The late poet Mary Oliver wrote a poem, Why I Wake Early. She had the right idea, especially this week, in the heat of a Midwest summer. It’s a good poem to begin the morning. Watch now, how I start the day, in happiness, in kindness.
Sue Monk Kidd (1948-), whose quote opens this blog, is known most widely for her bestseller, The Secret Life of Bees (2002). Mary Oliver (1935-2019) whose poem link is included here, was winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. I find her poems are solace for difficult times.
Join Cindy for a class or program this summer!
Wednesdays,June 22 and June 29: “100 Years Around the Morton Arboretum” –with Cindy and Library Collections Manager and Historian Rita Hassert at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL. Enjoy stories of the past that commemorate this very special centennial. Join us in person June 22 from 6:30-8:30 pm (special exhibits on view for 30 minutes before the talk) by registering here; join us on Zoom June 29, 7-8:30 p.m. by registering here. Masks required for the in-person presentation.
If you love the natural world, consider helping “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 Midwestern “landscape of home.”
“Sudden swarm of snail clouds, brings back the evening’s symmetry.” –Mykola Vorobyov
Sunday marked the end of astronomical winter, as the vernal equinox signaled the transition to spring. The earth spins on its axis, balancing day and night. For a few months ahead, the hours of light will outnumber the hours of darkness.
Temperatures soar into the 70s. Spring bulbs, planted as solace during that first pandemic autumn, wake up and unfurl their colors: purple, lemon, cream. I think of Mary Oliver’s poem “Peonies“ in which she asked, “Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden“? Yes! As I start the coffee, I glimpse a new crocus or jonquil from the kitchen window and rush outside to see it. Welcome back! The return of these flowers reminds me it’s the two-year anniversary of the lock down in Illinois.
Two years! So much has happened.
We’ve come a long way. Uncertainty still shadows our days.
We dig deep. Find resilience. When it isn’t enough, we dig deeper and scrape up more.
But we’re tired.
We hang on. What else can we do?
As I read the newspaper each morning, my thoughts drift to halfway across the globe.
How do we make sense of the senseless? The world seems ripped apart.
Global pandemics. War. Uncertainty. They remind me to cherish each moment.
In A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman writes: “So much of our life passes in a comfortable blur. Living on the senses requires an easily triggered sense of marvel, a little extra energy, and most people are lazy about life.Life is something that happens to them while they wait for death.”
It takes so little to wake up to wonder. But that “little extra energy” feels drained by the past two years. And yet. I don’t want to squander this time I’ve been given.
What a joy it is to have the freedom to rise in the morning and go for a walk, just to admire the world! To look at the sky. To appreciate the clouds, or hunt for the first shoots of new plants. This week, I’ve been reminded of what a privilege it is.
There is so much I can’t do. But no matter what is happening in the world, I can pay attention to the beauty around me, no matter how small.
I’m looking for signs of change. Memos of hope.
The days pass so quickly. But I can make these moments count.
Cultivating hope this week means digging deep for that “extra energy” to pay attention, even if it’s only a moment in the garden, time at the kitchen window watching the birds, or taking five minutes to admire the sunset. I don’t know any other way to make sense of the senseless.
I only know I need to stay present to these moments of wonder.
Keep walking. Keep looking. Stay awake.
The opening quote is a line from Ukrainian poet Mykola Vorobyov (1941-) from the poem Muddy Shore in his collection, “Wild Dog Rose Moon” (translated by Myrosia Stefaniuk). Vorobyyov studied philosophy at the University of Kiev in the 1960s, but was expelled and then monitored by the KGB, who refused to let him publish his work. Today, he is the author of four poetry collections and two children’s books.
More than 300 species of plants and animals are found here. We go to see what emerges in the warmer temperatures of mid-March. At a glance, the prairie looks much as it did all winter. No prescribed burn has touched it yet.
But look closely. The first weedy black mustard’s emerald leaf florets lie flat against the prairie soil. An insect flies low and slow. Too quick for me to slap an ID on. Blue flag iris spears through the muddy waterway that winds through the dry grass and spent wildflowers. Signs of spring.
