Tag Archives: belmont prairie nature preserve

Prairie Shadows; Prairie Promise

“Time flies over us, but leaves its shadow behind.” — Nathaniel Hawthorne

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It’s “shadow season” on the prairie, a time where everything seems a ghost of its former, vibrant self. I find it one of the most difficult times of the year in the tallgrass. Everything that remains at the turn of March to April is seemingly brittle. Ruined. Grasses are flattened. The prairie seems worn out.

Waiting for fire.

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Or maybe I’m just projecting my own winter-weary self on the prairie. The prairie—as always—has its gifts to give.  These gifts just aren’t that in-your-face, “wow-look-at-that-color!” good looks. No wildflowers. No juicy grasses. Few returning grassland birds.

There is a whole lot of animal scat and mud. Trash, small mammal bones, and flotsam and jetsam left behind after the snow melt.

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It’s discouraging. But sometimes, to see hope for the future—or even, just to give yourself a mental boost to get to next week—you have to look a little closer. Dig a little deeper. Take more time. Sit with things.

When you do, you find that with the prairie’s maturity comes a different sort of beauty. It’s nuanced.

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Some plants are crumpled and twisted. This one caught a plant virus. See that thick stem? It’s frayed a little around the stress points, but not broken…

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Prairie dock leaves are so wrinkled you have to look twice to recognize them.

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Much different from their beginnings just a year or so ago.

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All the knowledge of the past prairie season is encapsulated here in March. A shadow of what once was. You can’t help but be reminded of our own fleeting presence here.

 

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There’s promise. That promise will be more evident after the prescribed fires, when the prairie is once again lush and green and beginning to bloom.

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Despite the stands of dead foliage, what is important to the prairie is still here. Even if unseen. It’s right where you’re standing. Down deep where the fire can’t touch it, in the roots that plunge up to 15 feet or more into the earth.

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Martin Luther King, Jr., once said: “Everything we see is but a shadow cast by that which we don’t see.” He wasn’t talking about the prairie, but his words are applicable. Those unseen deep roots that grip the soil so tenaciously–and will remain untouched by fire—are the prairie’s future. They hold the history of the prairie–the soil—in their grasp. While the life of the prairie above the ground is finished—that fleeting shadow of wildflowers, grasses, and color—there is more to consider than what is visible to our eyes.

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Some prairies have already been burned as March comes to a close. But, without the right weather conditions, many of our local prairies are still in a state of anticipation. Waiting for the flames. For the prairie to flourish—for color and life and motion to be kindled again in the tallgrass—calls for something harsh, extravagant, and radical to happen.

There’s not much time left. March is almost over.

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Bring on the fire.

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*****

The opening quote is by dark romantic writer Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), a neighbor of Ralph Waldo Emerson and a contemporary of Abraham Lincoln, Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville (who dedicated his novel Moby Dick to Hawthorne), and Louis Agassiz. To support his writing, and later his family, Hawthorne did everything from working as a surveyor to shoveling manure. He’s known for his short stories and his novels, such as The House of the Seven Gables. Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter was one of the first mass produced books in America, and required reading when I was in high school. Writer D.H. Lawrence said of The Scarlet Letter, “There could be no more perfect work of the imagination.” Hawthorne is buried at Authors Ridge in Concord, Massachusetts.

*****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Schulenberg Prairie in March before the burn, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  unknown mammal bones, Prairiewoods Prairie, Hiawatha, IA; spoon in the tallgrass, Prairiewoods Prairie, Hiawatha, IA; prairie dock leaf (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy IL, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) (probably infected with a virus), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy IL; Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; wrinkled prairie dock leaf (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy IL, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; green prairie dock leaf (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Aldo Leopold Prairie Visitor Center prairie planting, Baraboo, WI; feather on prairie plant (both unknown species), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans)  at Prairiewoods, Hiawatha, IA; ball gall, Prairiewoods, Hiawatha, IA; unburned savanna and burned prairie at Prairiewoods, Hiawatha, IA; prescribed burn sign, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn in the distance, viewed from The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Skunked at the End of Prairie Winter

“One sometimes finds what one isn’t looking for.” –Alexander Fleming

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Lately, I’ve been hunting skunk cabbage. I’ve seen it around the marshy areas of the lakes and ponds, and I have it on good authority it should be in the swampy areas of the prairie wetlands where I’m a steward supervisor.

