prairie cordgrass, Joe Pye weed, and spiderwort. Culver’s root mingles with evening primrose. Cup plant takes as much of the lawn as I’ll give it. Near the queen of the prairie, we planted a pawpaw tree.
I try to be aware of why I choose each plant, shrub, or tree. Do the pollinators use it? Okay, the swamp milkweed earns a place over here. Is it a host plant for butterflies, or moths? The pawpaw tree takes a spot on the slope. Is it edible? I’ll let the kale and tomatoes have this raised bed. Does it offer winter interest? The wild bergamot stays on the hill where we can see it from the window.
Does it offer birds protection from predators or severe weather, or give us privacy from nearby neighbors? Okay, I’ll leave one arborvitae on the corner of the house. Do I feel depressed sometimes in February? Sounds like a few early-blooming spring bulbs are in order, where I can see them from the house. What about beauty? Color? Structure? The deep purple clematis paired with the fire-engine red poppies and lavender catmint is a colorful and structural feast for the eyes—all three can stay, although they aren’t natives.
The shooting star would be lost in the bigger prairie patch, so we put it in a higher visibility area. Rattlesnake master is a native prairie plant with interesting structure and blooms, so it lives just off the porch where we can admire it all summer.
I’ve dubbed 2021 our “Year of the Native Shrubs” and a chunk of our garden budget went for just that. We’ve planted a battalion of native bush honeysuckles —Diervilla lonicera—on a bare, west-facing side of the house. We placed a hazelnut between two windows, and added a pair of spicebush for the butterflies in the perennial garden. Native witch hazel is sited on one side of the patio.
Next year, is the “Year of the Native Trees” and I’m already planning my purchases.
We’re still learning how to create a healthy yard. One fact I do know — the Kentucky bluegrass the Midwestern suburbs are so fond of demands heavy fertilizing, herbiciding, aeration, and watering. It’s an aesthetic choice, rather than a healthy choice. With this in mind, each year, our lawn grows a little smaller. We put in a few more natives and yes—a few more non-natives, too. We look for plants that are deep-rooted; those which sequester carbon. The yard has settled into a ratio of about 60 percent natives, 40 percent non-natives—if you don’t count the lawn. My hope is to swing it to more 70-30, but it will take some time, money, and deliberate intention.
I don’t have to let go of my zinnias. There’s also room for some spontaneous joy, like the bird-seeded asparagus or the impulse buy at the garden center. But I do want to be mindful of why I choose most of the plants I do—and that it isn’t just me that I’m planting for.
Thinking ahead, I have plans—big plans. Our front yard needs a pollinator garden. What about bringing some of the prairie dropseed to the front? It’s a well-behaved plant, and shouldn’t raise any questions from the neighbors? Maybe I can take the old ornamental weigela out of the front yard, where they’ve been since we bought the house, and replace them with some shade-loving native shrubs next summer.
I keep reading, learning, and sifting through the arguments for making the best plant choices. There’s a lot to consider. A lot to sift through. I can’t make all the changes I want to overnight. Money and time don’t permit that. But I will continue trying to change our little suburban corner of the world as I read and learn about what makes my backyard a healthier place for insects, birds, and other members of the natural world. I’ll also keep working toward a backyard that delights the five senses, and offers joy in every season.
One plant at a time.
Doug Tallamy (1951-) is a professor in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware. He and his wife Cindy live in Oxford, Pennsylvania.
Join Cindy for a program or a class online!
The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden Online: June 2, 7-8:30 p.m. Illinois’ nickname is “The Prairie State.” Listen to stories of the history of the tallgrass prairie and its amazing plants and creatures –-from blooms to butterflies to bison. Discover plants that work well in the home garden as you enjoy learning about Illinois’ “landscape of home.” Presented by Sag Moraine Native Plant Community. More information here.
Literary Gardens Online: June 8, 6:30-7:30 p.m. Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby for a fun look at 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 Mary Oliver, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, Lewis Carroll–and many more! See your garden with new eyes—and come away with a list of books you can’t wait to explore. Registration through the Downers Grove Public Library coming soon here.
Plant A Backyard Prairie:Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.
