Tag Archives: canada wild rye

Little Prairie in the City

“Wherever we look, from the dirt under our feet to the edge of the expanding cosmos, and on every scale from atoms to galaxies, the universe appears to be saturated with beauty.”–Scott Russell Sanders

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We went looking for beauty. We found it in the northwest corner of Illinois, on a day both foggy and cold.

The 66-acre Searls Park Prairie and wetland is tucked into a mosaic of soccer fields, jogging trails, picnic grounds, and a BMX bike track. Once part of a 230-acre family farm homesteaded in the 1850’s, today the prairie is a designated Illinois Nature Preserve and part of the Rockford Park District.

Fog drizzles the tallgrass with droplets, but no light sparkles. Staghorn sumac lifts its scarlet torches in the gloom, bright spots of color on this gray, gray day.

This remnant is mostly mesic prairie; or what I call the “Goldilocks” type of prairie—-not too wet, not too dry. Well-drained. Just right. Black soil prairie was once coveted by farmers as a fertile place for crops—farmers like the Searls, no doubt. For that reason, most black soil prairies have vanished in Illinois.

It’s quiet. Even the recreational areas are empty in the uncomfortably damp late afternoon. No soccer games. No picnics. The BMX bike track is closed.

The prairie seems other-worldly in the silence.

Prairies like this, tucked into cities, are important sanctuaries. Searls Park Prairie is known for hosting three state-listed threatened or endangered plant species. I don’t see any of the rare or endangered plants on my hike today. But I do see Indian grass….lots and lots of Indian grass.

Its bright bleached blades are etched sharply against the misty horizon. The colors of the drenched prairie are so strong, they seem over-exposed.

Thimbleweed, softly blurred in the fog, mingles with…

…round-headed bush clover, silvery in the late afternoon.

Canada wild rye is sprinkled with sparks.

Gray

Inhale. Ahhhh. Gray-headed coneflower seedheads are soggy with rainwater, but still smell of lemons when you crush them.

I pinch the hoary leaves of bee balm. Thymol, its essential oil, is still present. But the fragrance is fading.

Mountain mint has lost most of its scent, but still charms me with its dark, silvery seedheads.

Stiff goldenrod transitions from bloom to seed, not quite ready to let go of the season.

Overhead, a flock of tiny birds flies over, impossible to identify. There are rare birds here, although I don’t see any today. On our way to the prairie, we marveled at non-native starlings in the cornfields along the interstate, moving in synchronized flight. I’ve never been able to get this on video, but there are great examples of this flight found here. I’ve only seen this phenomenon in the autumn; one of the marvels of the dying year. Once seen, never forgotten.

On the edge of the prairie, wild plums spangle the gloom.

Such color! Such abundance.

I’ve read there is high-quality wet prairie here, full of prairie cordgrass, blue joint grass, and tussock sedge. We look for this wetter area as we hike, but the path we’re on eventually disappears.

No matter. So much prairie in Illinois is gone. So little original prairie is left. I’m grateful to Emily Searls for deeding her family’s farm to the city of Rockford almost 80 years ago, ensuring this prairie is preserved today.

So much beauty. We hardly know where to look next.

The sun burns briefly through the fog like a white-hot dime.

Dusk is on the way, a little early. We make our way back to the car, just ahead of the dark.

There are many different ways to think of beauty.

It’s always available for free on the prairie, in all its infinite variations.

Why not go see?

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The opening quote is from Scott Russell Sanders’ (1945-) The Way of Imagination. Sanders is professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN, where Jeff and I lived for a dozen or so years. After writing the opening quote, he follows it with “What are we to make of this?” and later “How then should we live, in a world overflowing with such bounty? Rejoice in it, care for it, and strive to add our own mite of beauty, with whatever power and talent we possess.” Oh, yes.

All photos from Searls Park Prairie, Rockford, IL (top to bottom): fog over the Searls Park Prairie; Illinois nature preserve sign; staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); white vervain (Verbena urticifolia); dedication plaque; foggy landscape; indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica); round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata); canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum); fog on the prairie; stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum); indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and wild plum (Prunus americanus); wild plum (Prunus americanus); autumn colors; Jeff on the Searls Park Prairie; sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus) in the mist; foggy day on the Searls Park Prairie; prairie landscape in the fog; unknown umbel.

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Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization–now booking talks for 2021. Email Cindy through http://www.cindycrosby.com.

Literary Gardens Online: Friday, Dec.4, 1-2:30 p.m.CST– Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby from wherever you live in the world for a fun look at great (and not-so-great) gardens in literature and poetry. From Agatha Christie’s mystery series, to Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Goudge, Rumer Godden, May Sarton, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Gilbert, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, and Lewis Carroll–and many more! This class is online. Register here through The Morton Arboretum.

Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.

Chasing Dragonflies Final Cover 620.jpg

Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org, direct from Northwestern University Press (use coupon code NUP2020 for 25% off), or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during these unusual times.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (phrelanzer). Or visit her website at http://www.cindycrosby.com. See you there!

September Arrives on the Prairie

The three great elemental sounds in nature are the sound of rain, the sound of wind in a primeval wood, and the sound of outer ocean on a beach.” –Henry Beston

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Crackle. Pop. Crunch. The once-tender prairie wildflowers and grasses snap under the weight of my boots. The wind rustles the dry big bluestem and switchgrass. Dust puffs up behind me.

Today is the first day of meteorological autumn. The prairie is hard as concrete, desperate for water.

Since the Durecho on August 10, not a drop has fallen in Glen Ellyn. Twenty-one days without precipitation. I miss the sound of rain. I miss the way the garden lifts its leaves and perks up after a shower. I long for the slam-ka-BAM of thunder, the drumming of raindrops on the roof. Flicker-flashes of lightning that illuminate the world. And the clean, earthy smell of the prairie after a storm.

I think of the early settlers and the Dust Bowl. How did they feel as the harsh winds blew their lives to ruin? It’s only been three weeks without rain, and I’m on edge. Brittle. Testy.

In the evenings, I water my backyard prairie patch and garden, but the green bean leaves turn yellow anyway. Zucchini leaves dry up. Tomatoes hang green on the vine and fail to ripen. Cardinal flowers close up shop as the cup plants crumb and brown.

Wildflowers wilt.

We need rain.

I walk my dragonfly monitoring routes on the prairies, astonished. Where are the Odes? Has the lack of water affected them? Perhaps. A few migrants —a trio of black saddlebag dragonflies, a cluster of common green darners circling overhead, the glint of a wandering glider—are all I see on an hour-long outing. Where before there was a richness of species and numbers, the dragonflies have dwindled to these few. Damselflies? Not a single one.

