Tag Archives: blue shadows

Three Reasons to Hike the January Prairie

“…I looked on the natural world, and I felt joy.” — Michael McCarthy

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This is the season of hot chocolate and electric blankets; library books and naps. And yet. When I spend too much time insulated at home, I find myself fretting over the latest newspaper headlines, or worrying about getting sick. Covid has left few of our families untouched.

Thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

What’s the solution? I can’t solve Covid, but I can keep my worries from circling around and around in an endless loop.

Snow on Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

A hike outdoors goes a long way to restoring my spirits. Cold has settled into the Chicago region. A fine layer of snow has covered the grime along the roads and left everything shimmering white. The air smells like clean laundry. The ice has become manageable under a few days of concentrated sunlight.

Prairie pond at Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

It’s beautiful outside! Despite the chill. Consider these three reasons to brave the cold and go for a prairie hike this week.

Shadows and Shapes

Snow backdrops prairie plants and transforms them.

Unknown vine; East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

It backlights the tallgrass; silhouetting wildflowers and grasses.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Familiar plants cast blue-gray shadows, giving them a different dimension.

East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Even if you’ve seen a plant a hundred times before…

Common milkweed (Asclepia syriaca), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…it takes on a winter persona, and seems new.

Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

Snow shadows lend the prairie a sense of mystery.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The spark and glaze of ice turn your hike into something magical.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Breathe in. The cold air numbs the worry. Breathe out. Feel the terrors of the day fade away.

For now. A moment of peace.

Winter Traffic

During these pandemic times its comforting to know we live in community. Small prairie creatures—usually invisible— are made visible by their tracks.

Busy intersection, Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Tunnels are evidence of more life humming under the snow.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I leave my tracks alongside theirs. It’s a reminder that we all share the world, even when we don’t see each other.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Prairie Skies

Winter has a way of changing the prairie sky from moment to moment. It might be brilliant blue one day, or crowded with puffy cumulus clouds the next.

Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

Wild geese fly by, their bowling pin silhouettes humorous when directly overhead; the clamor raucous even in the distance as they fly from prairie to soccer field to golf course.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Skies might be soft with sheep shapes on one day…

Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

Or blindingly bright on the next stroll through.

East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The prairie gives us the advantage of a 360-degree view of the sky. Its immensity reminds us of how very small….so small…. our worries are in the great span of time and space.

East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

As we hike, our sense of wonder is rekindled.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Our fear disappears. Or at least, it lessens.

East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Our mind rests. The well of contentment, seriously depleted, begins to fill. And then, we feel it again.

Joy.

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The opening quote is from the book The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy (1947-), a long-time British environmental editor for The Independent and writer for The Times. You can listen to his interview with Krista Tippett for “On Being” here.

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Join Cindy for a program this winter!

“100 Years Around the Morton Arboretum” — Wednesday, January 26, 6:30pm-8:30 pm. Watch history come to life in this special centennial-themed lecture about The Morton Arboretum. Celebrating 100 years, The Morton Arboretum has a fascinating past. Two of the Arboretum’s most knowledgeable historians, author Cindy Crosby and the ever-amazing library collections manager Rita Hassert, will share stories of the Mortons, the Arboretum, and the trees that make this place such a treasure. Join us via Zoom from the comfort of your home. (Now all online). Register here.

February 8-March 1 (Three evenings, 6:30-9pm): The Foundations of Nature Writing Online —Learn the nuts and bolts of excellent nature writing and improve your wordsmithing skills in this online course from The Morton Arboretum. Over the course of four weeks, you will complete three self-paced e-learning modules and attend weekly scheduled Zoom sessions with your instructor and classmates. Whether you’re a blogger, a novelist, a poet, or simply enjoy keeping a personal journal, writing is a fun and meaningful way to deepen your connection to the natural world.  February 8, noon Central time: Access self-paced materials online. February 15, 22, and March 1, 6:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Central time: Attend live. Register here.