The Wild Garden’s Frequent Fliers: Dragonflies and Damselflies: Online, Thursday June 17, 7-8:30 p.m. CDT, Rock River Valley Wild Ones. Discover the wild and wonderful lives of these fascinating insects with the author of “Chasing Dragonflies” in this hour-long interactive Zoom program (with Q&A to follow). To join Rock River Valley Wild Ones and participate, discover more here.
“The afternoon is bright, with spring in the air, a mild March afternoon, with the breath of April stirring… .”—Antonio Machado
It’s 63 degrees. I leave my heavy winter coat, gloves, and scarf in the closet and pull out my windbreaker for the first time in months.
Winter hasn’t quite let go. No mistake about it. But the five senses say a shift in seasons is underway.
In between the prairie dropseed planted along the edges of my backyard patio, the crocus and snowdrops have emerged from their dark sojourn underground.
When I dug them in last October, the pandemic seemed to have gone on forever. Vaccination was only a dream. Spring seemed a long way off. Today, I count the flowers—10, 20, 40… . Look how far we’ve come.
Cardinal song wakes us in the morning. The windows are cracked open to take advantage of the smell of clean, laundered air.
On the prairie trails I see a honey bee, flying low to the ground, looking for something blooming. Not much. Warm temperatures and hot sun have brought the earliest prairie fliers out today. My ears catch the buzz—a sound I haven’t heard in months. Soon, I won’t even register it when the pollinators are out in numbers. Today, that “buzz” is still new enough to catch my attention.
In the afternoon, hundreds of sandhill cranes pass overhead, their cries audible even inside the house. We stand on the back porch, eyes shielded against the bright sun, watching.
Waves upon waves upon waves. Heading north to the top of the world. Flying determinedly toward something they only dimly remember.
On the prairie, ice still slicks the trails where shadows lie. We pull on knee-high rubber boots and slosh through slush.
In spots the paths are springy like a mattress. The trail gives unexpectedly and I tumble down, sprawling, laughing. It’s like sinking into a pillow– although a cold, muddy one. In spring, there are so many new sounds and scents it’s easy to forget to watch your step.
Burdock burs, grasping at their last chance to hitchhike a ride, catch our clothes. We spend a few minutes pulling them off. Ouch! I’d forgotten how sharp they are. Years ago, I remember our collie getting into a big patch of burdock. Impossible to remove. I spent a good long while with the scissors, cutting the burs out.
All around me are the last seeds of 2020; those that remain uneaten by voles, undisturbed by winter storms. Seed dispersal is so varied on the prairie! Wind and animals; people and birds—we all have a role to play in the continuing life of plants. Even now, the vanishing snow is filtering the fallen seeds into the soil, ready for a new life.
Inhale. The smell of damp earth. Not the scent of fall’s decay, but something similar.
The fragrance teases my nose. Tickles my memory. It’s the spring’s “prairie perfume.”
The sky begins to cloud with tiny popcorn cumulus. The warmth of the day takes on a bit of a chill. These are the last days of tallgrass.
Any day now, fire will come to these prairies. Smoke-plumes will rise in the distance. The old season will be burned away.
Until then, the brittle grasses and battered wildflowers wait, tinder for the flames.
Today, spring seems like something exotic, something new.
It’s not a shout yet. It’s barely a whisper.
Can you hear it?
The quote that opens this post is by Antonio Machado (Antonio Cipriano José María y Francisco de Santa Ana Machado y Ruiz) (1875-1939) from Selected Poems, #3. Machado is regarded as one of Spain’s greatest poets. Reflective and spiritual, his poems explore love, grief, history and the landscape of Spain. A longer excerpt (as translated by Alan Trueblood), reads: “The afternoon is bright, /with spring in the air, /a mild March afternoon,/with the breath of April stirring,/ I am alone in the quiet patio/ looking for some old untried illusion -/some shadow on the whiteness of the wall/some memory asleep/on the stone rim of the fountain,/perhaps in the air/the light swish of some trailing gown.”
