Tag Archives: bur oak

Prairie Comforts

“If you can’t fly, then run, if you can’t run, then walk, if you can’t walk, then crawl, but by all means keep moving.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

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A bitter wind rattles the windows.  The forecast calls for a possible freeze tonight, jeopardizing my risky plantings of onions, carrots, peas, radishes, kale, and spinach in the backyard garden. Spinach has leafed out. Radishes are up in the raised beds.

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Such tiny seedlings to face a freeze! Enlisting Jeff’s help, I find a sheet and some old towels, then  we drape the raised beds and tuck the ends in with bricks. Now, my garden is ready to face the frigid night ahead.  I hope.

After we finish, I look around the yard and admire what spring has accomplished. Marsh marigolds necklace the pond. Are they blooming in the prairie wetlands right now? I wonder.

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A few marsh marigolds have escaped the pond, leapt the steps leading to the patio, and are in bloom around the hose.

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These enthusiastic wildflowers bring me a lot of joy.  Marsh marigolds are one of the Midwest’s native plants. A similar, but unwelcome yellow flower also stalks my neighborhood: the Ficaria verna, the lesser celandine. On our walks through local subdivisions, Jeff and I spy this invasive hanging out on a street corner and tucked into the edge of a copse of trees.

Ficara Verna-WMlessercelandineLincolnHill41320.jpgAs a prairie steward, I keep my eyes open for this marsh marigold imposter and ruthlessly eradicate it where I can. Give it an inch and it will take over the block. Look at the leaves and flowers of lesser celandine above, then look at the marsh marigolds below. Similar. But different.

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I’m grateful for the marsh marigolds this week. They’re a welcome ray of sunshine. A little bit of comfort .

*****

On Sunday, Jeff and I drive to our daughter’s house for a subdued Easter celebration. In the spirit of social distancing we set up lawn chairs in a corner of their yard and they watch from the porch as the little ones hunt eggs. Afterwards, we swap holiday food in bags–my bread, their lamb and potatoes—and we head home for our duo Easter dinner.  The sidewalks and neighborhoods are crowded with families riding bikes together; going for walks.

As we drive past the College of DuPage prairies, I notice something different.

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Not a soul in sight.

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Stop! We turn into the parking lot. The skies threaten rain, but that isn’t going to stop us.

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The prairie at this time of year is a mix of burned areas and unburned areas. The prescribed fires that keep a prairie healthy have done their work. That green! I had forgotten how intense it is.

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Prairie dropseed scrub brushes are distinctive at this time of year when other plants are barely up.

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Rattlesnake master is unmistakeable—one of the first prairie plants to poke its leaves out of the ground.RattlesnakeMaster41220CODWMWM

Look closely at those leaves above. Like yucca, aren’t they? As its scientific name, Eryngium yuccifolium intimates. Over there –is that a sedge? Yes! But I’m not completely sure of its ID. Mead’s sedge? Pennsylvania sedge, maybe? Hmmm. I try keying it out on my iNaturalist app, but the app isn’t, either. A little mystery.

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Along the path, the bee balm, Monarda fistulosa, spreads its tender growth like a throw rug. I crush a tiny leaf and inhale. Mmmm.  Like minty oregano.

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The prescribed burn has cleared most of last year’s grasses from the prairie, blackened the earth. Despite the blustery weather, the prairie will warm up quickly.

Already, the fringed clamshells of compass plants hold promise. Although the shoots are only a bit taller than my index finger, I’ll see blooms this summer on stalks up to 12 feet high.

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What will I be thinking in late July when it blooms? What will the world be like? After experiencing this pandemic, and the closure of so many natural areas—and crowds in others—I doubt I will ever take a prairie hike like this one for granted again.

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A killdeer calls, then scrabbles across the prairie. Looking for a nest site? Perhaps. I feel my spirits lift. Killdeer are always one of the first signs of spring on the prairie.

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The College of DuPage prairies offer Jeff and myself some much needed solace. You may have felt, as I felt at first, that it is selfish in these times to grieve such things as the loss of a regular walk in a familiar place, or the disappointment of missing a particular patch of hepatica in bloom…

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…or the loss of missing the arrival of spring migrants to a patch of woodland you visit. Perhaps you are unable to go into the field to do your science research; work you’ve planned and received funding for this season at great personal outpouring of energy. Or maybe you mourn the disappearance of the simple rhythms of being a natural areas volunteer and the companionship of others working with you to to restore a prairie, woodland, or wetland. You wonder what’s happening in the places you love—-some now closed off to you for the safety and well-being of all. A good thing. But difficult.