And it’s no wonder. Willoway Brook’s tributaries—usually aflutter with ebony jewelwing damselflies and blue-fronted dancers—are dry and choked with brush.

Ordinarily, we complain about rain: that despoiler of picnics, outdoor weddings, kayak outings, and camping trips. And yet. How we long for it when it doesn’t show up.

A lone common buckeye butterfly surprises me on the path. It fruitlessly loops from clover to clover, seeking nectar. The red clover blooms are withered and brown and it comes up empty.

On the parched prairie, the grasses and wildflowers continue on. Tall coreopsis is vibrant despite the lack of precipitation.

Cream gentians still look fresh and supple.

Carrion flower, with its alienesque seeds, is show-stopping.

Big bluestem and Indian grass, look brittle and bruised.

Stiff goldenrod pours out its blooms, irregardless of drought, attracting a goldenrod soldier beetle (sometimes called leatherwings). Butterflies love it. Monarchs depend on this relatively well-behaved goldenrod and other fall wildflowers to fuel up for their long journey south. Planted in backyards and prairies, goldenrod helps ensure survival of this beloved butterfly.

As a child, I remember bringing an older relative goldenrod in a kid-picked bouquet. Alarmed, she thanked me for the flowers, but removed the goldenrod—because she said it gave her allergies. Today, we know this is a myth. It’s the ragweeds (both common and giant ragweed —-also native) that bloom about this time of year that wreak havoc with allergy suffers. We can enjoy goldenrod without fear.

Tall boneset announces autumn as it opens in clouds on the edges of the prairie, mingling with goldenrod and competing for a seat in the savanna.

Nearby, wingstem in full bloom attracts its share of pollinators, including this non-native honeybee and native bumblebee.

There’s been a lot of discussion among prairie stewards about competition between native and non-native bees. Should we have beehives on our prairie restorations? Or not? Read this excellent post by Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie’s Bill Glass here. We’re always learning new things about prairie stewardship; always adjusting our management strategies and expectations as we grapple with new information and its implications for a healthy prairie. It’s important to keep an open mind. Not to get mired in doing things “the way we’ve always done them.” To keep reading and learning from others who have experiences we can benefit from. I mull over information on managing for native bees as I walk.

As I finish my hike on the prairie, thinking about prairie management issues, I try to be patient. Rain will come. The prairie will survive. Soon, my longing for rain will be only a memory. In the meantime, I cultivate patience.

The road ahead is uncertain.

Staying flexible. Keeping an open mind. Adapting. Listening to experts. Acting on the science as it unfolds. Practicing patience.

Good advice for prairie stewardship—and for life in general in September.

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Henry Beston (1888-1968) was a writer and naturalist, best known for The Outermost House. I particularly love the chapter “Orion Rises On the Dunes.” Check it out here.

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All photos taken at the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, and copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): the prairie in August; new england aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae); canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum); common green darner dragonfly (Ajax junius); Willoway Brook; wild lettuce or prickly lettuce (Lactuca serriola); common buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); cream gentian (Gentiana alba); carrion flower (probably Smilax ecirrhata); indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigida) with goldenrod soldier beetle (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus) and unknown beetle; tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima); tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum); wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) with a honeybee (Apis sp.) and bumblebee (Bombus sp.); Illinois tick trefoil (Desmodium illinoense) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) with unidentified insects; path through the Schulenberg Prairie; smooth aster (Symphyotrichum laeve).

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Join Cindy for an Online Class this Autumn! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for details.

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” Begin a new session this Thursday, September 2 through The Morton Arboretum! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional Zoom session. Classes are limited to 50. Register here.

“Nature Writing Online” Begins Monday, October 5, through The Morton Arboretum. Want to commit to improving and fine-tuning your writing for six weeks? This is a great opportunity to jump start your blog, your book, or your journal writing while working online from home, supplemented with three evenings of live evening Zoom classes on alternate weeks. Class size is limited; register here.

Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.

Chasing Dragonflies Final Cover 620.jpg

Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org, direct from Northwestern University Press (use coupon code NUP2020 for 25% off), or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during this chaotic time.

Want more prairie? 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. 

Five Reasons to Hike the August Prairie

“No story lives unless someone wants to listen.”– J.K. Rowling

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Each year, I see the prairie as having a certain personality. Sparkling! Energetic. Another year it might be tranquil. Welcoming. I know this is an overlay of my personal feelings about the year, unrelated to the prairie itself. The prairie is utterly indifferent to my mood. Indeed, the prairie has many moods of its own, which change from minute to minute.

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2020 on the prairie has been colored by COVID: from the lack of prescribed burns (all that old standing plant matter!), to the increased traffic on the trails, to the nervousness I feel when I see lots of hikers on a narrow path. When I begin a hike, mask at the ready, it’s a far different experience than it was in August of 2019.

It would be easier than I’d like to admit to let that tension keep me at home, or spoil the joy I usually feel in hiking the tallgrass.

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I go out anyway. I mask up when I need to; then find times (early and late) and spots on the prairie where I can be alone. And each time I go on a prairie hike, I don’t regret it.

There’s always a new discovery.  Shifts of weather. A different slant…

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…on what is pretty familiar after hiking this prairie for 22 years. There are always new ways of seeing things.

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Sometimes, when you’ve walked the same trails for years, you have a preconceived idea of what you’ll find. The danger is this: when you think you already know what you’ll see, you may overlook something special.

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I try to remember to keep my eyes open. My mind open. And my heart open to what I might experience each time I walk in the tallgrass.

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You, too?

With that in mind, let’s explore the tallgrass together and discover five reasons to hike the prairie in August.

#1. Plants Have Stories. This Friday I’m teaching the second half of a class called Prairie Ethnobotany; the big “e” word simply means the study of how people interact with plants throughout history. Each prairie plant has a story to tell. Each “story” has as many “pages” to it as we are willing to read. Prairie plants have so many fascinating ethnobotanical tales to tell.

Think of big bluestem. Did you know that big bluestem is Illinois’ state grass? Or that its nickname is “turkey foot?” bigbluestemhorizontalfogSPMA11020WM.jpg

It was once considered a good substitute for knitting needles—not difficult to imagine, when you look at its jointed stems.

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Big bluestem was known as the ice cream of the prairie for livestock—it was that delicious to cows and horses! Ironically, early settlers knew that where big bluestem grew, the land was suitable for farming.

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I love to hear the stories that my students tell me about their ethnobotanic relationships with plants. Check out Larry and Arlene Dunn’s terrific story here in their blog post from “Acornometrics” about rattlesnake master, one of the stars of the August prairie.

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Maybe, as you walk the prairie in August, you’ll want to write a haiku about a plant, as Larry did in this blog, and for one of our assignments. Share your haiku with me in the comments, if you do write one.

