Tag Archives: belmont prairie nature preserve

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?

PalepurpleconeflowerTWO-belmontprairie21818 copy.jpg

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

P1160370 copy.jpg

Prairieplantings-HiddenLake218 copy.jpg

Then snow, falling an inch an hour.

Belmontprairiecropped21818jpg copy.jpg

Fog.

FoggydayinFebruary21818 (1) copy.jpg

Followed by floods of rain.

IMG_2405

Yo-yo weather. Keeping things interesting.

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

belmontprairie-compassplant21818 copy.jpg

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

Belmontprairie21818wildquinine copy.jpg

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

watermarkedbelmontprairiesnowyday218.jpg

 

…the last seedheads stand out on the prairie.

SPMA-prairiecinquefoil218 copy.jpg

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

prairieclover218SPMA copy.jpg

Others have stems which are completely bare.

SPMA-218whitevervain copy.jpg

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

Belmontprairie-grayconeflower21818 copy.jpg

Highlighted by sun, snow, and ice.

Belmontprairie-rattlesnakemaster2218 copy.jpg

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. 

IMG_3769

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.

Monarch on butterflyweed617

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.

Cardinal in a snowstorm 218 copy.jpg

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.

Honda at Nachusa autumn 2017

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.

P1080596.jpg

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

Sandhills Jasper Polaski 2016.jpg

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.

IMG_6875

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.

P1150944.jpg

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.

P1150961.jpg

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.

P1150880.jpg

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.

Nachusa Grasslands summer 2017.jpg

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.

IMG_9429.jpg

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.

P1150956

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.

Nachusa Honda going new journeys 2017.jpg

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

Russell Kirt Prairie fall 2017 COD.jpg

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.

p1050508

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.

Rainy Day.jpg

The Monet waterlilies…

Monet.jpg

…bring back memories of summer in the prairie wetlands.

Nachusa Grasslands Ponds 2017 (1).jpg

p1020252

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

Okeeffe.jpg

Thinking of hikes through the snow this month…

leaves on snow.jpg

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

Okeeffe Sky.jpg

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

P1120337.jpg

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.

Kath in the Indigo 6:17.JPG

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.

volunteers in the tallgrass SPMA.JPG

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

milkweed pod SPMA.JPG

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

scaffold

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.”

P1140552.jpg

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

pollock.jpg

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

SPMA.JPG

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

P1150517.jpg

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.

Pasqueflowers 2016 NG.jpg

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.

IMG_3656.jpg

Think about it.

The thinker.jpg

*******

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.

SPMAprairieaglow1217

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.

creamwildindigo1217MASP

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

Belmont Prairie Brome spp. 1117

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

IMG_3872

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.

BeebalmSPMA1217

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.

P1140823

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

WhitewildindigoSPMA2017

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.

IMG_5447

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.

SPMAdecember17littlebluestem

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

BelmontPrairie-roundheadedbushclover1117

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.

Belmont Prairie 11:17Asterspp

New beginnings. They’re all here. Think of what weeding, a bit of planting, and a little dreaming might help this prairie become.
P1140876

So much possibility.
P1140907

Make a wish. Say a prayer.
P1140878

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.

P1060625.jpg

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.

P1000581.jpg

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

IMG_5731 (1).jpg

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.

P1100902.jpg

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

P1100912.jpg

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.

IMG_8421 (1)

Cordgrass blooms, subtle and easy to miss.

P1100922.jpg

But with the prairie roster overflowing with wildflowers…

P1100936.jpg

…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.

P1000600.jpg

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

P1100883.jpg

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

P1010939.jpg

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.

P1100899.jpg

Buckeyes surf the grasses; pop up along the paths.

P1090612.jpg

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

P1100048.jpg

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.

Winter Prairie Wonders

 “It is easy to underestimate the power of a long-term association with the land, not just with a specific spot but with the span of it in memory and imagination, how it fills, for example, one’s dreams…”–Barry Lopez

****

“There’s nothing much happening on the prairie now…right?” a long-time nature lover asked me recently. Here is what I want him to know.

To develop a relationship with a prairie, you will want to experience the spring burn.

firesp2013-two

Learn the names of the summer wildflowers.

IMG_3173

Marvel at the fall colors.

IMG_1259

But don’t forget hiking the winter prairie, no matter how cold and gray the days may be. Because part of any good relationship is simply showing up.

The joys of a winter hike include the thimbleweed’s soft cloud-drifts of seeds. Like Q-tips.

P1040436.jpg

Or, the way prairie dock’s dotted Swiss leaves, brittle with cold and age, become a vessel for snow and a window into something more.

P1040405.jpg

Don’t miss the deep grooves, sharp spikes, and elegant curves of rattlesnake master leaves, swirling in and out of focus in the grasses. How can a plant be so forbidding–yet so graceful?

P1040439.jpg

In winter, you’re aware of the contrasts of dark and light; of beaded pods and slender stems.

IMG_9263.jpg

The goldenrod rosette galls are as pretty as any blooms the summer offers.

IMG_9254.jpg

The colors of the end-of-January prairie, which splatter across the landscape like a Jackson Pollock painting, are more subtle than the vivid hues of July.  But no less striking, in their own way. The winter prairie whispers color, instead of shouting it.

P1040412.jpg

On your hike, you may bump up against signs of life, like this praying mantis egg case.

img_9252

Or be dazzled by the diminutive drifts of snow crystals, each bit of ice a work of art.

P1040433.jpg

All of the flowers –and most of the seedheads–are gone. Many of the birds have flown south. Hibernating mammals sleep away the cold. But as life on the stripped-down prairie slows…

P1040406.jpg

…there is still much to see and to learn. And, isn’t slowing down and waiting an important part of any relationship?