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These losses—of course!—are small when weighed against the loss of a job; the loss of our health, the loss of a beloved friend or family member. The sadness when we can’t hug our grandchildren. The fear we feel over something as simple as grocery shopping.  I’ve felt small-minded for even fussing over a prairie closed; a crowded natural area. What are these losses, really?  And yet, I’ve come to realize they are important losses, none-the-less. These places are part of us. These ordinary rituals, these rhythms of our lives, when lost, un-moor us, unsettle us, shake us. They come at a time when other rituals and rhythms of life are also upended. We long for the simple comforts of our familiar places and routines. Many of them will be unavailable to us for a while.

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My sister, a therapist, tells me we are experiencing trauma, and all of us will respond differently to it. And without some of our prairie walks and work in the places we know and love, we are forced to find new rituals and rhythms. Even as we do so, each of our losses must be acknowledged and grieved.

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I’m establishing new rituals and reacquainting myself with some older ones I’ve neglected over the past few years. A neighborhood walk each morning and evening. A little sketching. Planting my garden. Putting more thought into meals. Eating breakfast together every morning with Jeff, instead of rushing off to work. Restarting my journal, which had gone through a period of neglect.

Watching the rhubarb and other perennials in my yard emerge. I planted rhubarb several times in my garden, and it was never happy. But at last, its seems, I’ve found a spot it likes. I think of rhubarb pie in a few weeks. Something to anticipate.

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I’m enjoying the pleasures of clearing my prairie patch and backyard borders of last  year’s dead growth. Watching the crinkled shell-shaped leaves of alum root emerge.

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I pay closer attention to my backyard these days on a daily basis. Each day, my backyard prairie patch—and the prairies in my community—offers surprises. Cup plant leaves appear. Birds return. Forgotten onion bulbs sprout in the vegetable garden. This week, I spotted my first dragonfly—a common green darner. These natural rhythms continue, even when so much seems in disarray.

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I’m learning to live with greater ambiguity. Becoming more comfortable with being uncomfortable. Instead of planning my year, I try to plan a single day. It’s about as far ahead as I can think. Sometimes, I realize, not much will be accomplished. And that’s okay.

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There are new glories in the natural world to appreciate each morning. I only have to remember to look. To pay attention. In a world full of uncertainty, I may not be able to “fly,” as Martin Luther King, Jr, said in the opening quote. But I can keep moving forward, a little bit at a time.

The emerging prairie shows the way.

****

Martin Luther King, Jr., (1929-68) was a civil rights activist who advocated non-violence. King won the Noble Peace Prize for his work for racial equality, and was assassinated because of this work in 1968. Listen to his most famous speech, “I Have A Dream.” given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): radish (Raphanus raphanistrum subsp. sativus) seedlings, author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; invasive lesser celandine (Ficaria verna), neighborhood side of Willowbrook Wildlife Forest Preserve, Glen Ellyn, IL; marsh marigold, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; street signs, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) overlooking the Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL;  pond on the Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; College of DuPage Prairie in early April; prairie dropseed (Sporabolus heterolepis); Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL: rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas , Glen Ellyn, IL; unknown sedge in the Carex family (possibly Mead’s or Pennsylvania), Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plants (Silphium laciniatum), Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant flower (Silphium laciniatum), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; killdeer (Charadrius vociferus), Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL;  sharp-lobed hepatica (Hepatica nobilis acuta), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (archival photo); Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), College of DuPage Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) emerging, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL;  prairie alum root (Heuchera richardsonii), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; East Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Thank you to Paul Marcum who helped me narrow down the sedge ID.

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THIS WEEK: Join me for a free spring wildflower webinar through the Morton Arboretum from wherever you are sheltering in place! “Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Wildflowers,” April 17, 1-2:30 p.m. CST.–No cost, but you must register to receive the link and additional instructions:  Register Here.

The next “Tallgrass Prairie Ecology” class online begins in early May through The Morton Arboretum. See more information and registration  here. The website is updated to reflect current conditions. A free spring wildflower webinar is also in the works! Watch for a link on Cindy’s website, coming soon.

