“In the book of the earth it is written:nothing can die.”—Mary Oliver
“Have you noticed?”
In her poem, “Ghosts” the late poet Mary Oliver wrote compellingly about our native bison and their disappearance from the world.
Have you noticed? she asks, then continues: “In the book of the Sioux it is written: they have gone away into the earth to hide/Nothing will coax them out again/But the people dancing.“
Have you noticed? In 2016, the “dance” at the Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands in Morocco, IN, began with 23 bison brought to the preserve. Today, the herd has grown to around 90 animals, a few of which are barely visible this afternoon in the freezing mist.
At the bison viewing area, I hike to a slight rise in the landscape for a better look.
My hands quickly grow numb in the raw, moist air. Along the trail, mist-scattered diamond droplets cling to every plant.
A wet prairie’s colors in December are intensified. Especially under an aluminum sky.
Little bluestem’s rusty red glistens.
The soft pads of great mullein sparkle in the damp.
Wild saplings drip, drip, drip.
I notice the way the mist changes the prairie. Sharp edges: blurred. Horizons: hazed.
I notice the way the mist changes how I feel.
Which is…a deep melancholy. A sense of loss.
A loneliness that many explorers encountering prairie for the first time in their travels hundreds of year ago wrote about in their journals, and mentioned in their letters back home. It’s a December feeling; a pensiveness I rarely feel on the prairie in spring or summer.
The loss of tallgrass prairie in the Midwest is incalculable. It’s not only the disappearance of rare plants. It’s the loss of a whole community that vanished. How can we not feel grief in the midst of this knowledge?
And yet… I feel hope here at Kankakee Sands, as well as loss. I know the dance of restoration is not one of instant gratification. But a new future is being written for prairie. It’s not a clear future, and there will be plenty of obstacles along the way. I’m inspired, however, by those who care enough to make it happen.
The mist muffles the sound of traffic just off the prairie on U.S. Highway 41; obscures the farmland beyond the preserve’s borders. I can almost imagine I’m hiking with those early explorers or the Native Americans who once called this area home; encountering the vast expanses of tallgrass prairie that once blanketed the Midwest.
Under the slate-gray afternoon sky, lost in the mist, the prairie seems like a dream. The dream of a future where the tallgrass prairie community is vibrant and healthy again.
With the help of people, it’s a dream that is slowly coming true, right here at Kankakee Sands.
Have you noticed?
The opening quote and poetry excerpts (Have you noticed?) are from Mary Oliver’s “Ghosts”, included in her poetry collection American Primitive (1983). Read more about this late great poet (1935-2019) here.
All photos in today’s blog were taken at Kankakee Sands, a Nature Conservancy site in Morocco, IN. If you find yourself in northwestern Indiana, or are looking for a delightful day trip from the Chicago Region, I can’t recommend this preserve highly enough. For more information, visit the website here.
Join Cindy for a Class or Program this Winter!
The Tallgrass Prairie in Popular Culture—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. 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. For more information and to register visit here.
Illinois Prairie needs you! Visit Save Bell Bowl Prairie to learn about this special place—one of the last remaining gravel prairies in our state —and to find out what you can do to help.
“Even then, I sensed that the buffalo signaled something profound….”–Dan O’Brien
We followed the sandhill cranes south this weekend…
…as we traveled to central Indiana. The morning skies were an ever-changing source of awe, from the moment we started our drive at sunrise…
…to the beautiful morning cloud formations over the corn fields of the northwestern corner of the Hoosier state.
And a lunar eclipse! Still to come.
A favorite stop when we travel this way is Kankakee Sands in Indiana’s northwest corner. This past Saturday, we celebrated “National Bison Day” honoring our official United States mammal, so it seemed like a no-brainer to carve out a few extra miles to see if we could get a glimpse of this charismatic megafauna.
Kankakee Sands is a beautiful mosaic of wetlands and prairie, part of a greater conservation effort that includes about 20,000 acres. Within its acres are 86 rare, threatened, and endangered species.
We don’t always see the bison when we stop, but this time, we were in luck.
What awe-inspiring creatures! Two young bison stuck close to their mama, while keeping an eye on us.
We watched another part of the herd run by in the distance. Bison can attain speeds of up to 35 mph. How can animals that can weigh more than 2,000 pounds move so quickly? What made them hurry to the other end of the prairie?
No idea. But they were fun to watch.
We took a few moments to walk the hiking trail at less-than-bison speed…
…and stretched our legs after the long car journey. From the trail, we could observe some of the prairie plants in their full fall glory.
Little bluestem is at its peak.
What a glorious grass! Those rust hues. Those seeds, which spark the sunlight! It’s a lovely grass for home plantings, as well as on the larger landscape of the tallgrass prairie. I was reminded that I have three little bluestem plugs still waiting to be planted at home, sitting on my porch. Ha! Better get those in soon.
Tufted thistle swirled its seeds into the wind as we watched.
The wind had also broken off mullein’s tall spikes…
The native—but weedy—seedheads of evening primrose swayed in the breezes.
On the hill at the end of the trail, a tall tree, denuded of most of its leaves, loomed in the dying light. Very November-esque.