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Unfortunately, I keep getting (forgive me) skunked. We’re updating our prairie plant inventory, and we know skunk cabbage was sighted here in 2005. But…where? And so, I keep walking the banks of Willoway Brook, brushing aside leaves, scouring the prairie wetlands. No luck.

I love this elusive plant. Although it can poke through the snow as early as December in the Chicago region, seeing it emerge always says “spring” to me.

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Spring! It’s so close you can almost taste it. You can smell it in the air; feel it in the mud squishing under your hiking boots. March 20 is the vernal equinox—our astronomical spring.  But for those of us ready to rush the season a little, Thursday, March 1, stands in as the official day of meteorological spring.

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Astro-what? Meteorological? Huh?

There’s a great article from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) about the difference  here. A quick overview: meteorological spring—the March 1 kickoff—is  a way for scientists to have consistent statistics  from year to year, using the calendar months as a guide.

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I like using this earlier start date. Just thinking it is officially “spring” improves my attitude. Spring! It’s here Thursday! Well, sort of. Signs of it are everywhere on this almost 50 degree day as I hike the tallgrass. The snowdrops are blooming nearby.

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Out on the prairie, Willoway Brook runs free of ice and snow.

So what’s all the fuss about the other “spring” date? That sort of depressing, middle of March kick-off I mentioned? Why use it? Astronomical spring—based on the position of the Earth to the sun (that “vernal equinox”) means the days we count as the spring season will vary from year to year. Very simply put, an equinox means day and night are of the same duration, or equal.  Astronomical seasons, based on the Earth and Sun’s positions, vary from 89-93 days long each year, NOAA tells us. So if you’re a scientist, it wreaks havoc on your comparison statistics to use the changeable astronomical seasons. Using the months of March, April, and May as “spring” for comparison from year to year makes more sense.

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Of course there’s Leap Year, but hey! Let’s quit while we’re ahead and leave that explanation for another day.

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The Latin “ver” means spring. But many scientists prefer the term “March equinox” as it is more globally universal.

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Keep in mind that for my friends in New Zealand and in the Southern Hemisphere, it makes no sense to say they have a vernal equinox, nor is March the beginning of their spring, as the seasons are the reverse of what we in the Northern Hemisphere experience.

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Whew! Is your head spinning yet?

Mine is, a little.

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Meanwhile, the calendar may say spring this week, but I’m still hunting skunk cabbage in the prairie wetlands. Maybe it has disappeared since our last prairie plant inventory. More likely, I’m just not looking attentively enough.

The bonus is, of course, that as I look for the missing skunk cabbage, I see a lot of other  signs of spring on the way.

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Which makes getting “skunked” so worth it.

*****

Alexander Fleming (1881-1955), whose quote opens this post, was a brilliant Scottish scientist. After seeing many soldiers die from sepsis during World War 1, he researched the reason antiseptics (which were used to treat infection at the time) were ineffective. His untidy, cluttered lab led to penicillin’s accidental discovery. Fleming’s work is considered the beginning of modern antibiotics.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; frost at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve prairie plantings, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; trail through the Schulenberg Prairie at the end of February, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; water running in Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL;  acorn on ice, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; frost at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve prairie plantings, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Thanks to NOAA for the information on meteorological spring and astronomical spring.

Weathering the February Prairie

“You know what they say about Chicago. If you don’t like the weather, wait fifteen minutes.”– Ralph Kiner

***

Pick a card. Any card. The weather on the February prairie is as random as a shuffle of the deck. Who knows what each day will bring?

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This past week in the Midwest illustrates it. First, a glittering frost.

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Then snow, falling an inch an hour.

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Fog.

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Followed by floods of rain.

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Yo-yo weather. Keeping things interesting.

Brittle and weather-beaten; stripped of their leaves, seeds, and flowers,  prairie plants take on an unfamiliar look.