#2. Insects have stories, too! As I walk the prairie, I discover stories about the insects that inhabit it. Some insect stories are cheerful; the business of butterflies and beetles and bees, nectaring and pollinating.

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Other insect stories may be a bit frightening. This black horsefly feeds on blood—any blood—wherever she may find it. Her mouth parts cut open flesh, leaving a painful sore behind. Ouch! I move past quickly. Nothing to see here, Miz Blackfly.

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Beauty and grace, as well as a strong instinct for survival, are what I read in the dragonfly stories. Like this widow skimmer. Fierce. And exquisite. What a powerful combination!

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However, not all insect stories have a happily-ever-after ending.

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But each story tells us something important about the life of the August prairie community.

#3. Take a Hitchhiker Home. No, we’re not talking ticks here. Well, maybe we are. Sort of. Tick trefoil is another star of the August prairie. Many plants have strategies to help them disperse to new locations to diversify their gene pool. One of these strategies is to attach themselves to our shirts or socks and hitch a ride. Tick trefoil is one of my favorite hitchhikers. Those lovely lavender blooms!

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Those intriguing seed pods. Brush against them, and you’ll arrive home, covered with enough tick trefoil seeds to plant a monoculture in your yard. I’ve spent hours pulling the seeds off of my clothes, only to find the seed pods I miss show up in the lint trap of my dryer.

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Pick a tick trefoil leaf and you can also paste it, corsage-like, to your lapel. And look at those flowers. The unmistakable blooms of a legume. They remind me of my sugar snap pea flowers and green bean flowers in the garden, only in stunning violet.

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When I see Illinois tick trefoil in flower and in seed, I know the prairie has begun its slide toward autumn. It’s a bittersweet feeling. The summer of 2020 has been oh-so-short. Or so it seems. What other plants hitch a ride home with you in August?  (Hint: Check your dryer’s lint trap for clues after a hike.)

 #4. Enjoy the Play of Light and Shade. As you hike, see what your eyes are drawn to. Contemplate how plants stand out as individuals, or blend in as an aggregate of masses of color and hue to create a mood. Watch how the light shifts, and blends and changes the prairie palette. Some areas look impressionistic, then a shaft of light throws a particular plant into sharp relief.

In this early August prairie mix….

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…blue vervain takes the spotlight.BlueVervainSPMA8220WM.jpg

In supporting roles are the wispy Canada wild rye…

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…and bee balm and bottlebrush grass.

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Not far off, black-eyed susans and the festive gray-headed coneflowers (below) mix into the prairie edges, adding their yellows as foil to the blues and purples.

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As an art major for a few years in college, I remember learning that yellow and purple are complementary colors on the color wheel. Later, when I took a quilting class, I realized how striking purple and yellow are in combination. The prairie doesn’t need a lesson in color theory to know. It pours out colors and shades of color in an ever-moving kaleidoscope, changing its appearance throughout the day as the sun moves across the sky.  All we have to do to see it is show up.

#5. The Prairie Skies in August have stories to tell. How different the plants look up close…

Ironweed8220SPMAWM.jpg …from when you change  your perspective, and see them against the backdrop of cumulus clouds and blue skies.

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Some plants, like this pale indian plantain, stand out.

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Even the creatures of the prairie community, like this dickcissel, appear in a new light.

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An approaching storm throws the prairie and prairie savanna into a different mood. The bloom colors subtly shift; even the smell of the rain on the way tickles your nose and sharpens your senses. The sounds of the prairie change, from the rumbles of thunder in the distance to the ominous rustling of switchgrass and big bluestem.

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Later in the season, deep fog on the prairie mists it in magic. Serene. Soothing.

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Whether it is hiking the prairie by day…

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…or strolling it in the evening and marveling at another glorious prairie sunset, you’ll know…

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…this hour you set aside to hike the August prairie was time well spent.

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The quote which opens this post is from J.K. Rowling (1965-), author of the Harry Potter series. The series has sold more than 500 million copies, and is considered the best-selling series in history.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby from the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (file photo); compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) with sunflower head clipping beetles (Haplorhynchites aeneus); slanted trail; male eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemus tenera), Arbor Lake, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; praying mantis (Mantid, unknown species–one of the natives? or not? Unsure!), Cindy’s backyard prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL; butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) with big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii);  big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) (file photo); big bluestem (Andropogen gerardii) (file photo); big bluestem (Andropogen gerardii), College of DuPage Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL (file photo); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) (file photo); showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) with unknown beetles; black horse fly (Tabanus atratus); widow skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa) (file photo); widow skimmer dragonfly wings (Libellula luctuosa); Illinois tick trefoil (Desmodium Illinoense); Illinois tick trefoil (Desmodium Illinoense); Illinois tick trefoil Desmodium Illinoense);  light and shade through the Schulenberg Prairie Savanna; blue vervain (Verbena hastata); Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix) and bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata); smooth tall ironweed (Vernonia gigantea);smooth tall ironweed (Vernonia gigantea); pale indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium);  dickcissel (Spiza americana) on great angelica (Angelica atropurpurea), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (file photo); fog on the prairie (file photo, unsure of month); sun and clouds on the prairie; sunset over Cindy’s prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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Join Cindy for an Online Class this Fall!

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” Begin a new session in September through The Morton Arboretum! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional Zoom session. Register here.

“Nature Writing Online” Begins Monday, October 5, through The Morton Arboretum. Want to commit to improving and fine-tuning your writing for six weeks? This is a great opportunity to jump start your blog, your book, or your journal writing while working from home, supplemented with three evenings of live evening Zoom classes on alternate weeks. Watch for registration information coming soon.

Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Read a review from Kim Smith here. (And check out her blog, “Nature is My Therapy” — you’ll love it!

Chasing Dragonflies Final Cover 620.jpg

Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org and other book venues. Order direct through Northwestern University Press and receive 40% off this new book and/or “The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction”— use coupon code SUN40 through August 6. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during this chaotic time.

Want more prairie? 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.  

Looking for Light on the Prairie

“The…world becomes even more beautiful the closer you look. All it takes is attention and knowing how to look.” – –Robin Wall Kimmerer

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What stories does a feather have to tell?

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Jeff and I are hiking Belmont Prairie; our last hike, it turns out, for a while. As we follow the shallow stream to where it disappears…

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…the feather comes into focus at my feet. It looks unreal, with its polka-dotted edge and its graceful arch. Such a lovely silken feather, lying in the mud. I wonder. Who did it belong to? Later, I text a photo of it to a birder friend. Downy or hairy woodpecker, he tells me, most likely. I wonder at the stories this feather could tell.

Once, this feather embodied flight. It provided warmth and waterproofing. Now, it is grounded. Soon, it will disappear into the prairie soil and be unremembered. Except by me.

