Tag Archives: christmas

5 Reasons to Hike the December Prairie

A sense of wild is engendered by awareness, a sense of connection with and deep understanding of any landscape. The pavement of any city side street wriggles with enough life to terrify and delight us if we choose to immerse ourselves in it.”—Tristan Gooley

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Brrrr! It’s bitter cold—-as it should be in December. The added hours of darkness make it seem more arctic. Whenever the sun shines during these short-lit days, I follow it, cat-like, from room to room, hoping to absorb as much as possible. Soon, the Winter Solstice will arrive, and with it, the return of longer hours of sunshine.

On our Christmas tree, I hang dried orange slices, backlit by the tree lights, which turn the fruit to stained glass. Anything for more light. Color. Beauty.

December darkness is relentless. The pandemic has shadowed this month with more than the usual gloom as well: limiting our activities, sapping our spirits.

For these reasons alone, it’s a great time to get outside. Walk the tallgrass prairie trails. Enjoy brief moments of sunshine, or even a bit of fresh air if the day is gray. Undecided? Worried that it’s too chilly? Here are five more reasons to hike the December prairie.

  1. Unpredictable sightings. I walk the local prairies regularly, yet I never fail to see something that surprises me. This past week, a belted kingfisher rattled from the prairie pond, amusing me with its call—and its “hairstyle.”

Not far away, a partially dismantled osage orange fruit lies on the tallgrass trail, appearing as some alien Christmas ornament.. Despite its name, it’s related to the mulberry, not the orange. I’ve seen them here before, but they always give me pause. So strange!

Nearby, in a stand of tall goldenrod, a plant displays two types of galls on one stem. Huh! That’s a new one for me.

You can see the ball gall–maybe two of them? —topped by the rosette or bunch gall. Nice to see the insects are sharing housing arrangements. It was a big year for goldenrod—-and galls—on this particular prairie.

Piles of cut branches are everywhere; the sign of ongoing maintenance to keep woody shrubs and trees out of the tallgrass. It appears staff or site stewards tried to whack back this persistent tree.

What a stubborn will to live! You have to admire its determination.

2. That peculiar slant of light. December has a certain type of light unlike any other month; low and piercing.

When the sun breaks through the clouds, the prairie ponds and wetlands dazzle; almost too too bright to look at directly. The light turns the landscape monochromatic in places.

The sun scrolls through the sky, hugging the horizon and leaving the grasses and forbs alight.

Aster seeds, seen in this light, may be more beautiful in December than when they were in bloom.

Their puffs of brilliant white brighten gray days.

3. The sounds of winter. As I type, half-asleep at the kitchen table in the early hours, a THUNK snaps me fully awake. A Cooper’s hawk is perched outside, scanning the area for breakfast. Looks like it hit the window—ouch!—but missed its prey. No wonder the feeders have been mostly empty all morning.

I watch the hawk preen its feathers, then hop down and sift through the prairie dropseed planted around the porch. Looking for voles, maybe? Or a frightened sparrow? It’s the hungry season for hawks. After a few minutes, it flies away. The backyard is quiet for a long time afterwards.

Out on the prairie edges, juncos flit from tree limb to limb, their wings shuffling through the dry leaves. Geese honk their way over the tallgrass, headed for a nearby empty soccer field.

There’s a sound of water running. Listening, I feel the tension in my muscles loosen and I relax. Water music has that effect on us. The brook runs free and clear. And, I imagine, cold.

Ice laces the edges.

I think of the legions of dragonfly and damselfly nymphs waiting under the water to emerge. So much life unseen! Water on the prairie—whether pond, brook, river or wetland—-is ever-changing. Never dull. Always interesting. There’s always something new to see, no matter the time of day, or the season of the year.

4. Those December skies! What will each day bring? Steel gray scoured clouds, snuffing out the sun? Burnished blue cloudless skies, warming up the 20-degree temperatures? Veils of milky cirrus?

Or wind-combed clouds, streaming toward some destination far away?

This week, the prairie’s night skies will fill with meteor showers, the best holiday light show of all. By night or by day, the prairie is a front-row seat to the life of the skies. Don’t forget to look up.

5. That feeling of well-being that a good prairie hike brings. Clear your mind of Zoom meetings. Inhale the fragrant smell of December—frozen earth, wild bergamot seedheads, the tang of ice and decay. Turn off the news. Put paid to politics. Silence your cell phone. Go for a prairie hike.

You’ll be glad you did.

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The opening quote is from Tristan Gooley, who has authored many books on reading and navigating the landscape. Thanks to my son and daughter-in-law for the boxed gift set of Gooley books—I am enjoying them immensely. Check out Gooley’s website at The Natural Navigator.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at College of DuPage Natural Areas, East Prairie, unless tagged otherwise (top to bottom): unknown vine with berry from invasive honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica); author’s Christmas tree, Glen Ellyn, IL; belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon); osage orange (Maclura pomifera); ball galls (Eurosta solidaginis) and rosette gall (Rhopalomyia solidaginis) on tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima); unknown tree sprouting; last leaves; prairie pond; COD East Prairie and line of osage orange trees (Maclura pomifera); unknown aster (Symphyotrichum sp.); Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; Canada geese (Branta canadensis) flying over COD East Prairie; Willoway brook ice, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; East Prairie skies; East Prairie skies; bench at COD East Prairie.

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Please consider giving the gift of books this holiday season! Support writers, small presses, and independent bookstores. Through December 31st, you can receive 40% off The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction (2016) and Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History (2020) when you order directly from Northwestern University Press. Use the code HOLIDAY40 at checkout. At regular price, order Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit (with Thomas Dean) from Ice Cube Press (2019). Or order these three books from The Arboretum Store or your favorite indie bookseller. Thank you, and happy reading!

