“How utterly astonishing our instant here (a time scented with dim remembering).”—Stephen Rowe
It’s no coincidence that the weather has finally taken a turn and become, well, winter-like. In January, the prairie moves into its deep frosty mode. Hiking for the next eight weeks likely means cold hands, a less colorful landscape, more gray skies, and occasional brutal winds with few trees to block them.
No wonder a lot of us opt for a book about prairie and a hot mug of tea, sitting by the fireplace and eschewing any physical effort! But the joys of the winter prairie are worth getting up off your duff and hoofing it out to the trails.
Not convinced? Here are a four ideas to get us outside to appreciate the winter tallgrass prairie.
1. Think “subtle” rather than “eye-popping.” “There’s not much going on out at the prairie right now, right?” That was a question from a staff member where I volunteer as a prairie steward; asked when the wildflowers had long stopped blooming, and the prairie was settled in for the winter. Of course, I answered, “There’s always a lot going on out on the prairie!” Yet, to tune in to what’s happening in the winter is like fiddling with a fussy TV antenna. You do know what that is, right? Or maybe you have to be a certain age…. . The winter prairie takes patience, time, and the willingness to pay attention.
It’s long been said that the tallgrass prairie is a landscape that whispers rather than shouts. It doesn’t smack you in the face like the Rocky Mountains, or a Florida sunset. And yet. The tallgrass prairie is more than just a quick shot of postcard-type beauty. There is enchantment in the singular…
…and awe in the sweep of the prairie landscape.
The grace and loveliness of the prairie—-especially in winter–sneaks up on you as you walk the trails.
Look closely. This is no monochrome landscape.
Winter wildflower and grass structures have a charm that may be more compelling than their warm season forms.
There is a simplicity and rhythm that threads through even the most common of prairie plants.
A quick hike doesn’t always reveal these aspects of the winter prairie. It takes time.
Slow down. Pay attention. Who knows what you’ll discover?
2. Read the stories the prairie is trying to tell you. The writing is everywhere. Look down, around your hiking boots. What do you see?
Scan the grasses. What narratives do you read there?
Look up. There are chapters to be read in the tops of the trees along the prairie’s edges.
So many tales the tallgrass has to tell you! The prairie is waiting for you to read its stories. All you have to do is show up. Look. Listen. And let the stories unfold.
3. Take your cell phone. What? Yes, you heard that right. Winter prairie wildflowers and grasses may look completely different than their summer personas.
Load the free app iNaturalist on your phone before you go, and you’ll increase your knowledge of prairie plants in their January mystery guises.
If you hate the idea of a phone on your hike, take your camera. You can always snap a photo of mystery plants, load them on your laptop or desktop or tablet, and use iNaturalist to take a photo of your image when you are back home to ID them. I also made a resolution to do more eBirding in the new year, so I use my free mobile eBird app to tally the birds I see on my prairie hikes. Again, if you don’t want to take your phone for birding, you can note what you see on a piece of paper and log the data at home. Fun!
4. Prepare before you go. Dress for the weather. That means something to keep your head covered. Comfortable footwear. Warm socks to keep your feet warm. Mittens or gloves will keep your fingers toasty. I like fingerless gloves, as I’m tapping my phone app iNaturalist to check a plant ID, or (this year) keeping an eBird list of the feathered fliers I see as I hike. Sometimes, I tuck a “Hot Hands” pouch into my gloves, or a reusable heat cartridge in my pocket for extra warmth (there are many versions of these, I have the Zippo rechargeable hand warmers that were a wonderful gift from my family).
It’s worth the prep. If you are cold, wet and miserable, you’ll rush through your walk, unable to concentrate on what you see. Bundle up!
Before you leave home, make a thermos of something hot and delicious to enjoy when you are back in the car. Coffee, tea, or hot chocolate taste amazing when you have just come off the trail, rather than waiting for that hot drink until you are back home. I like to sit in the car for a bit, drink my coffee, and reflect on my hike as I defrost. Maybe you do, too.
What tips do you have for enjoying the winter prairie? I’d love to hear them in the comments section. Please share! The winter prairie is out there, waiting for you.
Ready to hike?
The opening quote is from Stephen Rowe (1945-), co-author with David Lubbers of Abiding: Landscape of the Soul. Rowe is a contemporary philosopher and educator.
Join Cindy for a Class or Program this Winter
Just a few tickets left! The Tallgrass Prairie in Popular Culture—Library Lecture, Friday, January 20, from 10-11:30 a.m. Explore the role the tallgrass prairie plays in literature, art, music—and more! Enjoy a hot beverage as you discover how Illinois’ “landscape of home” has shaped our culture, both in the past and today. This is an in-person program in the beautiful Sterling Morton Library; masks are optional but recommended. Offered by The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL; register here.
Nature Writing Workshop— Four Thursdays (February 2, 9, 16, and 23) from 6-8:30 p.m. Join a community of nature lovers as you develop and nurture your writing skills in person. Class size is limited. Masks are optional. For more information and to register visit here.
Looking for a speaker for your next event? Visit www.cindycrosby.com for more information.