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Their identities keep you guessing; turning back for a second glance. Touching the plant, sniffing it for a sensory clue. Hmmmmm. 

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As the weather zigzags between snow and rain, freeze and thaw…

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…the last seedheads stand out on the prairie.

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Some of the seeds are whittled away by wind, weather, and critters.

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Others have stems which are completely bare.

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Changes in weather give the prairie plants one more chance to shine.

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Highlighted by sun, snow, and ice.

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As rain and flooding melt all the white stuff, and mud sucks our hiking boots at every step, you know the prairie is ready for change. You can hear the word whispered in the wind.

Fire. 

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In only days or weeks, we’ll light a match. What we see now will soon be archived as our memory of what once was. The scorched prairie will be ready for us—site managers and volunteers and stewards— to paint our hopes and dreams upon it. In our imagination, it will be a masterpiece of restoration. This will be the year.

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We study the forecasts, anticipating just the right weather conditions—humidity, temperature, wind direction— to set the prairie ablaze. Each day we shuffle the deck. Cut the cards. Turn one over. Rain. Snow. Fog. Ice.

We’re waiting for just the right card. The one that says Go!

I heard a cardinal sing his spring song this week, despite the heavy snows and other crazy weather changes.

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It won’t be long.

*****

The opening quote is by Ralph Kiner (1922-2014), a major league baseball player and outfielder with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs, and Cleveland Indians. Kiner was an announcer for the New York Mets until his passing. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1975, and known as one of baseballs “most charming gentlemen.”

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DRN, Downer’s Grove, IL; frost at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; frost at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; snowy day, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, Downer’s Grove, IL;  foggy morning near Danada Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Wheaton, IL; late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium lacinatum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, Downer’s Grove, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrafolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, Downer’s Grove, IL;  stream through Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white vervain (Verbena urticifolia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, Downer’s Grove, IL; rattlesnake master  (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, Downer’s Grove, IL; prescribed burn sign, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; monarch (Danaus plexippus) on butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis ), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL. 

Prairie Maintenance

“Ain’t no use jiving. Ain’t no use joking. Everything is broken…” — Bob Dylan

***

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a prairie steward in possession of a car she believes is reliable will soon be disillusioned.

My 2004 Honda CR-V just turned over 208,000 miles. The mileage doesn’t trouble me much. Until something conks out. This week, it was the driver’s side window that no longer powered down.

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I didn’t really notice that window function until I didn’t have it anymore. Suddenly, driving through the java shop for my morning coffee, picking up a prescription at the drugstore drive-through window, or going by the gatehouse at the arboretum where I’m a prairie steward became awkward. Opening the door to offer money or information or an admission pass back and forth, especially when temperatures are zero-ish, can herd your thoughts into a bad mood for the day.

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Of course, car repair problems are never solo. They swirl in like sandhill cranes, one following the other…ever multiplying before your eyes.

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The gas cap swing door now refuses to flip out, and I find myself manually prying it open whenever my tank registers “E.” A brake light gave up the ghost. And—what’s this? The bright “check engine” light stares back at me from the dash. Bob Dylan’s song “Everything is Broken,” plays continually on my mental soundtrack.

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It’s time to trade it in. This, from my husband, who has been patient with the repairs we’ve done over the past 14 years. I’ve always prided myself on not getting attached to “stuff.” But I admit it—I’m sentimental about my car. It’s the first new vehicle I ever bought especially for myself. I haggled over the price with the dealer, customized it with a roof rack for my kayak, and waited until it was available in my favorite color, blue. It regularly  hauls a dozen seed collection buckets, weeders, dragonfly nets, loppers, large thermoses of coffee, a giant orange cooler of water,  tarps, and other accouterments of a prairie steward for countless volunteer work mornings.

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Of course, as a prairie steward hauling tools around,  I’m responsible for a different set of repairs. The tallgrass site I help supervise is always, it seems, in need of some sort of maintenance.