Several of Cindy’s classes have moved online! For updates on classes and events, please go to http://www.cindycrosby.com.

Want more prairie while you are sheltering in place? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.

A Prairie Ice Age

“Love life first, then march through the gates of each season; go inside nature and develop the discipline to stop destructive behavior; learn tenderness…; listen to the truth the land will tell you; act accordingly.”–Gretel Ehrlich

*****

This week, it was anyone’s bet what the day would bring. Ice storm. Snow storm. Rain. Sleet.

Did I mention a day of almost 50-degree temps? When you live in the prairie states, there is never a lack for conversational topics. Nod, smile, comment on the weather. It’s one of the superficial daily trivialities I missed when I lived briefly in the South. The lack of weather chat there—that prattle I’d taken for granted as a Midwesterner—made me long for my roots and brought me back home.

This week, an ice storm shellacked prairies with a half inch of crystal coating. Everything glittered for  two days. Magical. Even under gray skies.

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When the sun came out, things really sparkled, suspended in time and place.

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The snow was mirrored in the sky. Clouds trailed white scarves across the blue.

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Switchgrass, shorn of much of its beauty since autumn, suddenly attained new glamour.

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Plants turned alien under the ice.

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Grasses glinted gold-foil metallic. Bent and broken under their arches of ice, they wait  for the coming fires of the prescribed burns, less than a month away.

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Squirrels, suspended in space, paused in their wild scrambles on impossibly-thin branches to consider the mercurial goings on of February.

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Trails glowed.

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Bur oaks? The stuff of fantasy.

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Each prairie plant, dipped in ice, bowed under the drippy weight.

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As I hiked the prairie, my mind kicked into glassy overdrive.  Glisten. Crystalline. Shimmer. The words kept coming—tumbling over and over in my head. None of them seemed adequate to describe what I saw. So much extravagance!

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Even the praying mantis egg case in its frozen luster merited a second look.

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Abrupt changes of weather offer fresh shots of paying attention. A reminder of how quickly things change. A memo of how beautiful the world can be. You think that was amazing? Look at this! Each freeze/thaw brings new delights. Each snowstorm causes me to catch my breath, and not just from shoveling.

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Each change of weather causes me to reconsider the familiar.

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I live, slightly on the edge of expectation, wondering what Mother Nature will throw at us next.

You too?

*****

The opening quote is from nature essayist and poet Gretel Ehrlich’s (1946-) The Future of Ice: A Journey into the Cold. Her 1985 debut (and my favorite of her works) is The Solace of Open Spaces, in which she chronicles her time spent working on a Wyoming ranch.

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Preorder Now! Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit by Cindy Crosby and Thomas Dean releases on April 22. $25.95, hardcover, full color photography.  Pre-order at The Morton Arboretum Store or through Ice Cube Press.

*****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): ice storm video, Glen Ellyn, IL; bridge at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, close to prairie plantings, Downer’s Grove, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Schulenberg Prairie and savanna at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown ice-covered vine, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; trail through prairie plantings at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL;  bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bridge over Willoway Brook tributary seen through savanna at Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Chinese praying mantis (Tenodera sinensis) egg case, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; icy grasses at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ice storm at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL.

Join Cindy at Upcoming Events and Classes This Week:

Wednesday, Feb.20, 1:30-3:30 p.m.: Wisconsin Wetlands Association Science Conference, Middleton, WI: Don’t Talk Like a Scientist! Registration here.

Thursday, Feb. 21 &28, 6:30-9 p.m. A History of Wilderness in America, at The Morton Arboretum. We’ll be discussing Wilderness and the American Mind and how our ideas about wilderness have changed through history. Still time to register here.

Saturday, Feb. 23, 11-11:45 a.m.: Wild Things  Conference: The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Shop: Donald Stephen’s Convention Center, Rosemont, IL. Register here.

Life in the Prairie Cold

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

******

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.

****

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… .”

*****

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.

 

Saving Prairie

“Let us go on, and take the adventure that shall fall to us.” — C.S. Lewis

******

Wolf Road Prairie! How could anyone resist visiting a nature preserve with a name like this one? It seems ripe with possibilities for adventure.

The sunshine over the 80-acre preserve is welcome, although the wind makes the temperature seem colder than the high 20s.

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Jeff and I drive around the preserve, unsure where where the trails are. We can see prairie plants, so we know we’re in the right place. Hmmm.