March 3Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online –online class with assignments over 60 days; one live Zoom together. Digitally explore the intricacies of the tallgrass prairie landscape and learn how to restore these signature American ecosystems. Look at the history of this particular type of grassland from the descent of glaciers over the Midwest millions of years ago to the introduction of John Deere’s famous plow to where we are today. We will examine different types of prairie, explore the plant and animal communities of the prairie, and discuss strategies specific to restoring prairies in this engaging online course. Come away with a better understanding of prairies and key insights into how to restore their beauty. You will have 60 days to access the materials. Register here.

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Also — check out this free program offered by Wild Ones! (Not one of Cindy’s but she’s attending!)

The Flora and Fauna of Bell Bowl Prairie February 17, 7-8:30 p.m. Join other prairie lovers to learn about the flora and fauna of Bell Bowl Prairie, slated for destruction by the Chicago-Rockford International Airport this spring. It’s free, but you must register. More information here. Scroll down to “Upcoming Events” and you’ll see the February 17 Webinar with the always-awesome Rock Valley Wild Ones native plants group. Watch for the Zoom link coming soon on their site! Or contact Wild Ones Rock River Valley Chapter here. Be sure and visit http://www.savebellbowlprairie.org to see how you can help.

Life in the Prairie Cold

“There was nothing so real on the prairie as winter, nothing so memorable.” — Martha Ostenso

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Seven degrees.

It’s that time of year on the prairie. You know. That time.  Frigid temps. Icy trails that make it an effort to get from point “A” to point “Z.”  Add a brutal wind, and it lessens any desire on my part to emerge from piles of blankets on the couch, or to leave my stack of library books and mug of hot chocolate.

There are reasons to go outside, however. Especially for those of us who love snow.

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Or wonders in the sky. The lunar eclipse, or what was popularly called the “super wolf blood moon eclipse,” lured me out to my back porch after dark this week. In the western suburbs of Chicago, we had a savagely cold night for viewing, but oh! What a view! The moon seemed to chase Orion across the night sky as it progressed through its different darkened stages. Crisp stars sparkled as a backdrop for the eclipse. I returned inside long past my bedtime.

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It was a good reminder: When you forgo being outside in January, the life of the natural world goes on as usual. It doesn’t miss your presence. But you are the poorer for missing the moment.

One particular afternoon this week, despite the breathtaking cold, Jeff and I hike the Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve,  an 1,800 acre-plus natural area that is, one of three regionally significant grassland bird communities in the state.

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Springbrook Prairie is home to short-eared owls, and is a confirmed site for nesting turkey vultures. Bobolinks and dickcissels can be heard singing in the spring. Springbrook also hosts the state-endangered northern harrier.

Today, however, nothing much moves in the wind except the brittle grasses and spent wildflowers.

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Until…

A hawk flies up out of the tallgrass in the distance. Could it be the northern harrier? We hike faster, crossing our fingers.

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It settles into a tree. We move in for a closer look.

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Red-tailed hawk.  Common? Sure. Still magnificent. Although not the northern harrier we’d hoped for.

The rest of the bird life of Springbrook is noticeably silent. The Arctic winds that cause us to wrap our scarves more tightly around our heads are most likely the reason. But there is life here besides the red-tailed hawk. A ball gall next to the trail reminds us. Somewhere inside the gall, a tiny insect larvae is waiting to emerge. Pretty smart, I think, to spend days like today encapsulated in a warm sphere.

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The sharp wind seems to be in my face, no matter which way I hike.

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It sculpts blue shadows in the snow, carves ripples into the white stuff; scoops out gullies.

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Tiny prints necklace the prairie, made by a tiny mammal. Brave—or hungry—to be out in this bitter cold. I remind myself I need to re-learn mammal tracks.

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There are cars in the parking lot of the preserve, but we don’t see a soul on the trails. Springbrook Prairie is so vast! Few prairies in Illinois today offer these sweeping vistas in every direction. As we hike up a rise, we see clouds piled up in the east, more than 20 miles away over Lake Michigan. Part of the lake effect.  

Looking north, the preserve’s wetlands are partially frozen and and quiet.

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In the west, the prairie could be a landscape painting. Or an old sepia photograph, perhaps.