I’ve felt sad this week. A deep grief. There has been so much loss.

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My usual remedy for sadness and uncertainty is to go to “my” prairies and walk, journal, and think. But the options for hiking have narrowed this week. My prairie stewardship is on hold because of our shelter in place orders. One prairie where I lead a regular work group is closed. Another, requires extensive travel, and I’m no longer comfortable with the idea of driving 90 miles each way. Scientific research and monitoring is halted until the end of the month. Or longer.

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And now, a walk on Belmont Prairie—not far down the road from where I live—is becoming an adventure of the sort I don’t want. Narrow trails. Too many hikers.  Each of us is painfully aware of not getting too close to the other.

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Today, instead of enjoying my walk here, I feel tense.  A hiker appears in front of me, wearing earbuds. I step deep into the tallgrass and we smile at each other as he passes. Too close. Another arrives on a bike. Seeing me, she veers away. A bridge requires single file passage. Because there has been no prescribed burn due to the shelter in place, it’s difficult to see someone until we almost run into each other.

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This, I come to understand as I walk, will be my last hike here for a while. Looks like our backyard prairie may be the best place for Jeff and me during the next few weeks.

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Later, I try to sit with my grief over yet another loss. The loss of beloved places. I try not to ignore my feelings. Not set them aside. But I let myself feel this grief for a few moments. It’s slightly terrifying. My old ways of coping by “going for a hike on the prairie”  are no longer available. I realize I have a choice. I can be angry at what’s closed off to me. I can be depressed at what’s been taken away. Or…

I can be grateful for what I do have.

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I don’t want you to think I’m being Polyanna-ish about this. I’ve been mad this week, and I’ve been sad. I mourned when my  stewardship work was put on hold; and cried again when my other prairie was closed to visitation, science work, and stewardship. These were good decisions by good organizations—made for the health of people. But tough for those of us who love a particular place. Each loss hurt—to not see the emerging pasque flowers bud and bloom, to miss the first crinkled shoots of wood betony pushing through the prairie soil. To not watch the killdeer return. The emerald scrub brushes of newly-emerging prairie dropseed will be long and lush before I’m hiking those trails again.

belmontprairiebackside420WM.jpgThe solace of these familiar and beloved places is no longer available to me. I can choose to continue to be unhappy about this.  Or I can take account of what I do have.

What I do have is a backyard. I have my walks. ‘Round and ’round and ’round the block we go each morning, Jeff and I, soaking up the surprisingly diverse natural world of our neighborhood. Grassy lawns full of common wild violets, our Illinois state wildflower.

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Lawns–some full of diversity, others chemical-ed into monocultured submission. Some are power-edged sharply along sidewalks with volcano-mulched trees, aggressively brought to obedience.

Others are softer, more natural. An eastern-cottontail munches clover in one yard against a backdrop of daffodils. We hear loud cries, and look up as sandhill cranes fly over, somewhere above the bare silver maple limbs etched across blue skies and altocumulus clouds. Like stained glass windows to another world we can only dimly perceive.

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In the cracks of the driveways and the sidewalks blooms a tiny flower. I’m not sure if it’s early Whitlow grass or common chickweed. My iNaturalist app isn’t sure of the ID either. I count the petals, and when I return home, consult my field guides. Chickweed has five petals, deeply cleft—which look like ten at a glance, my guide tells me. Early Whitlow grass, I read, has four petals, deeply cleft, looking as if they are eight petals.

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Chickweed it is!

As I walk, I think about the backyard that will be my “hiking spot” for the foreseeable future. When we moved in, and I met our neighbor Gerould Wilhelm, co-author of Flora of the Chicago Region, I asked his advice. What was the best way to learn native plants of our area? He told me, “Key out one plant in your backyard a day, Cindy. By the time a year has passed, you’ll know 365 plants.” It was great advice, and I took it—for a while. Then I quit. Now might be the time to put my backyard ID into more regular practice.

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I walk through my yard, looking. Over there in the prairie patch—new growth of rattlesnake master and shooting star. And —oh no—buckthorn! Garlic mustard has infiltrated the prairie patch, pond, and garden beds. While my attention was elsewhere doing my stewardship work removing invasives the past few years, these bad-boy plants crept into my yard.

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As I slosh through the wetter areas of the yard, I’m reminded that our house is on the downslope of three other homes in our suburban subdivision. Water, water, everywhere. Our raised beds have helped us solve the problem of growing vegetables in the “swamp.” My little hand-dug pond, sited at the lowest point of the yard, holds some of the water and provides great habitat for western chorus frogs, dragonflies and damselflies, and marsh marigolds which came into bloom a few days ago on the perimeter.

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One of the outflows of all this water is the mosses that accumulate.  But what kinds of mosses? With mosses on my mind, I ordered a  “Common Mosses of the Northeast and Appalachians,” recommended by Dr. Andrew Hipp.  (If you haven’t checked out his thoughtful and intelligent woodland blog, give it a look!) Mosses are…. difficult. I begin with a simple moss that appears in the cracks of our neighborhood sidewalks and backyard patio.

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I follow with a photo of a moss from my Belmont hike.

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Hmmm. It’s a good book. But I can see identifying mosses is going to be a challenge. There’s no instant gratification, and it’s a lot more difficult than ID’ing the chickweed. But, it’s a potentially absorbing activity that I can look forward to over the next few weeks in my backyard. I like having something new to focus on that’s available to me.

After a while, I put the mosses book aside and sit in a patch of sunshine. A cardinal pours out his heart to his lady-love. Goldfinches chitter and chat, then swarm the thistle feeder, resplendent in their brightening plumage.

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It’s good to feel a connection with my backyard. A kinship with the natural world.  ID’ing mosses—feeling the warmth of the sun, listening to birdsong—reminds me that I’m not alone. I needed that reminder right now.  You, too?

We’re in this together.

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Keep looking for the light. It’s there.

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Keep watching for signs of hope. Pay attention.

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Hope and light are all around us. We only need to look.

*****

The opening quote is from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s (1953-) Gathering  Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses (2003). She is best known for Braiding Sweetgrass, but her earlier book is still my favorite.

****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): downy or hairy woodpecker feather, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; stream trickling to an end at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; trail by Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; raccoon (Procyon lotor) tracks, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; footbridge over the stream through Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; Jeff hikes Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; common blue violet (Viola sororia sororia); silver maple (Acer saccharinum) with sky and clouds, author’s neighborhood, Glen Ellyn, IL; common chickweed (Stellaria media), author’s neighborhood, Glen Ellyn, IL;   bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), invasive Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) and native rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; unknown moss (but hopefully not for long!), author’s neighborhood, Glen Ellyn, IL; unknown moss (but hopefully not for long!); Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; goldfinches (Spinus tristis) at the feeder, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; sun halo over author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL: unknown rock on my neighborhood walk, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Thanks to John Heneghan for help with the bird feather ID.