Virtual Wildflower Walks Online: Section A: Friday, April 9, 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. CST Woodland Wildflowers, Section B: Thursday, May 6, 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. CST Woodland and Prairie Wildflowers. Wander through the ever-changing array of blooms in our woodlands and prairies in this virtual walk. Learn how to identify spring wildflowers, and hear about their folklore. In April, the woodlands begin to blossom with ephemerals, and weeks later, the prairie joins in the fun! Each session will cover what’s blooming in our local woodlands and prairies as the spring unfolds. Enjoy this fleeting spring pleasure, with new flowers revealing themselves each week. Register here.
Plant A Backyard Prairie:Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm. CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Register here.
Need a extra push, during these polar vortex days? Consider these five reasons to get outside for a prairie hike this week.
Bundle up in February and marvel at the way snow highlights each tree, shrub and wildflower.
Enjoy how the snow drifts into blue shadows on the prairie, punctured by blackberry canes. A contrast of soft and sharp; staccato and legato; light and dark.
Notice: Rather than being muzzled and smothered by snow, the prairie embraces it, then shapes it to its February tallgrass specifications.
Snow in February creates something wonder-worthy.
2. The restrained palette of February demands our attention. Ash and violet. Black and blue. A little red-gold. A bit of dark evergreen.
You’d think it would be monotonous. And yet. Each scene has its own particular loveliness.
We begin to question our previous need for bright colors…
…as we embrace the simplicity of the season.
As we hike, there’s a yearning for something we can’t define. More daylight? Warmth? Or maybe, normalcy? Our personal routines and rhythms of the past 12 months have been completely reset. There’s a sense of resignation. It’s been a long winter. February reminds us we still have a ways to go. Keeping faith with our prairie hikes is one practice that grounds us and doesn’t have to change. It’s reassuring.
3. In February, we admire the elusiveness of water. It’s a changeling. One minute, liquid. The next—who knows?
Winter plays with water like a jigsaw puzzle.
February’s streams look glacial.
Snuggle into your parka and be glad you’re hiking, not swimming.
4. If you are a minimalist, February is your season.
Everything is pared to essentials.
Many of the seeds are gone; stripped by mice, extracted by birds.
Everywhere around you are the remains of a prairie year that will soon end in flames.
What you see before you is the last whisper of what is, and was, and what will be remembered.
Look closely. Don’t forget.
5. In February, turn your eyes to the skies. What will you see? The marvel of a single red-tailed hawk, cruising over the tallgrass in the distance?
A sundog—that crazy play of sunlight with cirrus that happens best in the winter? Or a sun halo, blinding, dazzling?
Maybe it will be a full Snow Moon at the end of this month, setting sail across the sub-zero sky. Or a daylight crescent moon, scything the chill.
What will you see? You won’t know unless you go. Sure, it’s bitter cold. But soon, February will only be a memory. What memories are you making now?
The prairie is waiting.
N. Scott Momaday (1934-) is the author of Earth Keeper (2020), House Made of Dawn (1968, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Literature in 1969) and my favorite, The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969), a blend of folklore and memoir. Momaday is a member of the Kiowa tribe, a group of indigenous people of the Great Plains. Writer Terry Tempest Williams calls Earth Keeper “a prayer for continuity in these days of uncertainty.”
Join Cindy in 2021 for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a complete list of virtual offerings. Need a speaker? Email me through my website. All classes and programs with Cindy this winter and spring are offered online only. Join me from your computer anywhere in the world.
Begins Monday, February 8 (SOLD OUT) OR just added —February 15 (Two options): Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online (Section A or B)--Digitally explore the intricacies of the tallgrass prairie landscape and learn how to restore these signature American ecosystems as you work through online curriculum. Look at the history of this unique type of grassland from the descent of glaciers over the Midwest millions of years ago, to the introduction of John Deere’s famous plow, to where we are today. We will examine different types of prairie, explore the plant and animal communities of the prairie and discuss strategies specific to restoring prairies in this engaging online course. Come away with a better understanding of the tallgrass prairies, and key insights into how to restore their beauty. All curriculum is online, with an hour-long in-person group Zoom during the course. You have 60 days to complete the curriculum! Join me–Registration information here.