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This season, we’ll tackle the usual problems: cutting buckthorn and honeysuckle creeping around the prairie edges; pulling Queen Anne’s lace, garlic mustard, and yellow rocket where it pops up in our high-quality plantings. It doesn’t take long for sweet clover and crown vetch to creep in and plot their take-over strategies. Birds-foot trefoil? Always ready to slip in under the radar.  Fixing the trouble spots calls for a series of small, necessary “repairs” that require vigilance and continual maintenance.

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Occasionally, the warning light trips on. Check the engine. Last season, it was an infiltration of reed canary grass that stormed a high quality area and suddenly seemed everywhere. Ditto for some rogue brambles that shaded out a previously diverse section of wildflowers while going mostly unnoticed. These started as small problems, but neglected, got steadily worse. Now, both are major repair jobs.

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Some of the repairs I can tackle on my own. Others require a team of volunteers or staff. We all work together, keeping the tallgrass prairie engine humming.

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The prairie, like my old CR-V, is always going to be in need of management. It will always need a certain amount of routine maintenance, like prescribed fire, even when there are no obvious “repairs” to be done. It’s a work in progress.

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Which brings me back to my Honda. At some point, the repairs will become too much. We’ll trade in my old CR-V for a vehicle with less mileage on it. Cars, no matter how many times you repair and carefully maintain them—and no matter the nostalgia you feel for the roads you’ve traveled together—eventually give out.

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Which is, perhaps, where the comparison of prairie and beloved Honda ends.

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My vehicle will eventually tick off its last odometer mile.  But the more mileage the prairie has on it, the more promise it holds. The older the prairie, the richer its history.  The deeper, more tenacious, the roots. The stronger the ties to the land.

The maintenance and care we give it each year helps it become more beautiful with age. It encourages me to know this. As I keep making the repairs.

****

Bob Dylan (1941-), whose words kick off this post, is an award-winning songwriter and musician. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. “Everything is broken” is a good song for every car owner—or any prairie steward struggling with a restoration—to give a listen to. It makes me smile—and I hope it makes you smile, too. If you’re a Jane Austen fan, you probably also noticed the “wink wink” reference to the opening lines of Pride and Prejudice.  One of the most famous lines in literature! I’m sure Austen never envisioned her words referring to a car.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) Honda at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison) at Nachusa Grasslands, the Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area, Department of Natural Resources, Medaryville, Indiana;  broken compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum) blooms, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove Park District, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum) leaf, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove Park District, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove, IL;  late summer at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; volunteers hauling brush and grasses, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Belmont Prairie in January, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove Park District, The Nature’s Conservancy, Downer’s Grove, IL; Honda at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; sunset, Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The Art of Prairie Restoration

This world is but a canvas to our imagination.” — Henry David Thoreau

***

Winter is wonderful. Usually.

But this past week has been a rollercoaster ride of temperature swings from high 50s plunging to near zero; sunshine and gloom, snow and rain. In other words, typical. Fog blew in and settled on the prairies, coloring everything gray. A drag on the spirits.

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One of my go-to cures for the January blues—or should I say grays—is The Art Institute of Chicago.

I wander in. Immediately there is a blast of color and light in the Impressionist Gallery. Ironically, even the canvas,”Paris Street: Rainy Day,”  seems bright and cheerful.

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The Monet waterlilies…

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…bring back memories of summer in the prairie wetlands.

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I soak up the primary hues of paintings in the Modern Wing.

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Thinking of hikes through the snow this month…

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In unlikely stairwells, I stumble across reminders of  blue skies, obscured by clouds this week.

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I  imagine the prairie skies, hidden for so long behind shrouds of fog and curtains of snow and rain.

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As I stroll the halls and gaze at the creations showcased in this iconic place, it’s a good reminder of the courage of those who strove, against all odds, to create something beautiful out of nothing. These painters, sculptors, and other artists who had a vision.

Like some other folks I know.

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Prairie restorationists and artists have a lot in common. We think of restoration as a science. But it’s also about creativity.

Prairie restoration begins with a vision.

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The dream of how the land might be healed, imagined in the mind of a steward or site manager.

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There’s a lot of trial and error. Preliminary sketching, if you will; a few rough drafts. Sometimes, you scrap everything and start over.

