“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
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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!