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Time to ask directions. A helpful member of the  “Save the Prairie Society” is shoveling snow, getting ready for an open house at the historical structure on the property. He greets us warmly, and shows us where the trails begin.

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We see right away we’re not alone on the prairie. Look at those tracks! Rush hour.

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Little critters have left their imprints, like sewing machine stitches, across the prairie.Who made the tracks? We wonder. Prairie voles? Mice? Difficult to tell.

We cross through a wetland…

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…and see other signs of the preserve’s inhabitants.

A nest of a bird, long flown.

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I’m puzzled by the interesting galls on the sunflowers. My gall knowledge is limited. Sunflower crown gall, maybe?

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There’s a goldenrod bunch gall–sometimes called a rosette gall—I recognize on the other side of the trail. Like a dried out winter flower of sorts.

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I make a mental note to refresh my gall knowledge—at least of the goldenrod galls! There’s so much to learn while hiking the winter prairie. Always something new, something different. Later at home, I’ll chase down different bits of information, based on our hike. Crown gall. Bunch gall. Adventures of a different kind.

As we hike the south-side prairie savanna remnant…

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…we find sidewalks, left over from a pre-Depression Era time when this acreage was slated for a housing development. The contractors got as far as putting in the sidewalks before the project was scrapped. Jeff, who’s a history buff, is delighted.

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I’m excited, too. According to an excellent article by the Salt Creek Greenway Association, the preserve was threatened again by a proposed housing development in the 1970s. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources and Forest Preserve District of Cook County were able to acquire the acreage and save the fine examples of savanna and black soil prairie remnant.  What a success story!

In January 2019, the story continues. Although the cooler palette of Wolf Road prairie in winter tends toward white, brown, and blue, with bits of pale yellow…

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…little bluestem warms up the tallgrass with reds and golds. Its last clinging seeds sparkle in the sunshine.

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Winter on the prairie brings certain plants into focus. Little bluestem is only one example.

In the summer, I appreciate pale purple coneflowers for their swash of pink-purple color across the grasses. In January, I find myself focusing on a single plant’s structure.

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Culver’s root, bereft of summer pollinators and long past bloom, takes on sinuous grace and motion in stark relief against the snow.

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Even the rough and tumble goldenrod assumes a more delicate beauty in silhouette.

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I imagine what this prairie, savanna, and wetland preserve will look like in a few months. Covered with wildflowers. Limned with birdsong. Full of diverse color and motion. Still, seeing Wolf Road Prairie under a layer of snow in the sunshine has its own beauty.

We almost lost this prairie. Twice.

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I’m grateful to hike it today.

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In a time when so many of our natural areas are threatened, Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve stands as an example of what can happen when people care. What other prairies or natural areas should we speak up and protect today, which might otherwise be lost, underfunded, or developed? These are adventures in caring. Adventures in making a difference.

Somewhere, a new prairie adventure is waiting.

*****

The opening quote is from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, a book in the series “The Chronicles of Narnia,” by C.S. Lewis. I love this series, and read it out loud to my adult children when they were growing up.

All photos this week are from Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sky over the wetland; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) in the prairie display garden; hiking the north side of Wolf Road Prairie; small mouse or vole tracks in the snow; cattail (Typha latifolia, Typha angustifolia or Typha x glauca); unknown bird’s nest; possibly sunflower crown gall (a plant disease); goldenrod gall bunch or rosette—made by a goldenrod gall midge  (Rhopalomyia solidaginis); prairie savanna with bur oaks (Quercus macrocarpa); old sidewalk under the snow in the savanna; snow shadows on the prairie;  little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium); pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) seedhead; Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum); goldenrod (possibly Solidago canadensis); sign for Wolf Road Prairie; trail headed south with little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), a rusty orange haze along the trail and in the distance.

Thank you to the members of the Save the Prairie Society and Heritage Project Committee who so generously pointed out trails, gave us a tour of The Franzosenbusch Prairie House Nature Center and Museum, and were warm and welcoming on our visit there. Check out their Facebook page and other social media.

Prairie Shadows; Prairie Promise

“Time flies over us, but leaves its shadow behind.” — Nathaniel Hawthorne

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It’s “shadow season” on the prairie, a time where everything seems a ghost of its former, vibrant self. I find it one of the most difficult times of the year in the tallgrass. Everything that remains at the turn of March to April is seemingly brittle. Ruined. Grasses are flattened. The prairie seems worn out.

