Tag Archives: chicago

December Prairie Delights

“Since we go through this strange and beautiful world of ours only once, it seems a pity to lack the sense of delight and enthusiasm that merely being alive should hold.” — Sigurd Olson

*****

As the days shorten, hurtling us toward the Winter Solstice Friday, a sunny day is especially welcome.  A prairie hike seems in order. Where to go? On the edge of a subdivision not far from where I live, hedged in by apartment buildings, two interstates, and a golf course, lies the Belmont Prairie Preserve.  A little unplowed prairie remnant, barely hanging on in the suburbs. Let’s go!

belmont prairie 121618WM.jpg

I move slowly on the overgrown path, recovering from knee surgery that will get me back in tallgrass action come spring.  So I take the trail a little more deliberately than usual, which of course, has its own rewards. When you don’t rush, the prairie opens up more of her secrets to you. All around me, the morning frost evaporates. Ragged compass plants look otherworldly, backlit by bright sunshine.

Backlit Compass Plant 121618WM .jpg

The melting ice glitters on the grasses.

frostmeltBelmont Prairie 121618WM.jpg

A few compass plant seedheads, with their seeds mostly stripped away, silhouette themselves against the deep blue winter sky.

compassplantsilhouette121618WM.jpg

Its last leaves are wearing away, barely attached to the stem.

Belmont Prairie compass plant WM121618.jpg

Looking at them, I think of Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Dillard’s remark in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: “I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along. I am aging and eaten and have done my share of eating too. I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wondering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for…and whose beauty bats and shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them.”

It’s difficult to imagine anything nibbling the sandpapery compass plant leaves in December. But all grasses and forbs are parsed down to their essence. I continue to study the compass plants. Rough, cracked stems are patched with resin. Scratch the patches, and you’ll inhale a tang of pine fragrance.

Compass121618compassplantstemWM.jpg

Compare the rough and ready compass plants to the fluidity and grace of big bluestem. Sure, big bluestem is dried out and desiccated now; most of its seeds disappeared into the beaks  of birds. When green, its foliage is so delicious for wildlife, the plant is sometimes nicknamed “ice cream grass.” But its beauty is only enhanced as the focus shifts from waving turkey-foot seedheads to dry, ribbon-like leaves and hollow stems, flushed with subtle pastel colors.

bigbluestem121618WM.jpg

Another contrast nearby: Pale purple coneflowers still hold their forbidding seedheads. You can see why the scientific name “Echinacea” means “hedgehog” or “sea urchin.” Handle with care! The seeds inside are mostly long gone, harvested by goldfinches and grassland birds.

palepurpleconeflower121618WM.jpg

More contrasts: Thimbleweed holds its soft clouds of seedheads aslant in the cold. I rub the cottony tufts between my fingers, admiring their softness. Like Q-tips.

ThimbleweedBelmontPrairie121618WM.jpg

The thimbleweed is echoed close by in the brushy, bristly seedheads of round-headed bush clover. A fun name to say out loud, isn’t it? Try it. Its scientific name, found at the end of this post, is just as enjoyable.

roundheadedbushcloverWMBelmontPrairie 121618.jpg

It’s these little nature preserves, like the Belmont Prairie remnant, that encapsulate the future of restoration. On a beautiful sunny winter’s day like this one, the future seems full of possibilities.

Belmont Prairie Fence 121618WM.jpg

So many delights for the senses to be discovered on a remnant prairie in December! And in a world where so many of our natural resources are in jeopardy, isn’t it encouraging to know that here, at least, the tallgrass prairie will live on. As long as we continue to hike it, protect it, and share it with others so they will love and protect it, too.

What other delights will you find this month on the prairie? Go take a look, and find out.

 

****

Sigurd Olson (1899-1982) was the Chicago-born author of many books and key environmentalist instrumental in bringing attention to and preserving the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. His writings about wilderness, including the opening quote of this blog post taken from the chapter “Aliveness” in Reflections from the North Country, continue to inspire those who care about the natural world.  Read more about Olson here.

****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby, and taken at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve in Downer’s Grove, IL: Belmont Nature Preserve in December; backlit compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); grasses matted down after the blizzard and glistening with frost;  compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) seedheads;  thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica); round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata); Belmont Prairie in December.

The Art of Prairie Restoration

This world is but a canvas to our imagination.” — Henry David Thoreau

***

Winter is wonderful. Usually.