In the distance, white tailed deer mingled with the bison. They seemed content to share the prairie. Although we didn’t hear birdsong, we saw evidence of birds that were long gone south.
And then suddenly…a northern harrier cannonballed out of the grasses. Wow!
We watched it soar over the prairie; a fast-moving blur. It was quickly lost in the dying light.
While we were startled by the owl-like northern harrier, the mama bison and her young ones placidly grazed in the tallgrass. For them, it was just another part of a normal evening on the prairie.
What a peaceful scene, yet full of surprises. I felt myself relax. The prairie has a way of reminding me what contentment feels like.
The most difficult part of going to Kankakee Sands is making the decision to leave, and face the last leg of traffic entering Chicago. So much beautiful prairie here, all around. What an worth-while place to stop for a hike.
On the drive home, closing out our Sunday, we watched an almost-full moon rise over the 34-acre Biesecker Prairie as we waited at a stoplight for the light to change in St. John, Indiana. The prairie is right at the intersection.
It was worth setting the alarm for. Pretty spectacular.
Bison. A lunar eclipse. Prairies. What a wonderful way to begin the week. Who knows what other treats are in store?
I can’t wait to find out.
The opening quote is from Buffalo for the Broken Heart by Dan O’Brien (1966-). The New York Times notes O’Brien has a “keen and poetic eye” as he writes about his struggles to raise bison on a Black Hills ranch. Read more about his life and work here.
Close out 2022 by Joining Cindy for a Class or Program
Saturday, November 12, 2022 (1-2:30 p.m.) Add a Little Prairie to Your Garden, hosted by the Antioch Garden Club, Antioch, IL. In-person. Free and open to the public, but you must register. For information and to inquire about registering for the event, visit the garden club’s website here.
Wednesday, December 7, 2022 (6:30-8:30 p.m.) 100 Years Around the Arboretum. Join Cindy and Library Collections Manager Rita Hassert for a fun-filled evening and a celebratory cocktail as we toast the closing month of the Arboretum’s centennial year. In-person. Register here.
A very happy birthday to Trevor Dean Edmonson, site manager at Kankakee Sands, whose birthday is today! Thank you for the work you do!
“No gardener needs reminding that life depends on plants.” —Henry Mitchell
There’s nothing quite like finding two of the six branches of your pricey New Jersey Tea plant neatly clipped off. I’ve been babying my native shrub along this spring; bringing it pitchers of water and keeping my fingers crossed that it would leaf out. And it did. Only to be heavily barbered this morning.
I think I know who the culprit is.
Just the other day, Jeff and I saw her (him?) foraging along the fence line among some weeds. Awwwwww. So cute! Ah well. Looks like I need to protect my shrub with some defensive packaging. Wildlife friendly gardens are sometimes a bit…too friendly.
A week of rain and storm followed by days of wind and heat are turning the garden lush and green. Meteorological summer has arrived, and with it, a rush to get the last plastic pots of vegetable seedlings and native plant plugs into the ground.
It looks like sugar snap pea season is a no-go this year; I’m not sure what happened to my neat circle of seeds around the trellis planted a month ago. One day there were seedlings. The next? Gone.
I can hazard a guess.
Meanwhile, the Illinois prairies seem to be handling onslaughts of weather, “wascally wabbits”, and uneven warmth by flowering magnificently. While collecting dragonfly data at Nachusa Grasslands this week, my monitoring route took me through a surprise surplus of Golden Alexanders. I’ve walked this route many times over the past nine years, but never seen it like this.
It’s been a banner year for this wildflower.
Wild lupine is also in bloom…
…and colonies of meadow anemone.
The oh-so-pretty-in-pink wild geranium is in full flower, a reminder that I meant to purchase this at some of the native plant sales this spring for the yard. Next year!
As I hike, I inadvertently disturb the teneral dragonflies and damselflies, deep in the tallgrass. This common whitetail dragonfly (below) almost has its coloration.
The wings are so fresh! Teneral dragonflies are vulnerable to predation until the wings harden (which may taken an hour or so). Nearby I find two tiny damselflies. I think they are sedge sprites, but the eye color doesn’t seem quite right. Maybe it is a teneral? I’ll have to browse the field guides at home to be sure.
Always new things to learn!
As I hike, the bison are grazing in the distance. I like to keep plenty of space between us, especially during baby bison season.
Less of a concern—but with a big impact— are the beavers. They’ve been busy as…well, you know….on some of my routes. In one area, they’ve constructed a new dam which turned my monitoring stream to a pond.
On another route, they’ve built some snazzy housing.
Beaver activity changes water habitat. Moving streams and still ponds usually host different types of Odonata species. It will be interesting to see what unfolds here over the summer, and if site management leaves the beaver dams and lodgings in place. Lots of suspense! Stay tuned.
May is migration month, and the soundtrack to my monitoring work is a lesson in listening. A flycatcher lands on a nearby branch. Is it the alder flycatcher? Or the great-crested flycatcher? Or? I’m not sure.
It buzzes a few chirpy notes, then vacates the branch for an eastern kingbird. I try to get the kingbird in focus behind the branch, but finally give up and just enjoy watching it.