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There may be misunderstandings along the way. People who don’t get it. They look at your “project” and shake their head. They wonder out loud if you have wasted your time.

“Weeds. It’s just a bunch of weeds.”

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Bet you’ve heard that one before, haven’t you?

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But you keep on moving forward. You believe in what you are doing. You look for the breakthroughs.

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Without imagination—without creativity—without courage—the best prairie restorations don’t happen.

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The rewards don’t always come in your lifetime. But the work you do isn’t for yourself, although the tallgrass is gratifying in a thousand different ways. You work, knowing you leave a legacy for those who will come after you. You think of them, as you drip with sweat, freeze, or pull weeds; plant seeds.

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You can see the future in your mind. Envision it. That end result. And as artists and restorationists know, it’s worth the work. It’s worth the wait.

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Think about it.

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*******

The writer Henry David Thoreau, whose quote opens this essay, was a naturalist, philosopher, writer, transcendentalist, and social reformer. A favorite quote from Thoreau, “We can never have enough of nature.” His 1849 essay, “Civil Disobedience,” continues to stimulate thinking about human rights. His most famous book is “Walden.”

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): prairie plants in the fog at Saul Lake Bog Nature Preserve, Land Conservancy of West Michigan, Rockford, MI; “Paris Street: Rainy Day,” 1877, Gustave Caillebotte, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; “Waterlily Pond,” 1917-19, Claude Monet, European Painting and Sculpture, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; prairie pond, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Clear Creek, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; “Yellow Hickory Leaves with Daisy,” 1928, Georgia O’Keeffe, American Art Gallery, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; beech (Fagus sylvatica) leaves on snow, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; “Sky Above Clouds IV,” 1965, Georgia O’Keeffe, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; sky over Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, United States National Park Service, The Nature Conservancy, Strong City, KS; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) and volunteer weeding, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; volunteers collecting seed, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) seedpod, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; “A and the Carpenter “I”, Sam Gilliam, 1973, Modern and Contemporary Art, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; barb wire and Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; “Grayed Rainbow,” 1953, Jackson Pollock, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL;  ice and grasses, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; snowy trail through Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove, IL; pasque flowers (Anemone patens, sometimes Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; late summer on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; “The Thinker,” Auguste Rodin, Rodin Exhibition, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL (add to the conversation here). 

A Prairie Wish and a Prayer

 “Labor brings a thing nearer the heart’s core.” –Mary Webb

***

For prairie volunteers, it’s impossible to walk the tallgrass in December and not think of endings. This month is the symbolic culmination of a year’s worth of stewardship; the grand finale of planning, sweat, risk, small successes and—sometimes—epic failures. Three steps forward, two steps back.

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Take a deep breath. Look around you. Everything that can go to seed has flossed out; emptied itself into the wind and soil. Wade into the tallgrass. Bits of seed silk fly out in  pieces all around, a little prairie mock snowstorm.

Sun slants through seedheads; sparks stalks and stems into silver and gold.

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Hike the trails and mull over the season that has passed. Muse on the new season still to come. 

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In the distance, smoke hazes the prairie, tumbles above the treeline. 

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Natural resource managers, taking advantage of the warm, dry conditions, lay down prescribed burns in the nearby woodlands and wetlands. But not yet on the prairie. Soon, we tell the tallgrass. Very soon. Your turn will come.

December has been, by turns, warm and balmy; all sunshine then thunder; bitter and breezy.

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Listen closely as you hike the prairie trails and you’ll hear the tell-tale sounds of the end of juice and sap. The rustle of switchgrass. The brittle rattle of white wild indigo seed pods.

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The indigo stems snap off in 50 mph winds then roll, tumbleweed-like, across the prairie, scattering their progeny.

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Broken—but accomplishing their evolutionary task of moving around their DNA. In years to come, we’ll see the results: those incomparable white wild indigo blooms. Close your eyes. Imagine.

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But for now, look closely.  Who knows what you’ll see? A heightening of intense rusts and coppers, right before the final brutal bleaching freezes of January and February.

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Keep looking. You may see the occasional fluke or strange oddity as nature deals the tallgrass a wild card.