February 24, 7-8:30 p.m. CST: The Prairie in Art and Literature Online. The tallgrass prairie is usually thought of for its diverse community of plants, animals, and insects. Yet, it is also an inspiration for a creative community! In this interactive online talk, natural history author and prairie steward Cindy Crosby will explore historical and contemporary writers and artists, musicians, and other creatives working in the prairie genre: from Neil Young to Willa Cather to graphic comic artists, quilters, and jewelers expressing the prairie through their work. See the prairie in a new light! Come away inspired to appreciate and express your love of the tallgrass as you enjoy learning about this prairie “community.” Offered by The Morton Arboretum: Register here.
Even on a blue-sky prairie hike, the gray clouds aren’t far away.
Pretty or not, all this gray is dampening my spirits. The seed suppliers know how those of us who love the natural world feel in January. And they are ready to supply the antidote.
Every day—or so it seems—a new seed catalog lands in my mailbox. Within its pages, anything seems achievable. After thumbing through Pinetree or Park or Prairie Moon Nursery, when I look at the backyard, I don’t see reality anymore…
… I see possibilities. This year, my raised vegetable beds, now buried under snow and ice, will overflow with beautiful produce. Spinach that doesn’t bolt. Kale without holes shot-gunned into it from the ravages of the cabbage white butterflies. Squirrels will leave my tomatoes alone. No forlorn scarlet globes pulled off the vine and tossed aside after a single bite. I linger over the catalog pages, circle plant names, make lists, and dream.
As for my prairie patch! I have so many plans.
This will be the year I find a place in my yard where prairie smoke thrives.
Big bluestem, which has mysteriously disappeared over the years from my yard, will be seeded again and silhouette itself against the sky.
The unpredictable cardinal flowers will show up in numbers unimaginable.
I see the spent pods of my butterfly weed…
…and remember the half dozen expensive plants that were tried—and died—in various places in the yard until I found its happy place.
Now it thrives. The monarch caterpillars show up by the dozens to munch on its leaves, just as I had hoped.
As I walk the prairie trails, admiring the tallgrass in its winter garb, I plan the renovation of my backyard garden and prairie patch this spring. I dream big. I dream impractical.
And why not? Any dream seems possible during the first weeks of January.
The opening quote is by Michael Pollan (1955) from his first book, Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education. Pollan is perhaps best known for The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Botany of Desire but his debut is still my favorite. I read it every year.
Join Cindy in 2021 for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a complete list of virtual offerings.All classes and programs with Cindy this winter and spring are offered online only.Join me from your computer anywhere in the world.
BeginsThis Week!January 14-February 4 (Four Thursdays) 6:30-8:30 pm CST Nature Writing II Online. Deepen your connection to nature and your writing skills in this intermediate online workshop from The Morton Arboretum. This interactive class is the next step for those who’ve completed the Nature Writing Workshop (N095), or for those with some foundational writing experience looking to further their expertise within a supportive community of fellow nature writers. Over the course of four live, online sessions, your instructor will present readings, lessons, writing assignments, and sharing opportunities. You’ll have the chance to hear a variety of voices, styles, and techniques as you continue to develop your own unique style. Work on assignments between classes and share your work with classmates for constructive critiques that will strengthen your skill as a writer. Ask your questions, take risks, and explore in this fun and supportive, small-group environment. Register here.
February 24, 7-8:30 CST: The Prairie in Art and Literature Online. The tallgrass prairie is usually thought of for its diverse community of plants, animals, and insects. Yet, it is also an inspiration for a creative community! In this interactive online talk, natural history author and prairie steward Cindy Crosby will explore historical and contemporary writers and artists, musicians, and other creatives working in the prairie genre: from Neil Young to Willa Cather to graphic comic artists , quilters, and jewelers expressing the prairie through their work. See the prairie in a new light! Come away inspired to appreciate and express your love of the tallgrass as you enjoy learning about this prairie “community.” Offered by The Morton Arboretum:Register here.
“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
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.
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.
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?
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 (Anemonecylindrica); 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.
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.
“The frost makes a flower, the dew makes a star.” — Sylvia Plath
First frost. We woke up to a silvered backyard, pond, and prairie patch on Monday. The sheet-covered raised beds were strange looking striped and plaid beasts, wrapped against the chill.