That’s a busy little branch.
Wind gusts pick up, and clouds cover the sky. It’s time to wrap up my dragonfly monitoring work.
So much is happening on the prairie at the end of May. The prairie is full of sound, color, and motion.
Just imagine what June has in store for us. I can’t wait.
Henry Mitchell, whose quote opens this post, wrote several enjoyable garden books which I re-read each year. Mitchell (1924-1993), a Washington Post weekly garden columnist for almost 25 years, is by turns funny, cynical, and reflective. He isn’t afraid to laugh at himself, which is one of the many reasons I love to read him (even if he does extoll the joys of the barberry bush!) The opening quote quote is from Mitchell’s book, One Man’s Garden.
Join Cindy for an event!
Sunday,June 5, 2-3:30 pm: Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers, Downers Grove Public Library and Downers Grove Garden Club. Kick off National Garden Week with this in-person event! Open to the public. Covid restrictions may apply. Click here for more information.
Tuesday, June 7, 7-8:30 p.m.:The Garden’s Frequent Fliers: Dragonflies and Damselflies, Crestwood Garden Club, Elmhurst, IL. (Closed in-person event for members).
Wednesday, June 8, 7-8:30 p.m.Lawn Chair Lecture: The Schulenberg Prairie’s 60th Anniversary. At The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Bring your lawn chair and enjoy sunset on the prairie as you hear about the people, plants, and creatures that have made this prairie such a treasure. Tickets are limited: Register here. (Rain date is Thursday, June 9).
If you love the natural world, consider helping to “Save Bell Bowl Prairie.” Read more here about simple actions you can take to keep this important Midwestern prairie remnant from being destroyed by a cargo road. Thank you for caring for our “landscape of home”!
“Nor does frost behave as one expects.” — Eleanor Perényi
Spring? We seemed to have missed it this year. Rather, it appears we are jumping from winter to summer in a week. Migrating birds are moving through, including this jelly-loving scarlet tanager. A first for our backyard!
With temperatures steady and warm—even hot—in the next few days, there is the annual gardener’s dilemma. To plant the tomatoes? Or not? It’s tempting. Meanwhile, they harden off on my covered front porch. I’m particularly excited about a new tomato called “Three Sisters,” which promises three types of tomatoes on one plant. Sort of a gee-whiz kind of thing, but that’s part of the fun of gardening.
Woodland wildflowers waited until the last possible moment to bloom this season, then threw themselves into the process. “Ephemeral” is right. Here today, gone tomorrow. So I go look. And soak up everything I can see to file away in my memory. Later, after they’ve disappeared, I’ll recall each one with joy.
I especially admire the native Virginia bluebells, now bursting into bloom in the woodlands. What a week for this wildflower! They vary in hue from a bluebird blue…
… to bi-colored…
Supposedly, this color variation is common with members of the borage family (of which bluebells are members). I imagine there is some normal color variation too, just as there are with other wildflower species. Depending on what you read, the color changes have to do with the acidity of the soil or whether or not the flowers have been pollinated. Hmmm. I’m not sure what to believe. All of these plants shown above were in the same general spot.
I can’t see Virginia bluebells without the lines of writer Anne Brontë ‘s charming poem The Bluebellrunning through my head (written in the early 1800s). She was likely writing about the English bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), but I’ve appropriated her poem for our American species, Mertensia virginica.
A fine and subtle spirit dwells In every little flower, Each one its own sweet feeling breathes With more or less of power. There is a silent eloquence In every wild bluebell That fills my softened heart with bliss That words could never tell.
On our Mother’s Day weekend journey to the Indianapolis area, we made a quick detour to Kankakee Sands in Morocco, Indiana. Imagine—8.400 acres of prairie, wetlands, and savannas. Those big skies! The bison there are always a magnet for our attention.
And we almost—literally—ran into another member of the prairie community as we bison-watched.
Why did the snake cross the road? Likely to find some toads for dinner. I followed this one into the tallgrass until it disappeared into a watery ditch. I wasn’t brave enough to go any further.
Overhead, a flock of birds—perhaps a murmuration of starlings?—formed and reformed in the sky. But I’m not sure they were starlings. Aren’t those white wings in the center? Cornell says there is often a falcon near the edge of a murmuration.
I wasn’t able to ID these birds in the photo above, but the next ones (below) were unmistakeable. Turkey vultures! They checked us out, then decided we were too lively to be of much interest.
We left Kankakee Sands and continued driving home on backroads home to Chicago, with a brief get-out-and-stretch at the Biesecker Prairie in St. John, IN.
Someday, I’d love to spend time at this 34-acre remnant with someone who knows and loves it. We only had time for quick look around. Traffic cruised by, but the preserve was mostly empty, except for a red-winged blackbird that kept us company.
Amazing to think these wonderful prairies are less than two hours away from Chicago’s western suburbs. I’m grateful.
Mother’s Day. One of my garden goals is to have prairie represented in the front yard. It’s embarrassing to have our “Conservation at Home” sign among the hostas and daffodils. With that in mind, my Mother’s Day gift this year was a new prairie plant plot for pollinators. (Thank you, Jeff!)
