Tag Archives: books

To (Intentionally) Know a Prairie

“So much of our life passes in a comfortable blur… Most people are lazy about life. Life is something that happens to them while they wait for death.”--Diane Ackerman


As a former independent bookseller, I love words, particularly words that come from books. Why? The best books broaden our thinking, jolt us out of our complacency, and remind us of the marvels of the natural world.  They give us hope for the future. Words also prod us to reflect on our lives. To make changes.

Native American writer N. Scott Momaday penned the following words:

“Once in his life man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth, I believe…


He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience…

Kankakee Sands 2016.jpg

To look at it from as many angles as he can…



To wonder upon it…



To dwell upon it.


He ought to imagine that he touches it with his hands at every season…






…and listens to the sounds that are made upon it.

He ought to imagine the creatures there…


sulphur butterflies 2014 NG

Bison NG816

…and all the faintest motions of the wind. 


He ought to recollect the glare of the moon…

moon over Nachusa 616.jpg

and the colors of the dawn… 

Sunrise, Hidden Lake 2016.jpg

…and the dusk.”


I read Momaday’s words and ask myself: How do I “give myself up” to a particular landscape? When was the last sunrise I noticed? The last sunset? How many creatures and plants can I identify in the place where I live?  Do I know the current phase of the moon? Will I be there to touch the sticky sap of a compass plant in summer, or to follow coyote tracks through snow, even when it is inconvenient or uncomfortable to do so? What will I do to share what I discover with others?

How will I live my life this year? In “a comfortable blur?”

Or with intention?


Poet, naturalist, and essayist Diane Ackerman (1948-), whose words open this post, is the author of numerous books including A Natural History of the Senses from which this quote is taken. Her book, One Hundred Names for Love, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.  The Zookeeper’s Wife, was made into a movie, which opens in theaters in spring of 2017.


Poet and writer N. Scott Momaday (1934-) won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his novel, House Made of Dawn (1969). The words quoted here are from The Way to Rainy Mountain, a blend of history, memoir, and folklore. Momaday is widely credited with bringing about a renaissance in Native American literature. His thoughtful words are a call to paying attention in whatever place you find yourself… including the land of the tallgrass prairie.


All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom) shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Newton County, IN; restoration volunteers, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; storm over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; naming the prairie plants, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie trail, Curtis Prairie, University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum, Madison, WI; discovering the tallgrass, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet wood sorrel (Oxalis violacea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; summer on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; fall comes to the Meadow Lake prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; snow on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) and western chorus frogs (Pseudacris triseriata), unnamed West Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; female eastern amberwing (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; kaleidoscope of clouded sulphur butterflies (Colias philodice), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), Meadow Lake prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; moon over Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; sunrise, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve prairie planting, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County; Downer’s Grove, IL;  sunset, Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL. 

Learning from Leopold

We shall never achieve harmony with the land, anymore than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve but to strive.” –Aldo Leopold


Getting to know prairie restorations and their communities of plants, animals, and people eventually leads to wanting to see the mother of all prairie restorations. Curtis Prairie, at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum in Madison, is the world’s first known prairie restoration. It’s more than 80 years old, and hosts about 200 different types of birds and 35 species of mammals.


When I arrive in early December, the prairie is wrapped in fog. The temperature hovers between freeze and thaw, just enough to make the trails through the tallgrass slushy. My hiking boots slurp mud at every step.


Some of the paths have been cleared; an invitation to explore.


Whoever thinks December lacks color hasn’t hiked the Curtis Prairie.


The reds of gray dogwood pushing into the prairie liven up the metallic gold, silver, and bronze of the grasses. Winter elevates some of the humbler, weedier native plants, like this Canada goldenrod below, to new artistry.


As a prairie restoration steward, I don’t like invasive plants–plants that overwhelm a native landscape. I know too well the damage and havoc they wreak on a prairie. But despite myself, I admire the oriental bittersweet, twining in the tallgrass under the falling snow.  I remember combing the woods as a child with my mother and grandmother in the 1960s, raking vines from trees for Christmas decorations.  Now, I remove oriental bittersweet in natural areas for different reasons.


It’s quiet on the prairie, except for the sounds of traffic in the distance. There’s not a soul out on the tallgrass trails today but me.

IMG_8950 (1).jpg

Maybe no human souls — but I have company. A red-tailed hawk soars overhead as it scans the grasses for a mouse. About 20 wild turkeys skirt the edges of the prairie and savanna, then head for some nearby crabapple trees. Frozen fruit lies on the ground. They’re enjoying a little cold crabapple cider, no doubt, to spice up their morning stroll.

Gobble, gobble.