*****

Cindy’s Speaking and Classes

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

Want more prairie? 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 Little Prairie Fog Magic

“Things take the time they take. Don’t worry.” — Mary Oliver

*****

Seems Mother Nature is trying to cram all four seasons into one week as January gets off to a tumultuous start in the Chicago region. From the “Winter Storm Icepocalypse” that fizzled, to temps veering from a balmy 50 degrees to a bitter 17 (and what about those wind gusts at 40 mph?) we’ve already experienced weather worthy of all four seasons. Sun. Snow. Ice. Sleet. Wind. Rain. Fog.

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With a winter storm in the forecast, I headed to the Schulenberg Prairie Friday to put in some long-overdue pasque flower seeds.  Pasque flowers are one of the first wildflowers to bloom in the spring after a prescribed burn.

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We usually deal with the seeds immediately as they ripen, pushing them into the soil next to the mother plant. But our flowering plants have dwindled here—in 2018, to just a few blooms. We’ve also been starting them in the greenhouse—and direct sowing them—but I worry about the limited genetic pool we’re drawing from. Slowly the population is increasing. But we have a long way to go.

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This season, generous folks at a local forest preserve were kind enough to share seeds with us to help invigorate our dwindling, genetically-inbred population. But, by the time the seeds arrived, I was out of commission for the season after cancer surgery. The seeds languished in an envelope. Until now.

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Winter seeding is a time-honored method to stratify certain prairie seeds that need a cold, moist period to germinate. Better late than never, I tell myself. This morning, the temperature hovers in the mid-40s. But snow is on the way.

Fog envelopes the prairie and prairie savanna.

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I grab my bucket of sand and envelope of seeds, and head for the area I have in mind for the pasque flowers.

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Fog brings a certain silence with it. On Sterling Pond, across from the prairie savanna, the cold ice of the pond kisses the warm air. The fog shape-shifts across the water. A living thing. A breath of transition.

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A few goldfinches in their buff-colored winter plumage bounce through the scattered trees.

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Along the trail, a pasture thistle throws sparks of light from the fog moisture.

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Learning to distinguish between the native thistles (keepers!) and invasive thistles (begone!) was one of my early tasks as a prairie steward. One clue is the pale reverse sides of the leaves on native thistles. Even in winter, this pasture thistle’s leaves are a give-away. Keeper.

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The trail is mushy, and I’m soon thankful for my knee-high rubber boots. Mud clings to the soles, weighing my steps. It’s a slog, but I’m slowed more by the beauty around me than the mud. The prairie is on fire with water.

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Fog droplets kindle sparks of light on every plant surface, reflecting the upside prairie.

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Arriving at my chosen spot, I push the pasque flower seeds into the moist ground and sprinkle a little sand over the top to anchor them so they don’t blow away before the snow falls. When gale force winds arrive that evening, I’ll think back on this and be glad I did.

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The coming snow will provide cover. Freeze and thaw. Freeze and thaw. The seeds will settle into the prairie soil and wait, ready to germinate—I hope—this spring.

It’s tough to focus on the task at hand when all around me, droplets hang from the tips of grasses like crystals. Canada wild rye is beaded with diamonds.

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Big bluestem, our Illinois state grass, is clear-pearled and luminous.

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Switchgrass hangs wands of lights in the gloom.

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It’s unearthly. Magical. I’m mesmerized by contrasts. Worn, wet prairie seedheads. Sprinkled with light.

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I return to the seeds. Pasque flowers have a reputation for going into deep dormancy if not planted immediately after harvesting. So my hope for seeing any quick results in the spring are tempered with the knowledge that these were held in storage longer than I would have liked. It might be years. And yet. Sometimes, life doesn’t work out the way you planned it. You have to adapt to what you’re given.

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2019 was a year of the unexpected for many of us. Me included. As a prairie steward, I had to adjust my expectations of what I would accomplish. Looking back at the year,  it’s tough not to think about the projects that remain unfinished.

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These pasque flower seeds were one fall-out of those adjusted expectations of my prairie work. After surgery in August, it was two months before I could hike as far as the pasque flowers’ seeding spot.

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I’m grateful that today, five months later, I can effortlessly hike across the prairie. As the late poet Jane Kenyon wrote, “It could have been otherwise.

Brian Doyle wrote about his  cancer diagnosis in One Long River of Song: Notes on Wonder. Don’t call it “a battle with cancer,” he said. It’s not a battle. Rather—as a tiny, frail nun once told him—cancer becomes your dance partner. You don’t want this partner;  you don’t like this partner, but you have to dance, he writes.

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The shadow of that dance partner will always be with  you. I think of this as I gently pull the pasque flower seeds from their envelope. How quickly our lives may change. How unwelcome  “the dance.” But as I sow the seeds of the pasque flower, and sand them into their places, I feel optimistic about the future.

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The common name “pasque” means Easter, as this is the time the plant usually flowers. Its scientific name  is Pulsatilla patensPulsatilla means “beaten about” in modern Latin, or “beaten by the wind.”

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We burn the tallgrass prairie here each spring. Amid the ashes and bare, blackened earth, the pasque flower dances with the prescribed fire. None-the-less, it blooms. Trembles in the wind. It’s almost been defeated here, on this site, over the years.

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But not yet. I’m not going to let it go. The dance continues. I’ll keep planting pasque flower seeds for the future. I’ll continue to hope.

*****

The opening quote is from Felicity by Mary Oliver (1935-2019),  winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. If you haven’t read her writing, a good place to start is New & Selected Poems Volume 1.

****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): trail to the Schulenberg Prairie in the fog, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Franklin Grove, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens) seeds, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; fog on the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bridge over Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Sterling Pond in the fog, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; goldfinch (Spinus tristis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) leaves, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; droplets on Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens) seeds, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; prairie interpretive trail under the snow, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; coyote (Canis latrans) tracks in the snow, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL;  ice art, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sanding in the seeds, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens) blooms fading, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens) opening (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The line from the Jane Kenyon poem is from Otherwise. Thanks to Susan Kleiman and Russell Brunner for their help with the pasque flower seeds! Grateful.

*****

Please join Cindy at an upcoming event or class this winter!

Sterling Stories, Lisle Heritage Society, Sunday, January 19, 2 p.m. With co-presenter Rita Hassert, Library Collections Manager, The Morton Arboretum. Location is the  Lisle Library, 777 Front Street, Lisle, IL. Open to the public.

Nature Writing and Art Retreat, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, February 22 (Saturday) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Cindy will be facilitating the writing portion. Sold Out. Waiting list –Register here.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26.  Details and registration here.