We’re starting small, with less than two dozen prairie plugs: three golden alexanders (now in bloom), three pale purple coneflower plugs…
…one pint-sized pot of flowering spurge—barely up. Three blazing star, three Ohio goldenrod, three sky blue aster, and three showy goldenrod. I hope to add some butterfly milkweed from a native plant sale this week, and perhaps move some of my Culver’s root from the backyard to the front. Neighbors are already asking about it. Hopefully, this little patch will spark more conversations about native plants with dog walkers, parents with strollers, and our community.
I love new beginnings, no matter how small. We put our prairie pollinator garden where we can expand it a little bit each year. And now our “Conservation at Home” sign looks more “at home.” A little less turf grass. A better use of the space we’re responsible for. Of course, native prairie plantings in our suburban yard will never have the grandeur of wide open skies, such as we saw at Kankakee Sands, or the wildlife that these large-scale landscapes can provide for. But I think of Ray Schulenberg, an expert in prairie restoration who reconstructed the fourth oldest institutional prairie planting at The Morton Arboretum, 60 years ago.
In an interview before his death in 2003, Ray talked about the despair he felt over world events. He didn’t think anything would halt the destruction of our planet. But, he said, “I don’t let that stop me from doing what I can.”
That’s stuck with me in a week filled with news about war, Covid stats rising, inflation, and other woes. For now, I’m going to try to emulate Ray’s motto.
To do what I can.
The opening quote is from Eleanor Perényi (1918-2009) from Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden. She gardened on an estate in the present day Vynohradiv, Ukraine —formerly, Nagyszőlős, Hungary—and later, in her new home in Connecticut. Green Thoughts is an arrangement of short essays from “Annuals” to “Weeds,” and her wildly-ranging views as an amateur gardener. Many of her ideas on plants are not for us Midwestern gardeners (she mentions buckthorn as good for hedges, which will strike horror into the heart of any prairie steward), but I enjoy her take on everything from annuals to chicory to gardening failures. Perényi worked as managing editor at Mademoiselle and editor at Harper’s Bazaar, plus as a contributor to Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, and Esquire. Later in her life, she lived and gardened on the Connecticut coast.She is also the author of a biography of Franz Liszt (nominated for a National Book Award) and More Was Lost, a memoir of her marriage to a Hungarian baron. Green Thoughts is a charming classic, although I’m more a fan of her prose than her gardening advice.
Thank you, Dulcey Lima, for passing on the article about Ray.
Join Cindy for a program or class!
May 18, 12:30-2 pm:100 Years Around the Arboretum (With Rita Hassert), Morton Arboretum Volunteer Zoom Event (Closed to the public).
May 26, 10:30am-noon: Stained Glass Stories of the Thornhill Mansion,in person at The Morton Arboretum. Open to the public. Register here.
May 26, 6:30-8 pm: Add a Little Prairie to Your Garden, hosted by Old St. Patrick’s Church Green Team on Zoom. More information coming soon.
June 5, 2-3:30 pm: Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers, Downers Grove Public Library and Downers Grove Garden Club. Kick off National Garden Week with this in-person event! Open to the public. Click here for more information.
Time is running out for one of Illinois’ last prairie remnants. Save Bell Bowl Prairie! Find out what you can do to help at www.savebellbowlprairie.org
“But if we don’t understand and care for the smaller manifestations of wildness close at hand, how can we ever care for the great wildernesses?” —Conor Gearin
Temperatures hover around zero in the Chicago region. The “Winter Storm to End All Storms” seems to have fizzled out in a matter of less than half a dozen inches. And here I sit, in 70-degree weather. In Florida. There’s a part of me that’s sad to miss the first real snow of the season. A small part of me. (A very teeny, tiny part.)
But there’s solace knowing that this week, I’m absorbed in learning the names of birds, blooms, dragonflies, shells, and other flora and fauna of southwestern Florida. This region, which I’ve visited for almost 45 years, doesn’t hold the same place in my heart as the Illinois tallgrass prairie, my landscape of home. But hiking here reminds me of the breadth and depth of diversity of the natural world, and the joy of discovery. Here’s a postcard to you:
Hello from Florida! Visiting this tropical region in December and January jolts me out of my sense of normalcy about what “winter” looks like. It reminds me that the way I experience life in this season in the Chicago region is completely different than how my neighbors to the south experience it. What a change from the Midwestern prairie! Displacement—a complete change—is a good reset for me to begin a new year.
Here are a few of the wonders I see on my hikes:
My first Mangrove Skipper.
The Great Pondhawk. A new dragonfly species for me!
Another “lifer” is the Mottled Duck, paddling through the mangroves. (Don’t know what a “lifer” is? Take this quiz.)
Ducks are easy to overlook, when there are these birds around. Roseate Spoonbills!
Wow. Such shocking pink. They look like they were run through the wash in the whites load with one red sock, don’t they?
Only the hibiscus rivals it here for color.
And—of course—there are pelicans.
So many pelicans. A flock of pelicans is called a “pouch of pelicans” or sometimes, a “squadron of pelicans. Fun!
Swimming near the pelicans is a mama manatee and her baby.
