“Since we go through this strange and beautiful world of ours only once, it seems a pity to lack the sense of delight and enthusiasm that merely being alive should hold.” — Sigurd Olson
As the days shorten, hurtling us toward the Winter Solstice Friday, a sunny day is especially welcome. A prairie hike seems in order. Where to go? On the edge of a subdivision not far from where I live, hedged in by apartment buildings, two interstates, and a golf course, lies the Belmont Prairie Preserve. A little unplowed prairie remnant, barely hanging on in the suburbs. Let’s go!
I move slowly on the overgrown path, recovering from knee surgery that will get me back in tallgrass action come spring. So I take the trail a little more deliberately than usual, which of course, has its own rewards. When you don’t rush, the prairie opens up more of her secrets to you. All around me, the morning frost evaporates. Ragged compass plants look otherworldly, backlit by bright sunshine.
The melting ice glitters on the grasses.
A few compass plant seedheads, with their seeds mostly stripped away, silhouette themselves against the deep blue winter sky.
Its last leaves are wearing away, barely attached to the stem.
Looking at them, I think of Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Dillard’s remark in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: “I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along. I am aging and eaten and have done my share of eating too. I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wondering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for…and whose beauty bats and shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them.”
It’s difficult to imagine anything nibbling the sandpapery compass plant leaves in December. But all grasses and forbs are parsed down to their essence. I continue to study the compass plants. Rough, cracked stems are patched with resin. Scratch the patches, and you’ll inhale a tang of pine fragrance.
Compare the rough and ready compass plants to the fluidity and grace of big bluestem. Sure, big bluestem is dried out and desiccated now; most of its seeds disappeared into the beaks of birds. When green, its foliage is so delicious for wildlife, the plant is sometimes nicknamed “ice cream grass.” But its beauty is only enhanced as the focus shifts from waving turkey-foot seedheads to dry, ribbon-like leaves and hollow stems, flushed with subtle pastel colors.
Another contrast nearby: Pale purple coneflowers still hold their forbidding seedheads. You can see why the scientific name “Echinacea” means “hedgehog” or “sea urchin.” Handle with care! The seeds inside are mostly long gone, harvested by goldfinches and grassland birds.
More contrasts: Thimbleweed holds its soft clouds of seedheads aslant in the cold. I rub the cottony tufts between my fingers, admiring their softness. Like Q-tips.
The thimbleweed is echoed close by in the brushy, bristly seedheads of round-headed bush clover. A fun name to say out loud, isn’t it? Try it. Its scientific name, found at the end of this post, is just as enjoyable.
It’s these little nature preserves, like the Belmont Prairie remnant, that encapsulate the future of restoration. On a beautiful sunny winter’s day like this one, the future seems full of possibilities.
So many delights for the senses to be discovered on a remnant prairie in December! And in a world where so many of our natural resources are in jeopardy, isn’t it encouraging to know that here, at least, the tallgrass prairie will live on. As long as we continue to hike it, protect it, and share it with others so they will love and protect it, too.
What other delights will you find this month on the prairie? Go take a look, and find out.
Sigurd Olson (1899-1982) was the Chicago-born author of many books and key environmentalist instrumental in bringing attention to and preserving the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. His writings about wilderness, including the opening quote of this blog post taken from the chapter “Aliveness” in Reflections from the North Country, continue to inspire those who care about the natural world. Read more about Olson here.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby, and taken at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve in Downer’s Grove, IL: Belmont Nature Preserve in December; backlit compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); grasses matted down after the blizzard and glistening with frost; compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) seedheads; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica); round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata); Belmont Prairie in December.