I find the reds of the gray dogwood beautiful in the falling snow. But I know restoration managers are concerned about the encroachment of shrubs into the prairie here. My aesthetic enjoyment is another steward’s headache.


I think of the quote by Leopold that opens this essay. There is joy and inspiration in seeing what restoration efforts like this one have accomplished. There is also reassurance in seeing that other stewards struggle with the same issues I do–native and non-native plants slugging it out for dominance on the prairie; the efforts to provide easy access for visitors during harsh weather;  the desire to foster an appreciation of the prairie in the colder months. The work of restoration is always a process.


The amazing Curtis Prairie at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum continues to be a benchmark in restoration for all of us who care for and appreciate tallgrass prairies. Long may it stay beautiful and healthy.

Leopold’s words remind me that perfection is elusive. The important thing is to keep working towards our goals–for justice, for liberty, and for harmony with the land. May we all continue to strive toward attaining harmony, wherever we call home.


Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), whose quote from “Round River,”(Journals of Aldo Leopold) kicks off this essay, was a professor at University of Wisconsin. He is most famous for his book, A Sand County Almanac, which is part of the foundational study of conservation ethics for many who work in prairie restoration and wildlife management.


All photos copyright Cindy Crosby at Curtis Prairie, Madison, WI (top to bottom): entrance to Curtis Prairie; road through the prairie, trail through the tallgrass; Curtis Prairie in December; Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis); oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus); gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa); wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris); gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa)goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) rosette gall.

Prairie Literature 101: Reading the Tallgrass


Temperatures in the Chicago region continue to plummet below zero. The ice-slicked prairie trails glisten, hard-packed and unforgiving. It’s hazardous hiking even for those of us who are passionate about the tallgrass.

Time to curl up with a good book.


Two of my favorites, Journal of a Prairie Year and Grassroots: The Universe of Home—  both by Paul Gruchow — have been excellent companions during this week’s bone-chilling weather. Journal of a Prairie Year is a quiet, month-by-month documentary of Gruchow’s walks that begin in January and end in December; Grassroots, a prairie memoir of sorts, contains his seminal essay on tallgrass, “What the Prairie Teaches Us.”  Few people have loved and written about prairie the way Paul did, and his passion for the tallgrass lives on through his words.


Kudos to The Nature Conservancy for their work, documented in two beautiful coffee-table type reads, Big Bluestem: Journey into the Tallgrass  (Annick Smith), and Tallgrass Prairie (John Madson/Frank Oberle).  Each is filled with gorgeous photography and eloquent writing. When the gray days seem endless, I browse through the color photos of lavender coneflowers and orange butterflyweed. Spring feels a little closer. As I leaf through the images of prescribed burns and smoldering flames, I also feel a little warmer.


Louise Erdrich’s essay Big Grass, appears in The Heart of the Land, a general nature collection from The Nature Conservancy. It’s perhaps the most emotionally-charged piece of writing I’ve ever read, and I assign it to students in my nature writing classes. And any of us who has ever planted a patch of prairie has Stephen Apfelbaums’ Nature’s Second Chance on the nightstand or close at hand for reassurance and comfort. We find he’s encountered the same resistance from neighbors and nature as we have.

Want to know more about the history, biology, and politics of prairie? Grassland, by Richard Manning, is where I turn. In the same book stack is John Madson’s Where the Sky Began, many prairie lovers’ desert island book and one I find as comfortable as my favorite old fleece socks. Madson’s closing lines are a quote from Thomas Wolfe’s book, Look Homeward, Angel: O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again and are some of the most heartfelt words ever appropriated to describe prairie restoration.


I’ve only found a single anthology devoted to prairie; editor John T. Price’s The Tallgrass Prairie Reader from University of Iowa Press. One of the gifts of his volume is its diverse prairie literature arranged by the century in which it was written. The reader comes away with a new understanding of how tallgrass has been viewed over hundreds of years. I’m delighted to have an essay about the Schulenberg Prairie included in his collection; Price, Thomas Dean, Lisa Knopp, Drake Hokanson, Elizabeth Dodd, and Mary Swander all have terrific contemporary pieces about prairie represented here.


Prairie restoration is about restoring habitat and increasing diversity: pulling weeds, collecting seeds, and cutting brush. But preserving prairie also happens through planting words and images in hearts and minds. Each winter, when I hang up my hiking boots for a few days and huddle by the fireplace with my stack of books, I’m grateful for these “restorationists” who do just that.

 (All photos by Cindy Crosby. From the top: Willoway Brook in the Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; author’s stack of books; photo spread from Tallgrass Prairie; critter tracks, Glen Ellyn, IL; The Tallgrass Prairie Reader; coyote track, Quarry Lake at West Branch Forest Preserve, Bartlett, IL.)