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A living painting or photograph, that is. The ball gall, the hawk, and the mammal tracks remind me of this. Under the ground, the deep roots of prairie plants wait. In only months, they’ll push green spears through the soil and completely change this icy world of the prairie I see today.

I realize I can no longer feel my fingers. Wind-burnt, frozen, we begin the hike back to the car and turn up the heater as high as it will go. Grateful for the warmth. But still…glad to have been a part of the life of the prairie for a moment. Content to have been present to our “landscape of home.”

And… ready for that hot chocolate and those library books.

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Novelist and poet Martha Ostenso (1900-1963) immigrated with  her family from Norway to Manitoba, then Minnesota. After living in New York City, she moved to Los Angeles and became a screenwriter. She died of complications from alcoholism.  The Wild Geese (1924) is her best-known novel, and, as her publisher writes, “Set on the windswept prairies, it is…a poignant evocation of loneliness… .”

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby, and taken this week at Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve, Naperville, IL, except where noted (top to bottom): snowfall at the intersection of the collections and wetland prairie plantings on the West Side of The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL; super wolf blood moon eclipse over author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), trail through the tallgrass; red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis); red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis); ball gall on goldenrod (probably either Solidago canadensis or Solidago altisissima) made by the goldenrod gall fly (Eurosta solidaginis); bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) in the tallgrass;  blue shadows and spent wildflowers and prairie grasses; possibly mouse or  vole tracks in the snow; prairie wetlands; looking west on the prairie.

Thanks to Jennifer Crosby Buono, who explained the lake effect snow cloud formations to me that we saw to the east, and provided me with the link in the post.

For more information on galls, check out this interesting article from Entomology Today.

 

Our Inland Prairie Sea

“The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea.”—Isak Dinesen

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To refer to the tallgrass prairie as a “sea of grass” is almost cliché.

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And yet, when you juxtapose sea and prairie, you understand why the image comes so readily.

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Like many suburban Chicago prairie lovers, in the mud season of the year—late February to mid-March—I do my best to migrate south for a few days. Sunshine, salt water, and sandy beaches are restorative.

The sky over the Gulf of Mexico reminds me of the sky of the tallgrass prairie; open, limitless.

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The flattened waves of prairie grasses and wildflowers, weathered by wind and rain…

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…with blue-shadowed pockets of snow…

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…are in my mind as I watch waves slap the shore.

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Funny, isn’t it? Even when we leave the landscape we call home, it haunts us.

It’s not that everything is similar—far from it! The birds are different from those of the prairie in so many ways. The food they eat.

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The way they move.

 

 

Even their attitude.

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Many of the Gulf Coast birds I see are readying themselves for a long flight north. Soon, migration will bring them and others through the flyways of the Chicago region.

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No matter where I look in Florida, I find unexpected reminders of my life as a prairie steward.

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As much as I enjoy getting away from the Midwest in early March, my mind keeps wandering from the beach back to what’s going on in the tallgrass up north. Am I missing out on a prescribed burn? Has the skunk cabbage leafed out yet? What new birds are singing along Willoway Brook?

After five days in Florida, I’m ready to dive back into my prairie work.

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One great thing about traveling: At the end of the day…

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…sometimes a little displacement makes you appreciate the place you call home.

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Isak Dinesen (Baroness Karen Blixen) (1885-1962) authored Out of Africa and Babette’s Feast. Both were adapted as movies, and won Academy Awards.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Captiva Island sunset, Florida; Captiva Island beach, Florida; Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie at the end of February, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  blue-shadowed pockets of snow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; waves on the beach, Captiva Island, Florida; willet (Tringa semipalmataeating a crab (species unknown), Sanibel Island, Florida; video of sanderlings (Calidris albaand other shorebirds, Sanibel Island, Florida; great black-backed gull (Larus marinus), Sanibel Island, Florida; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Buckthorn Lane street sign, Sanibel Island, Florida; brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalisdiving for fish, Sanibel-Captiva causeway, Florida; sunset with birds, J. N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Sanibel Island, Florida.