Four—or are there five?—are at the marina. I learn manatees are large, gray-ish aquatic mammals that feed on sea grasses. They can weigh up to 1,200 pounds, similar to a bison! Baby manatees stay with their moms for up to two years. Boat collisions pose a threat to this species, so hanging out by the boat docks, as these manatees are doing, isn’t a great idea. (Read more about manatees here.)
As I watch them surface every few minutes for air, I find myself wondering about the future for this unusual mammal. I think of the Illinois bison at Nachusa Grasslands, Midewin National Tallgrass Preserve, and Fermilab back home, and how bison have been preserved in good numbers at these places after near extinction. Maybe there is hope for the manatees, too.
Bison are the biggest hazard on my prairie hikes back home. But here, it’s a large reptile.
Yikes. They may weigh more than 750 pounds! See you later, alligator.
As the sun sets over the Gulf Coast, I pack my bags and prepare to head home.
I’ll miss the delights of the island’s natural wonders, but my heart is in the tallgrass. I can’t wait to see the prairie with a little snow on it. At last. Even if the temperature is 70 degrees colder than it is here.
Sending you love from the Sunshine State!
The opening quote is from Conor Gearin’s essay “Little Golden-Flower Room: On Wild Places and Intimacy” from the digital magazine The Millions. His essay is included in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2019 (edited by Sy Montgomery), a book I purchased at Gene’s Books on Sanibel Island, one of my favorite independent bookstores. Gearin’s essay beautifully explores one small Iowa prairie remnant.
Need a New Year’s Resolution? Help save Bell Bowl Prairie, an unusual hill remnant prairie that is slated for destruction by Chicago-Rockford International Airport. Your action can make a difference! See how at www.savebellbowlprairie.org
“It’s always better to have too much to read than not enough.” —Ann Patchett
Happy December! The wind is howling, temperatures are plummeting, and meteorological winter is in full swing. All we need is a dusting of snow…
…or an ice storm to complete the kick-off to the holiday season.
In December, many of us are on hiatus from active prairie stewardship work. During the winter months, we recharge our batteries and curl up with a good book on the tallgrass so we’ll be a little smarter and more inspired for the growing season ahead.
With this in mind, it’s time for the “Tuesdays in the Tallgrass” annual book roundup. This year, I grouped a few recommended prairie books in a slightly different way for you. I hope that makes your holiday shopping (or library check-outs) a little easier! I also added a few of my favorite prairie gifts.
Ready? Let’s read!
For the thoughtful prairie reader:
I can’t resist the “through the year” types of books, organized by month and taking readers through the seasons. Paul Gruchow’s Journal of a Prairie Year(Milkweed Press) continues to be one of my favorites. Few books really dig into the marvels of the winter season on the prairie, and this is one of them.
FOR THE GARDENER WHO WANTS TO BE INSPIRED BY PRAIRIE:
I’m also looking forward to Vogt’s forthcoming book, Prairie Up: An Introduction to Natural Garden Design, coming from University of Illinois Press in the new year. Voigt also has an awesome collection of prairie T-shirts and other fun extras. I gifted myself with the “Prairie Hugger” t-shirt and a “Reprairie Suburbia” mug this season. Check out his website here.
Already have a prairie in your yard? Meet kindred spirits in Fred Delcomyn and Jamie Ellis’ “A Backyard Prairie,” a beautiful book of essays and photographs (Southern Illinois University Press). I met Fred when he took my Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online class through The Morton Arboretum, and it is a delight to see his lovely book out in the world.
For the children in your lIFE:
Across the Prairie Coloring Book— Claudia McGehee. These sell out, so get yours quick on Etsy! Fun, relaxing, and pandemic-friendly solace for adults who like to color as well. I confess I have a copy for myself, as well as copies for several of my grandchildren. McGehee is also the author of The Tallgrass Prairie Alphabet children’s picture book from University of Iowa Publishers. She has some other great children’s picture books and artwork you can find on her website, Claudia McGehee Illustration.
Sarah, Plain and Tall–Patricia MacLachlan (HarperCollins) This Newbery Award-winning novel, first published in 1985, is great for elementary-aged kids, and available in a 30th anniversary edition. Sure, it’s not about the prairie plants here—it’s about the story! But what a great way to introduce kids to the tallgrass prairie region. The Hall of Fame movie (starring Glen Close as the mail-order bride) is a delight — rent it at the library, or watch for it on a streaming service near you.
For someone new to prairie, or just wanting to get better acquainted:
The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction–Cindy Crosby (Northwestern University Press) I wrote this book when I looked around for a short, simple read that I could give to my prairie volunteers who wanted to understand what a prairie was, and why we manage it the way we do–and couldn’t find one. Only 140 pages, all technical terms are defined, and there’s a chapter on planting a prairie in your yard.
When you want to dive Deep Into tallgrass prairie — the more pages, the better:
Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie—John Madson (Bur Oak Books) This is the book I used to recommend to my prairie volunteers, but several told me that 340 pages was 200 pages too much! For some of us, however, the more pages the better. If you want to dig deep into the history of the tallgrass prairie, this is a THE classic.