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum. For details and registration, click here. 

10 Reasons to Hike the January Prairie

“This life is after all a miracle and we ought to pay fierce attention every moment… .” —Brian Doyle

*****

January on the prairie is underway, a yo-yo between freeze and thaw; snow and sun.

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Walking the prairie on a gray windy morning, contrasts are everywhere.

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Carrion flower still clutches its inedible fruits; some plump, others desiccated.

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Prairie dock leaves evince a weathered beauty that only comes with age and time.

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They are unrecognizable from the green elephant ears they were in July. The air smells of wet earth and cold. Grasses whisper in the wind. A hawk silently bullets by, rapt on its prey. The hum of traffic in the distance is the only sound. So quiet. Peaceful.

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Until—-scritch scritch scritch. Up in a black walnut tree, a fox squirrel rhythmically gnaws a black walnut. The sound ricochets through the January air. How can a squirrel’s teeth grinding on a nut make so much noise?

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There is so much to experience on the tallgrass prairie in winter. Here are ten reasons to hike the prairie in January.

*****

10. The drama of winter prairie skies, changing like a kaleidoscope from moment to moment.

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9. The sound of water moving through the prairie; music that is more appreciated in January than July.

 

8. The grace of a single seedhead such as Canada wild rye…canadawildryeSPMA1520WM.jpg

7. …or, the joy of massed individuals, like these large swathes of bee balm.

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6. Possibilities for the future in the mowed firebreaks, ready for the prescribed burn to come.

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5. The glories of prairie plants that are more interesting in seed than in bloom, such as Illinois bundleflower.

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4. Small pleasures like the incredible diversity of lichens on a log in the tallgrass.

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3. Large dramas, such as the sweep of the prairie under a dusting of snow.

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2. The fascination of following animal tracks and trying to understand their stories written upon the landscape.

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1. Ice art, in all its unexpected and temporary forms.

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Welcome to a new year on the prairie.

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There is so much to anticipate this month.

****

The opening quote is from Brian Doyle’s (1956-2017)  One Long River of Song. If you haven’t read Doyle, this is a good collection to begin with. Known as a “writer’s writer,” Doyle wrote many novels, essays, and poetry collections. He also won numerous awards, including the John Burroughs Medal and four Pushcart Prizes.

*****

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby and taken this week at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (top to bottom): mosses and snow; bridge to the prairie; carrion flower (Smilax spp.); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); January on the prairie; eastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger); prairie sky; Willoway Brook; Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); mowed firebreak; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis); lichens on a log; prairie trail; coyote (Canis latrans) tracks;  ice on the trail; bench on the prairie in the snow.

*****

Please join Cindy at one of her upcoming classes or talks in the new year!

Nature Writing and Art Retreat, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, February 22 (Saturday) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Cindy will be facilitating the writing portion. Sold Out. Waiting list –Register here.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26.  Details and registration here.

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum. For details and registration, click here.   

A Prairie Thanksgiving

“Keenly observed, the world is transformed.”–Gretel Ehrlich

******

A sunrise and sunset in glorious technicolor bookended Monday this week. Pink lemonade. Orange sherbet. Smudges of charcoal and lavender. It’s not winter yet, but these sky-works feel very much of that season to me. One of the bonuses of the shortening days is they enter and exit with such pizzazz.

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The bigger part of a November day’s sky is often more subtle in its allure. Less color. Less drama. Nuanced.

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On the prairie, the palette is all rich metallics.

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Where we relied on sight and of smell and sound during the warmer months to experience the tallgrass, November is a time of texture. The sense of touch comes into greater play.

The woolly seedhead of the thimbleweed stubbornly holds on to its treasures. Touch it. It’s soft, but not silky. More like cotton.

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There’s a new appreciation for shapes, like the curve of a goldenrod gall ball against the backdrop of an angled Indian grass stem. Run your finger across the surface of the sphere. It’s lightweight and surprisingly smooth.

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As the carrion flower fruits fall apart, we become more aware of the vine’s lines and spirals.

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There is the sparse loveliness of the blazing star, when all evidence of life has fled.

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Even the regimented grasses with their tops hacked off are a testimonial that someone cares about this prairie remnant; cares enough to have cut and gathered the seedheads. Were they out here working on a gray, bone-chilling morning? Perhaps these seeds will be used to strengthen the prairie here, or help begin a future prairie restoration planting.

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November’s range of colors may be less dazzling at this time of year, but what it has lost in color, it has gained in contrasts.

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Forbidding and rough; the seeds long gone inside.

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Other prairie plant seeds remain, so delicate a breath would seemingly cause them to float away. And yet, they hang on.

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The November prairie reminds me to be grateful for seeds and seedheads in all their forms. They promise to take the prairie forward, into the future. A walk through the prairie this month reminds me to thank the stewards and volunteers who pour hours of their lives into keeping prairies vibrant and healthy. Without them, the prairie would fail to thrive, and eventually, disappear. It’s a month to appreciate the tallgrass’s underlying structure; that suite of wildflowers and grasses with deep roots. To offer thanksgiving that prairie remnants and restorations continue to exist—and continue to shape the hearts and minds of those who call it home.

In a time when we may feel jaded, cynical, or even in despair over the state of the world, a walk on the November prairie is an act of thanksgiving. An act of hope.

I finish each hike, feeling grateful.

*****

Gretel Ehrlich‘s (1946-) The Solace of Open Spaces, from which the opening quote is taken, is one of my all-time favorite reads. “Everything in nature invites us constantly to be what we are,” she writes. Her book is set in Wyoming.

*****

All photos this week copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve in Downer’s Grove, IL unless noted otherwise: sunrise, author’s neighborhood, Glen Ellyn, IL; gray skies over Belmont Prairie in November; mixed prairie plants, thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica) in seed; goldenrod ball gall; carrion vine (probably Smilax ecirrahta); rough blazing star (Liatris aspera); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida); pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Please join Cindy for one of these upcoming classes or talks before 2019 ends:

Saturday, December 7, 1:30-3 p.m.—Sterling Stories from the Arboretum Stacks: Grab a friend and spend a lively hour together sipping hot beverages while you enjoy little-known stories about the Morton Arboretum. What’s that old fountain doing in the library? Why was there a white pine planted in the May Watts Reading Garden? Who is REALLY buried in the Morton Cemetery—or not? What book in the Sterling Morton Library stacks has a direct relationship to a beheading? Why does the library have glass shelves? How has salt been a blessing —and a curse—to the Arboretum over its almost 100 years? Listen as 33-year Arboretum veteran library collections manager Rita Hassert and  Cindy Crosby spin entertaining tales of a place you thought you knew….until now.    A lovely afternoon enjoying little known Arboretum’s stories, and a quiet respite from the holiday hustle and bustle. Register here.