A Holiday Hike in the Tallgrass

“If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere.”—Laura Ingalls Wilder
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It’s 50 degrees. Can it really be December?

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Jeff and I took a break from wrapping gifts this weekend and went for a hike on the Belmont Prairie, a small remnant in Downer’s Grove, IL. The weather was flawless.

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We were greeted immediately.

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As a prairie steward, deer aren’t a welcome sight. But I enjoyed the fluid grace of this white-tail in motion as it bounded into the treeline. Nearby, flattened grasses showed where the deer may have spent the night.

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Many prairie plants in December are almost unrecognizable. Goldenrod leaves , shaped by weather and age, look like ribbon curls. Remember old-fashioned ribbon candy? It was a staple of my childhood holidays. This stage of the plant brings it to mind, albeit with a little less color.

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Goldenrod gall rosettes are as jaunty as spring wildflowers. It’s difficult to believe an insect is the artist behind this creation.

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The bright sunshine and deep shadows of early afternoon throw familiar plants into unfamiliarity. Rattlesnake master leaves, toothed and deeply grooved, bear little resemblance to the juicy green foliage of spring and summer.

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The rattlesnake master seedheads are brittle and alien-esque in the bright sun.

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Prairie dock leaves remind me of an elephant’s trunk.

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I hum tunes from “The Nutcracker” when I see these picked-over pale purple coneflower seedheads on the prairie. This one looks like a ballerina in a stiff tutu with her hands in the air.

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I love the backlit drum major’s baton of the round-headed bush clover…

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…and the weathered beads of wild quinine, like tarnished silver that needs a little polishing.

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On this unseasonably warm day, I think of the Schulenberg Prairie where  I’m a steward and the volunteer hours my team spent weeding and cutting; planting plugs and seeding this year. Many of them, through patient ID work, discovered several new plant species. By coming out to the prairie at night, we were able to ID almost a hundred moth species new to our site this season. Patiently, volunteers made progress on invasive plant removal. We renovated our prairie display beds. Made our prairie more visitor-friendly. All reasons to celebrate.

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There were some disappointments. I think of a few tasks undone. The seeding that didn’t work out. The back-ordered equipment that never arrived.  New signs that were damaged and now, need to be replaced. All part of caring and preserving precious prairie places. Beautiful places like the prairie where I’m hiking today.

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It’s good to take a moment and pause before the new year begins, with all its planning and possibilities. To feel joy over a year well spent. To be grateful for the many people and organizations who make these prairies possible through their hard work, vision, and support.

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To be grateful for the progress we made. Always, it seems our efforts are three steps forward, two steps back. But always…progress. Worth celebrating.

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, and a Wonderful New Year to All!

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Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose quote opens this post, was the popular author of the “Little House” children’s series. I’ve been reading Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder this week and am struck anew by the hardships and difficulties families experienced through westward expansion, the Dustbowl years, and the Great Depression. Quite a different perspective than I had reading these books as a child! Winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize.

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All photos this week copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL, unless noted otherwise (top to bottom) : thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica); view from the trail looking toward subdivision; white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus); flattened prairie grasses; goldenrod leaves (Oligoneuron rigidum); goldenrod gall rosette (Rhopalomyia solidaginis);  rattlesnake master leaves (Eryngium yuccafolium), rattlesnake master seedheads (Eryngium yuccafolium); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); pale purple coneflower seeds (Echinacea pallida); round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata); wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), the prairie in December; milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pappus; Christmas ornament, author’s yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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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. 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 Solstice

If you love light, today is not your day.

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It is the winter solstice.

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The shortest day of the year. Following the longest night.

No other day will have less light.

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It’s the first tick of astronomical winter’s clock. But in the Chicago area, the only thing that says “winter” is the date on the calendar.

It’s been a month full of talk about El Niño, a warming trend. Spring shrubs, deluded by cold nights and daytime temperatures fluctuating into the upper 60s, push out flowers. Lilacs hint purple. Forsythia opens its blooms.

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Listen! Look up! The sandhill cranes migrate over us by the thousands, belatedly waking up to the realization they’ve been lulled into lollygagging up north. They dallied a little too long in Wisconsin.

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The bison wonder why they bothered with their shaggy overcoats.

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The warm temperatures this month belie the lack of light that drains inexorably away; minute by minute, hour by hour.  In the morning, we drive to work in darkness; arrive home for dinner under cover of night. But we dimly remember the sunrises…

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…and the sunsets….

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… the light we took for granted, that turned the savanna edges and prairie misty and luminescent.

We long for the light.

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As I’ve felt the darkness brush against me, surround me, and submerge me this month, I’ve thought about what’s coming. Christmas. A day dedicated to light.

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This year, Christmas morning will dawn with a “Full Cold Moon” or “Long Nights Moon” as Native Americans once called it. It’s the first full moon on Christmas since 1977 — more than 35 years ago.  We’ll wake up to it when it rises at about 6 a.m.

On this darkest day, after a string of dark weeks, in a world that so desperately needs it…

Send the light.

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We’re ready.

All photos by Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): storm over author’s prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL;  full moon with Venus rising over author’s prairie, GE; partial moon over author’s prairie, GE; forsythia flowering December 18, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sandhill cranes over Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL;  bison herd at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; sunrise, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Glen Ellyn, IL; sunset, HL, GE; prairie edge, NG; December morning sundog, Chicago, IL; full moon, GE, IL.