If you like pretty prairie pictures:
Visions of the Tallgrass–-Harvey Payne (Oklahoma University Press). One hundred seventeen beautiful photographs by Harvey Payne, featuring the Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in northeastern Oklahoma.
Tallgrass Prairie Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit(Ice Cube Press)— Cindy Crosby and Thomas Dean (Ice Cube Press) If you enjoy this blog, you’ll find similar type short essays and prairie photographs in this team effort from myself and Tom, alternating voices and spanning prairies from Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois.
Picturing the Prairie: A Vision of Restorationby Philip Juras (Little Bluestem Press). If you caught the Chicago Botanic exhibit of his work, you’ll want to own this book which includes 54 paintings of some of my favorite prairies (including Nachusa Grasslands) and an essay by Stephen Packard. It’s on my Christmas list!
I really enjoy browsing Karen’s Nature Art to find images of prairie on everything from mugs to cell phone cases to fabric. Karen is part of my Tuesdays in the Tallgrass volunteer group on the Schulenberg Prairie, and her work directly reflects the countless hours she spends immersed in caring for prairie.
The Tallgrass Prairie Readeredited by John T. Price. I believe this is one of the most important pieces of natural history literature in the past decade. Why? It preserves a wide variety of writings on the tallgrass prairie from 42 authors, grouped chronologically from the 1800’s to the 21st Century. (Full disclosure — an essay of mine is included). Price’s edited volume reminds us of the richness of prairie literature, and the need for more voices to speak for prairie.
For the prairie volunteer or steward who wants technical advice:
I enthusiastically recommend The Tallgrass Prairie Center Guide to Restoration in the Upper Midwest by Daryl Smith, Dave Williams, Greg Houseal, and Kirk Henderson for anyone looking for a comprehensive guide to planting, restoring, or caring for prairie on sites both big and small. If it’s not in this volume, you probably don’t need to know it. I own two copies, just in case I lose one!
I hope you found some new books that caught your interest, or saw a few old favorites that you want to re-read or gift to a prairie friend. Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive list. Rather, these are a few highlights. And please explore some of my past posts on prairie books—there are many wonderful prairie books out there not mentioned in this year’s essay.
What books on tallgrass prairie do you recommend? Please share your favorites in the comments below and keep the literary conversation going. And as always, if you purchase a book, support your local independent bookstores and small publishers. They need you!
The opening quote is from Ann Patchett (1963), finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for The Dutch House the author of my personal favorite of hers, Bel Canto. Patchett is the owner of Parnassus Bookstore in Nashville, TN.
“There is nothing in the world so strong as grass.” —Brother Cadfael
I’m baking sourdough bread and humming Van Morrison’s song “When the leaves come falling down.” It’s mid-November, but the trees glow. Today’s wind and snow are conspiring to loosen leaves from their moorings.
Through my kitchen window, I see my prairie patch covered with yellow silver maple leaves from my neighbor’s yard. The gold flies through the air; sifts into Joe Pye weeds, cup plants, prairie cordgrass, culver’s root, and compass plants. When it comes time to burn next spring, these leaves will help fuel the fire.
When the leaves come falling down.
When the leaves come falling down.
Outside, the air is sharp and earthy. It smells like winter. Daylight grows shorter. The last chapter of autumn is almost written.
In an open meadow, a coyote stalks and pounces. Missed! It’s a field mouse’s lucky day.
Mallards paddle ponds in the falling snow, oblivious. Their emerald heads shine like satin. Mallards are so common in Illinois we rarely give them a second glance. But oh! How beautiful they are.
I scoot closer to the water for a better view. A muskrat startles, then swims for the shoreline to hide in the grasses.
Across the road in the savanna, virgin’s bower seed puffs collect snowflake sprinkles. Bright white on soft silk.
The savanna is striking in the falling snow.
But I only have eyes for the prairie. November is the season for grass.
“… I felt motion in the landscape; in the fresh, easy-blowing morning wind, and in the earth itself, as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping, galloping …”
In her essay, “Big Grass,” Louise Erdrich writes: “Grass sings, grass whispers… .Sleep the winter away and rise headlong each spring. Sink deep roots. Conserve water. Respect and nourish your neighbors and never let trees get the upper hand.
In November, grass slips into the starring role.
The best fall color isn’t in the changing leaves.
It’s here. On the tallgrass prairie.
Why not go see?
The quote that kicks off this post is from An Excellent Mystery by Ellis Peters, the non de plume for scholar Edith Mary Pargeter (1913-1995). She was the author of numerous books, including 20 volumes in The Cadfael Chronicles; murder mysteries set in 12th Century England. I reread the series every few years and enjoy it immensely each time.
Join Cindy for a class or program!
Winter Prairie Wonders: Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass!Dec. 3 (Friday) 10-11:30 am (Central): 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.
Please visit your local independent bookstore (Illinois’ friends: The Arboretum Store in Lisle and The Book Store in Glen Ellyn) to purchase or order Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spiritfor the holidays. Discover full-color prairie photographs and essays from Cindy and co-author Thomas Dean.
Save Bell Bowl Prairie! Visit the website to find out how you can help keep this critical remnant from being bulldozed in Illinois. One phone call, one letter, or sharing the information with five friends will help us save it.