But this past week has been a rollercoaster ride of temperature swings from high 50s plunging to near zero; sunshine and gloom, snow and rain. In other words, typical. Fog blew in and settled on the prairies, coloring everything gray. A drag on the spirits.

p1050508

One of my go-to cures for the January blues—or should I say grays—is The Art Institute of Chicago.

I wander in. Immediately there is a blast of color and light in the Impressionist Gallery. Ironically, even the canvas,”Paris Street: Rainy Day,”  seems bright and cheerful.

Rainy Day.jpg

The Monet waterlilies…

Monet.jpg

…bring back memories of summer in the prairie wetlands.

Nachusa Grasslands Ponds 2017 (1).jpg

p1020252

I soak up the primary hues of paintings in the Modern Wing.

Okeeffe.jpg

Thinking of hikes through the snow this month…

leaves on snow.jpg

In unlikely stairwells, I stumble across reminders of  blue skies, obscured by clouds this week.

Okeeffe Sky.jpg

I  imagine the prairie skies, hidden for so long behind shrouds of fog and curtains of snow and rain.

P1120337.jpg

As I stroll the halls and gaze at the creations showcased in this iconic place, it’s a good reminder of the courage of those who strove, against all odds, to create something beautiful out of nothing. These painters, sculptors, and other artists who had a vision.

Like some other folks I know.

Kath in the Indigo 6:17.JPG

Prairie restorationists and artists have a lot in common. We think of restoration as a science. But it’s also about creativity.

Prairie restoration begins with a vision.

volunteers in the tallgrass SPMA.JPG

The dream of how the land might be healed, imagined in the mind of a steward or site manager.

milkweed pod SPMA.JPG

There’s a lot of trial and error. Preliminary sketching, if you will; a few rough drafts. Sometimes, you scrap everything and start over.

scaffold

There may be misunderstandings along the way. People who don’t get it. They look at your “project” and shake their head. They wonder out loud if you have wasted your time.

“Weeds. It’s just a bunch of weeds.”

P1140552.jpg

Bet you’ve heard that one before, haven’t you?

pollock.jpg

But you keep on moving forward. You believe in what you are doing. You look for the breakthroughs.

SPMA.JPG

Without imagination—without creativity—without courage—the best prairie restorations don’t happen.

P1150517.jpg

The rewards don’t always come in your lifetime. But the work you do isn’t for yourself, although the tallgrass is gratifying in a thousand different ways. You work, knowing you leave a legacy for those who will come after you. You think of them, as you drip with sweat, freeze, or pull weeds; plant seeds.

Pasqueflowers 2016 NG.jpg

You can see the future in your mind. Envision it. That end result. And as artists and restorationists know, it’s worth the work. It’s worth the wait.

IMG_3656.jpg

Think about it.

The thinker.jpg

*******

The writer Henry David Thoreau, whose quote opens this essay, was a naturalist, philosopher, writer, transcendentalist, and social reformer. A favorite quote from Thoreau, “We can never have enough of nature.” His 1849 essay, “Civil Disobedience,” continues to stimulate thinking about human rights. His most famous book is “Walden.”

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): prairie plants in the fog at Saul Lake Bog Nature Preserve, Land Conservancy of West Michigan, Rockford, MI; “Paris Street: Rainy Day,” 1877, Gustave Caillebotte, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; “Waterlily Pond,” 1917-19, Claude Monet, European Painting and Sculpture, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; prairie pond, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Clear Creek, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; “Yellow Hickory Leaves with Daisy,” 1928, Georgia O’Keeffe, American Art Gallery, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; beech (Fagus sylvatica) leaves on snow, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; “Sky Above Clouds IV,” 1965, Georgia O’Keeffe, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; sky over Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, United States National Park Service, The Nature Conservancy, Strong City, KS; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) and volunteer weeding, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; volunteers collecting seed, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) seedpod, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; “A and the Carpenter “I”, Sam Gilliam, 1973, Modern and Contemporary Art, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; barb wire and Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; “Grayed Rainbow,” 1953, Jackson Pollock, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL;  ice and grasses, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; snowy trail through Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove, IL; pasque flowers (Anemone patens, sometimes Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; late summer on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; “The Thinker,” Auguste Rodin, Rodin Exhibition, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL (add to the conversation here). 