P1040402.jpg

Yes, there is a lot happening on the winter prairie right now. But only for those who take time to look.

Why not go for a hike and see?

***

Barry Lopez (1945-), whose quote begins this essay, won the National Book Award for his nonfiction book, Arctic Dreams. His Of Wolves and Men” won the John Burroughs Nature Writing Medal (1978). Lopez graduated from Notre Dame University, and is currently  Visiting Distinguished Scholar at Texas Tech University. He has been called “the nation’s premier nature writer” by the San Francisco Chronicle, and writes compellingly about the relationship of people and cultures to landscape. Another memorable line from Arctic Dreams: The land is like poetry: it is inexplicably coherent, it is transcendent in its meaning, and it has the power to elevate a consideration of human life.” Well said. Lopez lives in Oregon.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): spring burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blue vervain (Verbena hastata) and pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; autumn on the prairie, Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy and Indiana DNR, Newton County, IN; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; wild senna (Senna hebecarpa), St. Stephen’s Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; goldenrod (probably Solidago canadensis) gall rosette (sometimes called “bunch gall”), St. Stephen’s Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; tallgrass, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL (Thanks to Charles Larry for the Jackson Pollock reference); praying mantis (Mantis religiosa) egg case, St. Stephen’s Prairie, Carol Stream, IL;  snow crystals, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; empty seedhead, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; tallgrass, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL.

The January Prairie Blues

“The blues tells a story. Every line of the blues has a meaning.”
— John Lee Hooker
***

“It is the life of the crystal, the architect of the flake, the fire of the frost, the soul of the sunbeam. This crisp winter air is full of it. “
–John Burroughs

***

It’s about that time of a new year when social media and newspapers take up stories about the blues. No, not the music. Rather, seasonal affective disorder; the general malaise of cold, gray days that dampens mood and motivation.

IMG_2840.jpg

Got the blues? Forget that trip to Florida to soak up sunshine.

IMG_3768.jpg

Instead, consider the prairie.

In January it offers its own particular brand of blues; a little antidote to blues of a more melancholy kind.

IMG_8421 (1)

Tune up with these “blues” for a moment or two; see if they chase the other blues away.  Follow me to the tallgrass.

IMG_2177.jpg

See how the mice stitch their tracks across the blue tint of the snow?

Consider the pale blue glints of ice crystals that briefly frost the grasses; vanishing in the hot breath of the morning sun.

P1040202.jpg

Marvel at the blue shadows in the snow, which form a background for the legato ripple of big bluestem leaves.

P1030974.jpg

Look up. Blue-gray clouds patch the prairie sky, filter sunlight. Trees and grasses change focus as blue sky appears, then disappears: Fade, then sharp. Fade, then sharp.

IMG_3123 (1).jpg

A turkey flashes its iridescent feathers, shot through with silky blues. If you’ve got it, flaunt it.

P1030517.jpg

Notice a  jet contrail or two faintly striped in misty white overhead. Moments ago, there were people suspended in space here, headed for who knows where—and who knows why. Their story is traced across the wide blue sky. It only calls for  your imagination to spin it.

Sky-NG2016.jpg

There is even a home for the littlest “blues” –those feathered harbingers of happiness.

P1030672.jpg

 

The tallgrass rolls out the carpet, all blue and white sparkles.

p1030913

 

Embossed with blue shadows that pool in tracks across the snow; a promise of adventure and new beginnings…

P1030910.jpg

…and, a reminder that the “blues” can be beautiful.  Who knows? You  may even come to love them.

IMG_7498 (1).jpg

The prairie blues, anyhow.  The best kind.

***

John Lee Hooker (1912-2001), whose quote opens this post, was a Grammy-award winning blues musician from Mississippi. The youngest of eleven children, he ran away from home at age 14 and eventually made his way to Detroit, where he found success as a guitarist, vocalist, and lyricist (although he was unable to read). He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1991) and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (2000). Listen to clips of his music on YouTube, including this rendition of “Blue Monday”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WNl2wXE90vk&index=318&list=PLu_npSo2nvWSIjcaewEUE9O-gk3W1xnfS

***

John Burroughs (1837-1921), whose quote from his book, “Winter Sunshine,” also opens this post, is honored as the father of the modern nature essay. The seventh of 10 children, he grew up in the Catskill Mountains of New York where he learned to love the outdoors. Burroughs later taught school in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, until he returned east to marry and work in banking. He continued writing, and eventually authored more than 30 books. He was a contemporary of the poet Walt Whitman, and kept company with John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt as well as other notables of that time period. Since 1926, the John Burroughs Association, founded in his honor, has awarded the John Burroughs Medal to the author of a book of natural history almost every year. Some of my favorite award winners include: Gathering Moss (Robin Wall Kimmerer, 2005); The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating (Elizabeth Tova Bailey, 2011);  Wind (Jan DeBlieu, 1999); The Control of Nature (John McPhee, 1990); and the classic, A Sand County Almanac (Aldo Leopold, 1977).

For a complete list of winners, see: research.amnh.org/burroughs/medal_award_list.html

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): on the way to Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; beach umbrellas on Sanibel Island, FL; blue sky with big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL;  ice crystals, interpretive trail, Fermilab, Batavia, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sky over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), Curtis Prairie at The University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum, Madison, WI; interpretive trail, Fermilab, Batavia, IL: eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) nesting box, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; sparkly snow with bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; people (Homo sapiens) tracks, Schulenberg Prairie savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; heart-shaped deer (Odocoileus virginianus) track, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.