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Admire the blown-out stars of asters, spent for this season. Think of the seeds they’ve dropped in the rich black prairie soil, which now harbors a constellation of future blooms for the coming summer.

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New beginnings. They’re all here. Think of what weeding, a bit of planting, and a little dreaming might help this prairie become.
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So much possibility.
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Make a wish. Say a prayer.
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Your hard work may be mostly done for this season. But it has brought this little patch of tallgrass very close to your heart. Let your imagination run wild for what this prairie might become.

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Because on the prairie in December, anything for the coming year seems possible.

***

Mary Webb (1881-1927), who penned the opening quote, was an award-winning English poet and romantic novelist. Her health ultimately failed from Grave’s Disease; her marriage failed as well and she died alone and with her last novel unfinished at age 46. Her writing reflects her fatalism and compassion for suffering. Gone to Earth (1917) expresses her horror of war; Precious Bane (1924), whose heroine has a disfiguring impairment, received the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse Anglais award, a French literary prize. She is known for her intense creativity, mysticism, and her love for the natural world.

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Schulenberg Prairie in December, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cream wild indigo (Baptisia leucampha), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  unknown brome (Bromus spp.), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; prescribed burn, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) seed pods, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) upside down stalks, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie in December, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata) with mutation because of fasciation (viral, genetic, chemical), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; unknown aster, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias  syriaca) pods, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pappus, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hand with common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pappus, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nomia Meadows Farm Prairie, Franklin Grove, IL.

Thanks to Illinois Botany FB page for their help with my question about fasciation and the round-headed bush clover, especially Paul Marcum. 

America’s Favorite (Prairie) Pastime

“A baseball weighted your hand just so, and fit it…When you hit it with a bat it cracked – and your heart cracked, too, at the sound. It took a grass stain nicely….” — Annie Dillard

 

For baseball fans, July means the season is building to a crescendo. So it is also in the tallgrass.

July throws out every possible pitch on the prairie: thunderstorms, scorching hot days, high winds, foggy mornings, cool evenings. It keeps you slightly off-balance. Guessing. Unsure of what the next day or—even hour—in the tallgrass might bring.

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In the prairie wetlands, egrets crouch; umpire the prairie ponds and streams.

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Cup plants have hit their stride. Towering and aggressive–up to 10 feet tall—their cheerful flowers team up with compass plant and prairie dock blooms to splash yellow across the prairie.

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Their perfoliate sandpapery leaves catch rainwater for thirsty goldfinches and other birds. Think of a scratchy catcher’s mitt.

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Big bluestem shoots up overnight, waving its turkey-footed seed heads. As Illinois state grass, it deserves an all-star role on the July prairie.

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Cordgrass blooms, subtle and easy to miss.

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But with the prairie roster overflowing with wildflowers…

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…big bluestem and the other grasses are sometimes overlooked, just as utility players often are beside their flashier teammates. Just wait until October, they seem to whisper.

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Gray-headed coneflowers shake out their lemon petal pennants, cheering on the season.

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In a few weeks, their gray seed heads will become dry and brittle with an amazing scent: an anise-citrus prairie potpourri. Mmmm.

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Joe Pye weed fills the prairie savanna with clouds of pale lavender. Their floral scorecards are marked with yellow tiger swallowtails and other butterflies, crazy for the nectar.

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Buckeyes surf the grasses; pop up along the paths.

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And every prairie clover bloom seems to sport a bee or butterfly.

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America’s favorite pastime might be baseball.

But the prairie in July knows how to hit a home run.

*****

The opening quote is from Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood (1987), her memoir of growing up in Pittsburgh. Among the awards Dillard has won for her writing is the Pulitzer Prize for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), a sustained non-fiction narrative about the beauty and terror of the natural world.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): fog over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; great egret (Ardea alba), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), with unknown bee, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie blooms, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Schulenberg prairie grasses at sunset, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; gray-headed coneflower seed heads (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  white prairie clover (Dalea candida) with wild indigo duskywing butterfly (Erynnis baptisiae most likely, although this is a difficult genus to ID), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.