When you think of the word “prairie,” what comes to mind?
Is it prescribed fire, decimating the old, and encouraging the new?
Is it the sweep of the charred land, with a whisper of green?
Is it the prairie in springtime, covered with shooting star?
Or do you imagine the summer prairie, spangled with blooms?
Is it the smell of prairie dropseed, tickling your nose in the fall? Mmmm. That hot buttered popcorn smell, tinged with something undefinable.
Or do you see prairie limned with snow, in its winter colors?
When you think of the word “prairie,” what comes to your mind?
Is it the call of dickcissel?
Is it a butterfly that you see in your mind’s eye?
Or is it bison, claiming the Midwest tallgrass as their own?
What comes to your mind when you think of prairie?
It isn’t as important what you think of when you imagine prairie as this: That you think of prairie at all.
And then, make it your own.
Here, in the prairie state.
Our landscape of home.
The opening quote is from Paul Gruchow’s (1947-2004) wonderful book, Journal of a Prairie Year. The full quote reads: . “The prairie is one of those plainly visible things that you can’t photograph. No camera lens can take in a big enough piece of it. The prairie landscape embraces the whole of the sky. Any undistorted image is too flat to represent the impression of immersion that is central to being on the prairie. The experience is a kind of baptism.” Gruchow’s legacy of love for the prairie continues to connect and engage people’s hearts and minds with the tallgrass.
Join Cindy for a program or class!
Just moved ONLINE: September 27, 7-8:30 p.m.–-“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Arlington Heights Garden Club. Please visit the club’s website here for guest information.
ONLINE –Nature Writing Workshop 2 (through the Morton Arboretum): Deepen your connection to nature and improve your writing skills in this online guided workshop from The Morton Arboretum. This interactive class is the next step for those who’ve completed the Foundations of Nature Writing (N095), or for those with some foundational writing experience looking to further their expertise within a supportive community of fellow nature writers. Please note: This is a “live” workshop; no curriculum. For details and registration, click here. Online access for introductions and discussion boards opens October 12; live sessions on Zoom are four Tuesdays: October 19, October 26, November 2, and November 9, 6:30-8:30 pm.
“I love to roam over the prairies. There, I feel free and happy.”—Chief Satanta
It’s one of those picture-perfect days for a quick trip to Nachusa Grasslands. Sunny, cool; a few puffy cumulous floating in the sky. Bison graze around the corral area, or rest in the tallgrass.
I’m not looking for megafauna today, however. I’m looking for small stuff. My hope is to walk three of my dragonfly routes and see if anything is flying. Odonata season–the time of year I chase dragonflies—is winding down.
On one route, I see nary a damsel or dragon. There are plenty of wildflowers, like this Common Boneset.
Boneset was once used medicinally to reduce fevers, both by Native Americans and early European settlers. It’s nectar and pollen attract bees, butterflies, and other pollinators, and it serves as a host plant for several moth caterpillars, including the Ruby Tiger Moth.
Nearby, Ironweed laces the prairie with purple.
The crunch of plants under my feet are a reminder of the drought we’ve experienced in parts of Illinois this summer. Even when I strike out on seeing dragons and damsels, and my data sheet is empty, the hike is never wasted. There is so much to see!
Every route, every trail leads to new discoveries.
Still, I’m a bit discouraged by that blank data form. I head for the next route. The pond is almost empty…
…only a Common Green Darner and a pair of Twelve-Spotted dragonflies hanging around. A couple of Common Whitetails. A damselfly or two. And then—I spot it! This pretty little damselfly: the Citrine Forktail.
Look at those colors! Like a dish of sherbet ice cream. Later, at home, I read up on this species in my “Dragonflies and Damselflies of Northeastern Ohio” (a good field guide for Illinois!) and learn that the Citrine Forktail may be “irruptive” and “appear at newly mitigated wetland sites.” Notice the orange stigma, in a unique place for damselflies. At only .9 inches long, these tiny damsels blend in well with the rushes and sedges in our prairie wetlands.
I also read in Dennis Paulson’s “Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East” that there is a population of this damselfly in the Azores that consists only of females. They lay eggs which are all female! It is the only parthenogeneticOdonata population in the world. Cool! Supposedly, they can remain into November in the Midwest, if temperatures stay warm. I find two more as I hike. I hope they’ll hang out here for a while longer.
There are other treasures to be found today. Deep in the wetlands, as I search for damselflies, I find the tiny skullcap in bloom. There are three different species at Nachusa—I’m not sure which one this is.
I admire it for a bit, then continue my route. The American Cornmint, crushed under my rubber boots, sends out a delightful tang. The air is refreshed with the fragrance of menthol.
As I hike, I almost stumble over a monkeyflower.
I crouch to take a closer look. The bees are working it over.
Not far away are stands of Purple Love Grass. What a great name!
I scan around it for damselflies, but come up empty.
As the day gets hotter, and I continue walking my routes, my steps slow. The better to notice the hummingbird working the jewelweed.
Or the Springwater Dancer Damselflies in the mating wheel.