Waiting for fire.

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Or maybe I’m just projecting my own winter-weary self on the prairie. The prairie—as always—has its gifts to give.  These gifts just aren’t that in-your-face, “wow-look-at-that-color!” good looks. No wildflowers. No juicy grasses. Few returning grassland birds.

There is a whole lot of animal scat and mud. Trash, small mammal bones, and flotsam and jetsam left behind after the snow melt.

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It’s discouraging. But sometimes, to see hope for the future—or even, just to give yourself a mental boost to get to next week—you have to look a little closer. Dig a little deeper. Take more time. Sit with things.

When you do, you find that with the prairie’s maturity comes a different sort of beauty. It’s nuanced.

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Some plants are crumpled and twisted. This one caught a plant virus. See that thick stem? It’s frayed a little around the stress points, but not broken…

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Prairie dock leaves are so wrinkled you have to look twice to recognize them.

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Much different from their beginnings just a year or so ago.

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All the knowledge of the past prairie season is encapsulated here in March. A shadow of what once was. You can’t help but be reminded of our own fleeting presence here.

 

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There’s promise. That promise will be more evident after the prescribed fires, when the prairie is once again lush and green and beginning to bloom.

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Despite the stands of dead foliage, what is important to the prairie is still here. Even if unseen. It’s right where you’re standing. Down deep where the fire can’t touch it, in the roots that plunge up to 15 feet or more into the earth.

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Martin Luther King, Jr., once said: “Everything we see is but a shadow cast by that which we don’t see.” He wasn’t talking about the prairie, but his words are applicable. Those unseen deep roots that grip the soil so tenaciously–and will remain untouched by fire—are the prairie’s future. They hold the history of the prairie–the soil—in their grasp. While the life of the prairie above the ground is finished—that fleeting shadow of wildflowers, grasses, and color—there is more to consider than what is visible to our eyes.

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Some prairies have already been burned as March comes to a close. But, without the right weather conditions, many of our local prairies are still in a state of anticipation. Waiting for the flames. For the prairie to flourish—for color and life and motion to be kindled again in the tallgrass—calls for something harsh, extravagant, and radical to happen.

There’s not much time left. March is almost over.

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Bring on the fire.

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*****

The opening quote is by dark romantic writer Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), a neighbor of Ralph Waldo Emerson and a contemporary of Abraham Lincoln, Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville (who dedicated his novel Moby Dick to Hawthorne), and Louis Agassiz. To support his writing, and later his family, Hawthorne did everything from working as a surveyor to shoveling manure. He’s known for his short stories and his novels, such as The House of the Seven Gables. Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter was one of the first mass produced books in America, and required reading when I was in high school. Writer D.H. Lawrence said of The Scarlet Letter, “There could be no more perfect work of the imagination.” Hawthorne is buried at Authors Ridge in Concord, Massachusetts.

*****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Schulenberg Prairie in March before the burn, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  unknown mammal bones, Prairiewoods Prairie, Hiawatha, IA; spoon in the tallgrass, Prairiewoods Prairie, Hiawatha, IA; prairie dock leaf (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy IL, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) (probably infected with a virus), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy IL; Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; wrinkled prairie dock leaf (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy IL, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; green prairie dock leaf (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Aldo Leopold Prairie Visitor Center prairie planting, Baraboo, WI; feather on prairie plant (both unknown species), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans)  at Prairiewoods, Hiawatha, IA; ball gall, Prairiewoods, Hiawatha, IA; unburned savanna and burned prairie at Prairiewoods, Hiawatha, IA; prescribed burn sign, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn in the distance, viewed from The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

A Thousand Prairie Details

” …few (if any) details are individually essential, while the details collectively are absolutely essential. What to include, what to leave out. Those thoughts are with you from the start.” –John McPhee

***

“What to include, what to leave out?” How do you decide—when you try to describe September on the prairie?

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Look through the tallgrass kaleidoscope. Details change. From hour to hour; moment to moment.

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The prairie is a shape-shifter.

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Color and pattern maker.

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Each insect and plant outlined and highlighted.

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A few shocks of color. Burnt cherry.

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Pure purple.

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Other details, less colorful, still dazzle. Fizzy whites, knitted together by spiders; pearled by dew.