Sunday, December 8, 2-3:30 p.m.: Tallgrass Conversations at Prairieview Education Center, 2112 Behan Road, Crystal Lake, IL. Information: 815-479-5779.  Book signing after the talk. Free and open to the public.

Happy Thanksgiving, and thank you for reading!

6 Reasons to Hike the October Prairie

“October is a fine and dangerous season in America . . . a wonderful time to begin anything at all.”  –Thomas Merton

*****

I hear them before I see them. Shielding my eyes against the afternoon sunshine, I scan the skies. Three sandhill cranes. A small wave headed south. Their chatter echoes long after they are folded into the deep blue sky and disappear.

More follow. They come and go throughout the afternoon.

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It’s bittersweet. Sandhill cranes moving south are a signal of change. Summer is gone,  and autumn, it seems, already passes too quickly. Seeing the first waves of cranes reminds me to open my eyes. Pay attention. To intentionally not miss a moment of the month. October is a time for walking the prairies and savannas slowly. For looking carefully. For soaking up whatever sunshine we can before cold weather hits.

Soon, October will be a dim but cherished memory.

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The woodlands are a magnet for paparazzi in October; visitors shooting photos of  the sugar maples aglow. Hickories and sweet gums change their green leaves to bright colors. But the prairie has its own autumnal palette.

Turn away from the woodlands for a moment, and consider six reasons to hike the tallgrass in October.

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1. Goodbye, Butterflies

In my backyard prairie patch and garden, the painted lady butterflies flutter wildly—drunk on nectar—-but not prepared to stop gorging themselves. Only frost will cut them off. Butterflies pile up, two to a bloom, jostling for the best positions, battling skippers and bees. The occasional monarch still floats across the prairie, but not in the numbers seen in September.

If you’re lucky, you’ll find some New England asters still in bloom as I did, with a few butterflies working the flowers. This cabbage white butterfly is a common one I see all summer on the prairie—and late into the fall. I love its pale, gold-dusted contrast with the  purple fringes of the aster.

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2. That Prairie Fragrance!

Breathe deep the newly-crisped air with its fragrance of cool damp earth and sweet decay.  Bee balm, Monarda fistulosa, still gives up its delicious fragrance when its leaves are broken. So does mountain mint. When I taste the leaves of both, the oils are a bit bitter and harsh in my mouth.  I content myself with rubbing the leaves between my fingers. Gray-headed coneflower seed heads, crushed in my hands, are my favorite fragrance of all. After a hike on the prairie, rubbing leaves, I’m scented with “the outdoors” for the rest of the day. Nature’s own prairie perfume.

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3. Seed Diversity

Walk the prairie and the prairie savanna this month and you’ll be astounded by the variety of seeds.

Pale Indian plantain, with its fluffy pinwheels.

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Tall compass plants, with their unique seedheads, bring the Statue of Liberty to mind, don’t you think?

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False Solomon’s seal brightens the prairie edges.

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Carrion vine’s mostly-inedible fruits will hang half-hidden in the Indian grass and big bluestem until almost spring.

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This week, I searched until I found the  quirky seeds of white turtlehead, almost invisible in the prairie now unless you know where to look. We don’t have very many turtleheads, so the seeds give me hope for more of this wildflower in the future.

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4. Structure 

Without the ka-POW of bright bloom colors blanketing the prairie, structure takes center stage.

Bottlebrush grass, with its skeletal spikes.

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You can see it it shares a Genus with Canada wild rye. They are both graceful and needle-like.

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5. Textures

Feel the rubbery leaves of pale Indian plantain.

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Then contrast them with the sandpapery surface of a compass plant leaf.

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6. Fall Color

The sumacs, woven into the prairie grasses, are touched with reds and chartreuse.

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Little bluestem sparks its seeds as its stems color up from greens to reds to rusts. The tallgrass prairie in October is just as startling and gorgeous in its own way as the colorful woodlands. Maybe better.

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Why not go see?

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Who knows who you’ll meet on your hike.

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It’s worth a trip to the tallgrass to find out.

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Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was best known for his spiritual memoir, The Seven Story Mountain (1948), the title of which refers to Purgatory in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Merton was an English literature teacher turned Trappist monk, who joined Kentucky’s Gethsemane Abbey. There, he wrote more than 50 books and promoted interfaith understanding. My favorite of Merton’s books is The Sign of Jonas.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken this week at the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, unless noted otherwise: Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) over author’s backyard prairie patch (this photo taken in 2016), Glen Ellyn, IL;  October in the savanna; prairie path; Small white butterfly or “cabbage white” (Pieris rapae) on New England aster  (Symphyotrichum novae-anglia), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL;  gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) with spider web; pale Indian plantain seedhead (Arnoglossum atriplicfolium); compass plant seedhead (Silphium terebinthinaceum); false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum); probably upright carrion vine (Smilax ecirrhata); white turtlehead (Chelone glabra) in seed; bottle brush grass (Elymus hystrix); Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium); compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); sumac (Rhus spp.); little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium); bridge in the October tallgrass; great blue heron (Ardea herodias).

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Join Cindy for a Nature Writing Workshop, online and in-person, through The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL. Click here for registration information. Or see http://www.cindycrosby.com for more classes and events.

Cindy’s forthcoming book is Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History with Northwestern University Press, illustrated by the talented Peggy Macnamara, artist-in-residence at The Field Museum, Chicago. Look for it in Spring, 2020.

Spring Prairie Moon

“Barn’s burnt down. Now, I can see the moon.” — Mazuta Masahide

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Sunset. A pearl button moon rises due east as the sun flames into the western horizon. Not quite the “Supermoon”  or full “Worm Moon” we’ll have on March 20, in conjunction this year with the vernal equinox.  This evening, we get an almost-there version over the prairie. A sneak preview.

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The prairie is partly burnt. The crew came out today and torched the first sections, leaving a yin and yang of startling contrast.

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Robins flitter and hop over the white ash, scrounging for worms on the scorched surface. March is a critical month for prescribed burns on the prairie. Each morning, natural areas managers check the signs. Wind speed? Check. Wind direction? Check. Humidity? Check.

Most of the prairies Jeff and I hiked this week were still untouched by fire.

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Look deep into the grasses, and you’ll see snowmelt is still pooled around the remains of  Indian grass and big bluestem. Tough to burn.

Tonight, the prairie stream reflects a still-bare tree and sunset glow of cumulus clouds above.

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My old touchstone, the praying mantis egg case I’ve watched through the winter, faces the dying light. It is unmarked by the flames, but empty of life.

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On one side of the trail, ashes.