I browse online to find more about the prairie and encounter this on the Downers Grove Park District’s site: “… in April of 1970, Alfred and Margaret Dupree presented a photograph of a rare prairie wildflower to an expert at the Morton Arboretum, as they were interested if it represented possible remnants of a native prairie. Upon inspection, it was found that the field had numerous native prairie species, and with the help of The Nature Conservancy, the owners were tracked down and the land was purchased. After officially becoming a part of the Park District, it was named an Illinois Nature Preserve in March, 1994.” I love it that two people paid attention to this remnant—and took time to investigate. It makes me wonder what we’ll see, if we look closely.
So much to discover under our feet. But today, the real action is over our heads. The clouds sail fast across the horizon.
A breeze ruffles my hair. The melancholy whistle and the clickity-clack, clickity-clack, clickity-clack of a nearby train fills the air. But there’s another sound vying with the wind, train, and traffic noise. A high pitched babble. Look! There they are.
Riding on the winds above us are the sandhill cranes. Thousands and thousands of sandhills. Chasing a memory of somewhere north where they have urgent business to conduct. Each wave seems louder than the next. They are high—so high—in the sky.
The sun is merciless; so bright, we often lose them in its glare. The cranes wheel and pirouette; now flashes of silver overhead, now vanished.
All the obligatory words rise to my lips: Prehistoric. Ballet. Choreography. Dance. None seemed sufficient for this performance in the theater of the sky. The cranes assemble into a “V”, then slip into a sloppy “S”. Now they kettle, swirling and twirling. I’m reminded of my old “Mr. Doodleface” drawing board from childhood, where I dragged a magnet across black shavings to put hair and a beard on a picture of a man. The cranes seem like black shavings pulled through the sky in intricate patterns. Circles and lines and angles and scrawls. Changing from moment to moment. But always, that heart-breaking cry.
At home, I page through my field guides and bird books, then check online for more about cranes. I read that they are about four feet tall, the size of a first grader, with a wingspan of more than six feet.
The newer scientific name since 2010 for sandhill cranes is Antigone canadensis. My birding guides, all a dozen years or more old, still have the previous genus name, Grus. The common name “sandhill” refers to this bird’s stopover in the Nebraska Sandhills, a staging area for the birds.
The sandhills mate for life, or until one of the pair dies. Then, the remaining crane seeks a new partner.
Although gray, the sandhill crane has a rusty-colored wash on its feathers, caused by the bird rubbing itself with iron-rich mud. The birds have a distinctive scarlet patch on their foreheads.
The form of the crane is one of the first origami shapes many of us learned to make. According to a Japanese legend, if you make a thousand origami cranes the gods will grant you a wish. As I watch them fly over Belmont Prairie, it’s easy to think of what to wish for in the coming year.
As we leave, I find a single bird feather, caught in the tallgrass.
A crane’s? Probably not. But a reminder of the connection of birds to this prairie remnant.
Later that afternoon, we hang my hammock on the back porch and I swing there with a book, pausing each time to look as the cranes pass overhead.
Magical! How does anyone ever say they are bored when there are clouds, and cranes…and marvels all around us?
The thousands and thousands of sandhills migrating this weekend were barely ahead of Monday’s winter storm.
Snow powdered the prairie with fat flakes and turned our world to white.
I wonder if the cranes knew the storm was coming? Prescient sandhills. Smart birds.
Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) is best known for A Sand County Almanac, from which the quote that kicks off this post was taken. His book was published shortly after his death and has sold more than two million copies. If you visit New Mexico, you can drive through the miles of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness in the Gila National Forest, named for him in 1980. Driving it, you’re aware of the solace of vast and empty spaces, and the importance of conservation. Find out more about Leopold here.
A Brief History of Trees in AmericaWednesday,April 28, 7-8 p.m. Sponsored by Friends of the Green Bay Trail and the Glencoe Public Library. From oaks to sugar maples to the American chestnut: trees changed the course of American history. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation as you remember and celebrate the trees influential in your personal history and your garden. Registration here.
Virtual Wildflower Walks Online: Section A: Friday, April 9, 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. CST Woodland Wildflowers, Section B: Thursday, May 6, 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. CST Woodland and Prairie Wildflowers. Wander through the ever-changing array of blooms in our woodlands and prairies in this virtual walk. Learn how to identify spring wildflowers, and hear about their folklore. In April, the woodlands begin to blossom with ephemerals, and weeks later, the prairie joins in the fun! Each session will cover what’s blooming in our local woodlands and prairies as the spring unfolds. Enjoy this fleeting spring pleasure, with new flowers revealing themselves each week. Register here.
Plant A Backyard Prairie:Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm. CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Register here.
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.