Of Birds and Bison

“Bird migration is the one truly unifying natural phenomenon in the world, stitching the continents together in a way that even the great weather systems, which roar out from the poles but fizzle at the equator, fail to do. It is an enormously complex subject, perhaps the most compelling drama in all of natural history.” — Scott Weidensaul

***

It’s a cold, drizzly day. As much as I’m tempted to curl up on the couch with a good book, plans are underway for a birding outing. Along with six of our friends, my husband Jeff and I head out of the Chicago suburbs and to the famed Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area in Indiana, two hours southeast. This is the big weekend. Thousands of migrating sandhill cranes will be passing through.

P1030491.jpg

This fall, we saw thousands of migrants from the western flyways gathering in southern New Mexico, at Bosque del Apache National Refuge. On the ground, the cranes look almost prehistoric.p1020795

Those red caps! Those rusty feathers! How do they get their bulky bodies airborne? Cranes remind me of the mysteries of flight, and of migration. Why do large groups of birds travel from one place to another, sometimes tens of thousands of miles from their starting point? No one has completely been able to explain  this rhythmic dance. And perhaps, that’s part of the joy in watching them. We don’t fully understand. So we marvel, instead.

P1030218.jpg

The cranes fly over the Chicago suburbs during November and December. Their high pitched cries often pull me out of the house, shielding my eyes against the sun, to watch them move southeast.

IMG_8879 (1).jpg

In the Jasper-Pulaski refuge, I’ll get a chance to see these same cranes that fly over my house congregating en masse on the ground, a little farther along on their journey. But first, a stop at Kankakee Sands, a more than 7,000 acre mosaic of prairie, savanna, and wetland in northern Indiana.

P1030363.jpg

Kankakee Sands introduced bison to their prairie this fall, and we’re looking forward to seeing how they’ve settled in. There’s a bison viewing area where I have an excellent up-close-and-personal meeting with the shaggy all-stars.

P1030403.jpg

I wonder if the bison consider this place a “visitor viewing area;” a chance to see people behavior. This one kept an eye on us.

P1030377.jpg

A few brown-headed cowbirds hung out on bison backs, giving us a sense of the difference in sizes. A study in contrasts.

P1030387.jpg

While watching the bison, my friend John suddenly shouts– “prairie falcon!” A first for me. Although prairie falcons are usually found out west, occasionally they pop up in Illinois and Indiana. So quick!

p1030399-1

The sun moves toward the western horizon. We leave the bison and birds and drive the short distance to the Jasper-Pulaski refuge. The viewing platform is thick with binocular-wielding birders and the giant scopes of photographers.

P1030409.jpg

Anticipation. A few cranes have already straggled in.We find our places on the platform. In the fields, there is a loud rumble of distinctive crane chatter.Then…. a clamor in the distance. The crane cries rise to a crescendo.

P1030493.jpg

They’re coming! Waves and waves of sandhill cranes. The air froths with cranes; boils with birds. Swirling and tilting in every direction in the last light.

IMG_8899.jpg

I think of a line from Mary Oliver’s poem, The Wild Geese: “…the world offers itself to your imagination…”.

P1030419.jpg

I imagine these cranes in the morning, taking off to continue their flight to the southern coasts. Why will they go? I don’t fully know. But it gives me a sense of peace and happiness to think about the rest of their journey. To know that this rhythm of nature–these migrations–will continue.

And that for one small part of one evening, I was witness to it.

****

The opening quote in this essay is by Scott Weidensaul, author of Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds, a finalist for the 2000 Pulitzer Prize in Nonfiction. Weidensaul captures the magic, mystery, and science of migration in this memorable book which still remains one of my favorites in nature writing.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis), Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area, Medaryville, IN; sandhill crane duo (Grus canadensis), Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, San Antonio, NM; wading sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis), at sunrise, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, San Antonio, NM; sandhill cranes  (Grus canadensis),over the author’s prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie grasses in November, Kankakee Sands (The Nature Conservancy), Newton County, IN: bison (Bison bison) grazing, Kankakee Sands (The Nature Conservancy), Newton County, IN; bison (Bison bison), Kankakee Sands (The Nature Conservancy), Newton County, IN; bison (Bison bison) and a cowbird (Molothrus ater), Kankakee Sands (The Nature Conservancy), Newton County, IN; prairie falcon ((Falco mexicanus), Kankakee Sands (The Nature Conservancy), Newton County, IN; watching for cranes, Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area (DNR), Medaryville, IN; crane fly-in (Grus canadensis), Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area (DNR), Medaryville, IN: swirl of sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis), Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area (DNR), Medaryville, IN; sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis), Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area (DNR), Medaryville, IN.