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On the other, brittle grass stalks and old wildflower stems are prime kindling. Waiting for the burning to resume. The flattened tallgrass glimmers gold. Will the fire be tomorrow? A week from now?

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On most prairies, the answer will be this: Soon.

Our old apple tree on the prairie has weathered many fires. We keep it, as it tells the story of its ancestor, an apple tree planted by the early settlers who first turned the tallgrass under the sharp knife of the plow. Trees like these once provided apples for making  “Apple Jack,” an alcoholic beverage. The drink offered temporary solace and medicine for those pioneers’ hardscrabble days.

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In the receding light, I wonder. Could this be the battered tree’s last spring? Every year, it surprises me by putting out green leaves and flowers.Who knows? It’s resilient. It may be here long after I’m gone.

Tonight, walking this half-burned, ghost of last year’s tallgrass, I feel a rush of joy. Out with the old. I’m ready for something new. Let’s get it finished. Bring on the burn.

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The air smells like a campfire. The memory of the taste of s’mores comes unbidden to my mouth and I realize it is long past dinnertime. Cooling temperatures and the dwindling light are clues the prairie and savanna are settling in for the night. Time to go home.

The red-winged blackbirds keep up their calling contest as I hike back to the car.

 

American robins flutter in and out of the trees, scouting for their bedtime snacks.

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It’s almost dark. A blue bird appears. His vivid sapphire is bright in last light. He bounces for a few seconds on a burned -over bit of scrub that barely holds his weight. At about an ounce, I could mail him with a postage stamp.

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I watch him sway a little longer over the ashes, then fly away. I feel a little bounce in my step as well.

Happiness! Spring.

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Mazuta Masahide (1657-1723) was a Japanese poet and samurai who was mentored by poetry master Matsuo Basho in the 17th Century in the art of haiku. Read more on haiku here.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): almost full moon over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bridge to Schulenberg Prairie at sunset, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; March on Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; reflections of sunset in Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Chinese praying mantis egg case ((Tenodera sinensis) ravaged by a bird, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ashes from prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; flattened tallgrass at sunset, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; old apple tree (Malus pumila), Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station, Lisle, IL; clouds over Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; video clip of dusk on the prairie and prairie savanna, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;

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Cindy’s March classes, announcements, and events this week:Tallgrass Conversations cover Cindy Pick9a.jpg

Now Available! Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit (with co-author Thomas Dean) is shipping from Ice Cube Press. $24.95, hardcover, full-color. Find it at fine places like The Arboretum Store in Lisle, IL: 630-719-2454; and Books on First in Dixon, IL: (815)285-2665 or at other bookstores across the Midwest.

Nature Writing: Blended Online and In-Person: Tuesday, March 18– continues at The Morton Arboretum through April 2.

March 22: Frequent Flyers of the Garden and Prairie: Dragonflies and Damselflies, Lombard Garden Club, Lombard, IL (Closed Event).

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 27 through The Morton Arboretum. All classwork done remotely. Register here.

Why (Prairie) Words Matter

“‘Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its own accord.’”– from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, on burning books.

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While hiking an unfamiliar prairie this past weekend, I came to a stream, limned with ice.

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The bridge spanning the waterway was gone. Hmmm. My choices were simple. I could turn back. Hop from slick rock to slick rock. Or, wade the shallows to the other side, and get my feet wet. Reluctantly, I chose the path of least resistance and retraced my path. The rest of the prairie would have to wait for another day’s exploration, better footwear, or the bridge repair.

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As one who seeks to know new places more intimately, I’m reminded that the loss of bridges—connecting points—-matter.

As a writer, I get that as well. Words are bridges. They have the capability to connect us to places—and to dynamic ideas. They elicit memory. They provoke action. They stimulate emotion. They are a springboard for the imagination.

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How many times has a parent told you, “Her first word was—-.”  Or a grieving person: “His last words were—–.” Words are significant! Our ancestors also knew the importance of words. The First Amendment notes, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press… .” Words matter. Losing words matters.

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When we lose particular words about place, we lose part of the collective memory of our people. These words comprise a slice of our identity. They are the language of the place in which we live. More specifically, when we lose prairie-related vocabulary, we break links that join us to the tallgrass; specific identifiers that bind us to a place.

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Words are one way we give human voice to a land that speaks in prairie dropseed, bobolinks, and dung beetles. Naming things brings them to our attention, just as learning the name of someone we meet makes them more memorable, more “real” to us.

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When we learn the name for a particular sedge or a specific bee, we can visualize it, even when it isn’t in front of us.  In a time when tallgrass prairie is dubbed one of the most threatened natural areas on earth, to lose any of these names is to lose some of our momentum in cherishing and caring for it.

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We’re lazy.  We don’t have enough time, do we? It’s easier to use non-descriptive, bland words that trip easily off the tongue. Ecosystem. Landscape. Grasses. Plants. Bugs. Use generalities and the prairie becomes a blur, a non-entity.

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There is rhythm and motion in the prairie vocabulary; joy in the particulars. Delight in the common names: Canada wild rye. Regal fritillary. Hoary puccoon. Cream wild indigo. Try saying some of the scientific names out loudBison bison. (That double whammy! Like a drumbeat.) Or, Monarda fistulosa. Spiza americana. Let these descriptive words roll off your tongue: Mesic. MollisolsLoess.

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Speak the words. Keep them in front of people.

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It’s a fragile hold we have on these words.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

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As we draw toward the winter solstice on Thursday—the shortest, darkest day of the year—remember the light that words can bring into the world. Words of color and sound. Words of hope. Words of restoration. Words of promise.

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Specific words matter.

Let’s use them.

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Ray Bradbury’s (1920-2012) short, powerful book Fahrenheit 451, written in 1953 about a post-literate society, seems almost prophetic more than six decades later. Bradbury’s writing spanned many genres, from science fiction to fantasy, as well as a terrific book, Zen in the Art of Writing on the craft of putting words together well. My favorite is Dandelion Wine, his fictional memoir of growing up in Illinois.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blown-out Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) seedheads on Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL;  Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL;  mixed grasses with smartweed (Polygonum spp.)  around the pond at Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL; mountain mint (probably Pycnanthemum virginianum), Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve DeKalb, IL;  mixed grasses including Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) on Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL; mixed grasses with little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) on Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL; Canada wild rye, Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL; unknown sunflower seedheads (Helianthus spp.) with Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis) Afton PrairieAfton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL; wild cucumber (Echinocystis lobata), Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL; sunset, Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Thanks to John Heneghan and Tricia Lowery for taking us to Afton Prairie for our first visit there. And thanks to Joshua Clark and the good folks at DeKalb County Forest Preserve who care for Afton Prairie and its associated beautiful natural areas. Once again, a big shout-out to Paul Marcum and the ID gurus at Illinois Botany Facebook page for help with wild cucumber.