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Sheer numbers sometime disguise the finer elements.

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The particulars lost in a tangle. Taken out of context.

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The familiar becomes unfamiliar.

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The tiniest details create the sum of the whole. The autumn prairie.

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Dreamlike.

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Almost invisible at times. Camouflaged. But unforgettable.

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The magic of a thousand prairie details.

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They all add up to something extraordinary.

***

The opening quote is from John McPhee’s Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process.  McPhee (1931-) is the author of more than 30 books, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for Annals of the Former World.

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) at the end of a trail, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN;  white wild indigo leaves with spider silk, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN; September in the tallgrass, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN; three butterflies puddling (two male clouded sulphurs (Colias philodice) and an orange sulphur (Colias eurytheme)), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) with morning dew, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN;  yellow legged or autumn meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN;  unseasonal bloom on white wild indigo in September (Baptisia leucantha), Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN;  nodding bur marigold (Bidens cernua), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  bison (Bison bison) hair on the trail, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) with dewdrops, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN; early morning on the prairie, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN; fog over Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN; eastern tailed blue butterfly (Cupido comyentas), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Taltree Arboretum prairie, Valparaiso, IN.

Prairie Essentials

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; What is essential is invisible to the eye.” ~ The Little Prince

Take a prairie hike on a December day, and it’s easy to forget some of the essentials. No, not gloves and a hat.

The prairie essentials. Those now-invisible, dimly-remembered elements of the prairie; those moments in the tallgrass that first caught your heart.

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Have you forgotten? How lush the prairie is in the spring! A thousand different possible greens.

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Do you remember? The moment when you first saw the lupine blooms in the spring. You stood on the path, stunned.

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In December, when the prairie lies still and silent, immobile in the freezing temperatures, it’s easy to forget…

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…the sound of the frogs in the wet prairie, vocalizing so loudly you couldn’t hear yourself think. The deep “moo” of the bullfrog, reminding  you of where its name comes from. The strummed comb of chorus frogs. The sleigh bells of spring peepers.

So, that spring day,  you let go of trying to think. You just listened by the side of the pond. Remember?

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Those essential moments. Those essential images. Out of season. Waiting to be taken out and enjoyed.

In December, when the snow suffocates the grasses, then melts everything into a cauldron of mud… and the stark seed heads of false sunflowers stand naked in the frigid air…

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…you begin to recall… How, one spring,  the lone bison stood silhouetted against the aluminum sky like a buffalo nickel.

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Or how you sat for hours by the bluebird house, watching for small chips of feathered sky to fly by in the warmth of late summer.

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In December, when your eyelashes are rimmed with snowflakes, and your hands are numb with cold…

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…you suddenly remember the day you stumbled across the fringed gentians, nestled deep in the fall grasses.

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Have you forgotten? The butterfly you glimpsed, gently tasting the prairie cinquefoil with its slender feet?

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The sounds of the woodpecker drumming in December… does it conjure up the memory of the dickcissel calling its own name in July?

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The prairie essentials. Dimly remembered in December; triggered by sights, smells, sounds. You believe  — although you can’t see them  — that you will encounter them again.

You know the deep roots of grasses and forbs continue to plunge more than 15 feet into the earth, even if you can’t see them. They are there, keeping the prairie grounded.

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While on the surface, small tracks speak of  invisible things, temporarily hidden.

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You believe that the scrim of ice along the stream that runs through the prairie, holding it in its inexorable, prison-like grip…

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…will give way — soon enough — to the freely-flowing current in July.

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I love the prairie in all its rhythms; marvel at its winter wonders. But when I see the prairie in December, I see more than what my eyes tell me.

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My heart remembers the prairie essentials; no matter what the season.

All photos by Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Prairie Visitor Station, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  bridge over Willoway Brook, SP; lupine (Lupinus perennis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; bison in the snow, NG; bullfrog, NG;  false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides), SP; bison, NG; bluebird house, NG;    fringed gentian (Gentianopsis crinita), NG; red admiral on prairie cinquefoil (Potentilla arguta), NG; dickcissel, NG; sun and snow, SP; animal tracks, SP; Willoway Brook SP; Clear Creek, NG; bridge in the snow, SP.

The opening quote: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; What is essential is invisible to the eye”  is from The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Thanks to Jeff Crosby for first introducing me to the book, many years ago.