Under this mishmash of bedding, cherry tomatoes, okra, zucchini, green beans, celery, and peppers emerged later that morning, a little worse for wear but game to continue their production a week or two longer. Basil and the larger tomatoes left to the frost roulette sagged and browned as the sun warmed them. Goodbye. It’s October, and the days of fruit and flowers are passing swiftly.
In my backyard prairie patch and out in the tallgrass, there are wonders to be seen. Different than those of summer. More nuanced. There are rewards for those who spend time on the October prairie and pay attention. Will you?
Here are five reasons to take a hike this week. Let’s go look.
1. Those Astonishing Asters: Smooth blue asters are in full bloom, and wow-oh-wow that unusual color! There’s nothing like it on the tallgrass in any other season. Feel the leaves, and you’ll see where this aster gets its name. Seeing this beautiful lavender-blue washed through the prairie is one of the perks of hiking in October.
Heath asters—Symphotrichum ericoides—spin across the prairie in small clouded constellations. I love their tiny, perfect flowers. You can see why the name “aster” means “star.”
New England asters bloom fringed purple—so much purple—intense and alluring for bumblebees, honeybees, butterflies, and several species of moth caterpillars, which feed on the plant. It needs pollinators to ensure the resulting seeds are fertile.
2. Leaves Beyond Belief: Sure, there might be a bad pun in there (couldn’t resist) but trees, shrubs, and the leaves of wildflowers, grasses, and vines intensify in hue as the month progresses. Carrion flower, that unusually-named vine, shows off its bright autumn coloration.
Staghorn sumac flames scarlet rainbows among the grasses.
Shagbark hickory, standing sentinel to the entrance of the prairie, is a shower of gold.
Wild plum, growing where I wish it wouldn’t on the Schulenberg Prairie, is none-the-less a pretty foil for tall boneset with its pale flowers.
3. October Skies: There’s something about the sky this month; is it the color?
Maybe it’s that particular slant of the sun as it seems to cling closer to the horizon on its daily swing through the sky. Or the reflection of the afternoon in a cold prairie stream.
Whatever the reason, these prairie skies are worth our attention in October.
4. Sensational Silhouettes: Now the prairie moves from the flash and glamour of blooms toward the elegance of line and curve.
There is beauty in October’s stark architecture as the prairie plants wrap up their season of bloom.
The cup plants no longer hold the morning dew or night rains; their joined leaves sieved by age and decay.
But the promise of 2021 is here in the tallgrass in its seeds. The promise of a future, full of flowers and lush growth.
5. Discovering the Unexpected: What will you see and experience when you hike the tallgrass prairie in October? Perhaps you’ll discover something small—-but eye-catching.
Maybe it’s a familiar plant you see in a new way.
Or perhaps it’s the song of a migrating bird that stops you in your tracks. What was that? Or the familiar whisper of wind through the tallgrass; the rattle of white wild indigo pods blowing in the breeze.
Will you feel your spirits lift at the sight of the last sawtooth sunflowers, turning their faces to the low-slanting sun?
I hope so. And that whatever adventures are ahead in these last months of the chaotic and unpredictable year of 2020…
… I hope you’ll find the courage and strength you need for them.
Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) was best known for her poetry, and her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar. After her suicide, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry; the first person to win the award posthumously.
All photos this week are from the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): author’s garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus); trail through the prairie; smooth blue aster (Symphyotrichum laeve); heath aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides); new england aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), College of DuPage East Prairie Study Area, Glen Ellyn, IL, with honeybee (Apis spp.); carrion flower (probably Smilax ecirrhata); staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); shagbark hickory (Carya ovata); tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum) with wild plum (Prunus americanus); switchgrass (Panicum virgatum); Schulenberg Prairie in October; Willoway Brook; rainbow, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL: tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); bee balm or wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa); cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum); gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata); biennial gaura (Gaura biennis); prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum); white wild indigo (Baptisia alba var. macrophyllia); sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus); bridge over Willoway Brook.
Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization this autumn and winter.
Literary Gardens Online: Friday, Dec.4, 1-2:30 p.m 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.
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.