A Variegated Meadowhawk patrols a stream, moving at such a fast clip I can barely get the ID, much less a photo. These are one of Illinois’ migratory species, and also, as Kurt Mead notes in his field guide Dragonflies of the North Woods, one of the most difficult to net. I content myself with having a stare down with a male Springwater Dancer damselfly.
Along the shoreline, a cranefly sits motionless.
Sometimes, people mistake them for dragonflies. You can see why! But look closely. Nope.
The last portion of my final route involves climbing to a high overlook. Look at that view!
My legs ache, and I’m hot and sweaty despite the cooler temperatures. It’s been a good day. So much to see.
After a week of depressing headlines, a few frustrating work issues, and crazy heat and humidity, today has been a respite. I came to Nachusa feeling empty. I’m leaving with a sense of peace.
Thanks, Nachusa Grasslands.
The opening quote is from Chief Satanta, Kiowa Tribe (1820-1878). Read more about him here.
All photos in this week’s blog were taken at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.
Join Cindy for a class or program!
September 9, 9:30-11 am– in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Oswego Hilltoppers Garden Club, Oswego Public Library. Please visit the club’s Facebook page for guest information, event updates pending Covid positivity in Illinois, and Covid protocol.
September 27, 7-8:30 p.m.–in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Arlington Heights Garden Club. Please visit the club’s website here for guest information, event updates pending Covid positivity in Illinois, and Covid protocol.
If you enjoy this blog, please check out Cindy’s collection of essays with Thomas Dean, Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit. Order from your favorite indie bookseller, or direct from Ice Cube Press.
“There is another alphabet, whispering from every leaf, singing from every river, shimmering from every sky.”–Dejan Stojanovic
Do you know your August prairie ABC’s? Let’s go for a hike in the tallgrass together and take a look at a few.
A is for Ashy Sunflower, a harbinger of late summer.
B is for Big Bluestem, Illinois’ state grass; Missouri’s as well.
C is for TallCoreopsis, in full bloom at a prairie near you. Collecting seeds from this plant in October is an exercise in smelly hands. Such a pretty plant; such stinky seeds.
D is for Dragonfly, those glints of glowing color across the grasses.
E is for Echinacea, the purple coneflower, attracting pollinators. Its sister plant, the pale purple coneflower, is more likely to be found on prairies in my area.
F is for Flowering Spurge, Euphorbia corollata, in the same genus as poinsettia.
G is for Gaura, one of the few August pinks.
H is for Hawk, which spirals on thermals high overhead. Sometimes, a little reminder floats down into the tallgrass.
I is for Indigo, now going to black-podded seed. Will the weevils save any seeds for us? Difficult to know. This pod has been ransacked.
J is for Joe Pye Weed, that butterfly magnet on the prairie’s edges.
K is for Kankakee Sands, where bison roam.
L is for Liatris, in full purple splendor this month.
M is for Monarch, the Midwest’s poster child for pollination and conservation. Glad they are having such a good year in Illinois.
N is for New England Aster; the first blooms are all the buzz on the prairie.
O is for Oenothera biennis, the common evening primrose, that staple of every farm lane and roadside wildflower stand. It’s native and occurs in every county of Illinois.
P is for Prairie Dropseed. Love the smell? Or hate it? People are divided! I’m a fan.
Q is for Queen Anne’s Lace, that pretty invasive that is celebrated in a Mary Oliver poem and the impetus for many volunteer workdays on the prairie.
R is for Ragweed, an unwelcome native. Poor, innocent goldenrod! It often takes the rap for ragweed’s allergy-producing pollen. Aaaahhhhhh-choo! Although goldenrod isn’t completely innocent. It’s a take-over specialist on the tallgrass prairie.
S is forSilphiums; the cup plant, prairie dock, compass plant, and rosin weed. They are having a banner year in my part of prairie country.
T is for prairie Trails, that lead to adventure.
U is for Underground, where prairie roots plunge 15 or more feet deep, sequestering carbon. Like an upside-down forest.
V is for Vervain, both blue and hoary.
W is for Waterways; the ponds, streams, and rivers that cradle life on the prairies.
X is for sphinXmoths, which pollinate rare plants like the eastern prairie fringed orchid. Here’s one enjoying a wild bergamot bloom.
Y is for Yellow. The prairie is sprinkled with gold this month.
Z is for the Zip and Zag of black swallowtail butterflies, fluttering from flower to flower.
Now you know my August ABC’s. How many of these plants and prairie critters can you find on a prairie near you? What favorites would you add to my August prairie alphabet? Leave me a comment below, and let me know. Then go for a hike and see them for yourself.
Dejan Stojanovic (1959-), whose quote opens this blog post, is a Serbian poet.
Join Cindy for a class or program!
August 17, 7pm-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 and for current event updates.
September 9, 9:30-11 am– in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Oswego Hilltoppers Garden Club, Oswego Public Library. Please visit the club’s Facebook page for guest information, event updates and Covid protocol.
New to the prairie? Want to introduce a friend or family member to the tallgrass? Check out The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction (Northwestern University Press). No jargon, no technical terms — just a fun guide to navigating prairie hikes and developing a deeper relationship with the beautiful grasslands that make the Midwest special.
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.