Seeds of Hope in an Uncertain World

“Where there is hatred, let me sow love.” — from the Prayer of St. Francis

***

So much hate. How did we come to this?

The tallgrass offers solace, if only for a few hours. Come hike with me.  See what the prairie has to say about it all. Gain some perspective.

P1010336.jpg

It’s good to be reminded that there is beauty in the world, even if it is sometimes fleeting.

p1010453

There are small creatures who keep singing, no matter what the headlines say.

P1010294.jpg

Little winged ones who bathe themselves in light.

P1010280 (1).jpg

Comical critters who make us smile, even when world events and politics seem grim.

IMG_0144 copy

P1010551.jpg

The tallgrass reminds us that the cycle of the seasons will continue.

p1010463

The prairie ripens its fruits, as it has each autumn for time past remembering.

P1010309.jpg

The grasses and wildflowers foam with seeds.

p1010318

The seed fluff puffs like fireworks…

P1010516.jpg

…catches the wind, and sails aloft.

p1010483

Landing in unlikely places.

p1010422

Other seeds are plucked from thistle plants to line a goldfinch’s nest, and help nurture a new generation.

p1010412

Each fruit, each seed is a promise. Although the road ahead is fraught with uncertainty…

p1010530

…we will soon find ourselves at the beginning of a new season.

p1010369

Every day, beautiful things are unfolding.

P1010510.jpg

The prairie reminds us that the issues that consume our attention are only a blink in the immensity of time.

P1010343.jpg

How will we spend our days this week? Let the seeds we sow for the future be ones that lighten the darkness.

P1010362.jpg

When so many around us speak hate, let’s sow love. Let’s make a difference.

****

The opening quote is widely attributed to St. Francis of Assisi (1181-2 to 1226). He was known for his simplicity and a love for nature and animals, and often portrayed with a bird in his hand.

All photos above copyright Cindy Crosby at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL (except where noted): view from Fame Flower Knob in October; two cabbage white butterflies (Pieris rapae), an orange sulphur butterfly (Colias eurytheme)and two clouded sulphur butterflies (Colias philodice) puddling by Clear Creek; red-legged grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum); field sparrow (Spizella pusilla) bathing in Clear Creek;  American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus) ; fiery skipper (Hylephila phyleus), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; Nachusa Grasslands in October; ground cherries (Physalis spp.); little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) with sweet everlasting (Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium); virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana);  unknown seed; unknown seed in spider web at Clear Creek; goldfinch (Spinus tristis) on pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor); road through Nachusa Grasslands; common buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) on white clover (Trifolium repens);  eastern comma butterfly (Polygonia comma) at bison watering area;  grasses on Fame Flower Knob with St. Peter’s sandstone; whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata) seed pods. 

After the Rain

Rain, rain go away. Come again some other day.

Relentless rain. It seems like it will never stop.  Until dusk, when the clouds clear for a bit. Despite the hour, I pull on my boots and go for a hike on the prairie.

.IMG_6472

I wade through puddles on the path. Breath in. The prairie smells like it’s been rinsed in mint. Willoway Brook runs full and fast; the sound of water threads the evening air.

Grasses string necklaces of water droplets.

IMG_6394

The rain pools in beads on the waxy surface of pale prairie plantain leaves.

IMG_6458

Clouds of mosquitoes whine, whine, whine around my face. I pull on my headnet.

Much better.

A deer, drinking from the overflowing stream, startles at my approach. She crashes off through the oak savanna.

IMG_7903

A red-winged blackbird bounces on a white wild indigo stem, heavy with seedpods. He shrieks a warning: Keep your distance! No doubt a nest is hidden along the stream.

IMG_6407

Water swirls, trapped in the base of cup plant leaves. Goldfinches sip the rainwater before they retire for the night.

IMG_6476

Culver’s root lifts its candles out of the tallgrass; wet and dripping.

IMG_6456

The moon rises, just a sliver shy of full in the East, as the saturated tallgrass turns its flower faces to the last light.

IMG_6383

The prairie sky hangs its clouds out to dry for the night.

IMG_6433

And I remember why I made time to come here…

…after the rain.

All photos by Cindy Crosby of the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (top to bottom): Prairie trail; water droplets on grasses; water beading on pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium); white-tailed deer; red-winged blackbird; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum); Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum); prairie coreopsis (Coreopsis palmata); prairie at dusk.