“Gardens console us, welcome us, connect us. They humble. They teach… . Couldn’t prairies exist in our backyards in some meaningful form?” — Benjamin Vogt
Snow. 70 degrees and sunshine. Sleet. 75 mph wind gusts.
It is March in the Midwest, full of twists and turns…and wonder. We wake up, not knowing if we’ll put on sweaters and boots or shorts and sandals. Each day offers surprises, like crocus suddenly in bloom.
The first daffodils and hyacinths spear green shoots through the prairie dropseed in my backyard. Welcome back!
Redpolls cluster at the feeder, seemingly loath to begin their trip to their Arctic breeding grounds. They remind me of myself getting ready to go somewhere. “Hold on—let me do one more thing before we go… .”
A male redpoll feeds a female redpoll some thistle. Is this courting behavior? I’m not sure. This was our first year to have redpolls at our backyard feeders in Illinois and I know very little about them. What an unexpected delight! Who knows if we’ll see them again? I’ll miss the redpolls when they are gone. They’ve left us with some beautiful memories, and the reminder that life is full of these unexpected amazements —-if we pay attention.
There will be other birds to enjoy. The female downy woodpeckers hang around all year…
…and so do the males, with their bright scarlet splash of color.
Our backyard prairie, lank and leaning after months of weather, gets a facelift with the falling snow. Magical!
Even the pawpaw tree—though leafless—is lovely with its snow-piled limbs.
Temperatures hover around freezing, but our pond remains thawed from Saturday’s wild 70-degree temperature binge.
Gently, I bend the fall-planted buttonbush shoots near the pond. They feel supple, rather than brittle. Tiny buds. A flush of color. It has survived the winter. Last summer, with its drought and weather swings, was a tough year for newly-planted perennials.
My New Jersey tea hasn’t done as well. Under the eaves, close to the house, this native shrub gets plenty of warmth but not as much moisture and sun as it would in the bigger prairie planting. Should it be moved this year? Hmmm.
It’s a stick! Not much to write home about, is it? Every spring I think I’ve lost this shrub, and each spring New Jersey tea surprises me. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.
Other natives like prairie smoke….
…and prairie alum root still hold some green. They look alive and ready for the growing season.
We’re one week into the month of March.
A week of blustery wind and snow. A week of warmth and rain. A week of good news, as Covid numbers recede. A week of terrifying events on the other side of the world.
A week of wondering. What’s Mother Nature going to throw at us next?
As the snow falls and ices the prairie with wonder, I remind myself: There’s a lot to look forward to in the new year. Plenty of astonishments and delights ahead that we can’t even imagine.
I can’t wait.
The opening quote is by Benjamin Vogt (1976-) from his book, A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion for an Uncertain Future, which calls us to reconsider lawns, and plant our gardens thoughtfully. Read more about Vogt here.
“There is, however, a way out of this mess…It is not only possible, but highly desirable from a human perspective to create living spaces that are themselves functioning, sustainable ecosystems with high species diversity.”—Douglas Tallamy
You know you want to. Go ahead. Grow a few native prairie plants this summer.
I’m prepping this week to teach a class, “Plant a Backyard Prairie.” If I was re-titling the class, I’d probably call it “Plant a Little Prairie In Your Front Yard, Backyard, and Side Yard.” Prairie plants can be tucked in anywhere! If you live in the tallgrass prairie region, there are few things you can do in your yard that will give you such joy as adding a few of these intriguing natives.
But Cindy…. say some of my friends. I love my roses/clematis/iris. Or whatever. You know what? So do I. It’s not an all or nothing proposition. You don’t have to rip out your garden and begin again (although you can, if you’d like). Start small. Invite a few prairie plants to the garden. Choose a few you admire.See how they look mixed with traditional garden inhabitants.
When we moved to our small suburban lot 22 years ago, it was barren of almost anything but Kentucky bluegrass. Odd, you might think, since the previous owners had built the house in 1968, and lived in it 30 years. If I was a betting woman, I’d guess they were shooting for low-maintenance. Easy to mow. Not much clipping or yard work to do. Four towering arborvitae were planted at the corners of the house. After decades, they hit the roof eaves and shot off in all directions. There were a few yews under the kitchen windows; typical sixties’ foundation plantings. Hostas. A burning bush. A barberry. We got rid of almost all of them. And, over time, a whole lot of lawn has been traded in for raised flowerbeds, vegetable beds, and prairie plantings.
I believe that native plants are the best choice for my yard, as they are adapted to the Midwest and nurture many species of birds, butterflies, bees, and other insects. But I also like what writer and gardener Marc Hamer writes in his new book, Seed to Dust: “The truth is always deeply buried in the middle, where it wanders about, vague and unsure of itself.” So don’t be surprised if you visit my backyard this summer and see zinnias. A whole lot of zinnias. They aren’t native to my Chicago region (but rather to Mexico, further south), but I have a deep affection for them, and delight in the bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies that flock to them in the summer.
I also have a couple of non-native peonies and clematis, some self-seeded violas, and a few roses (“The Fairy” is one of my favorites). Raised beds are full of seasonal vegetables. A tropical moonflower vine opens hand-sized vanilla-scented flowers at night during August; an event that sends me out to the patio each summer evening to oooh and ahhh and inhale.
But these plants—while they’ve earned a place in the garden—are not my majority stakeholders. Look again. Prairie dropseed lines the patio.
Native butterfly milkweed and prairie smoke have a seat in the dry spot under the eaves, and gray-headed coneflowers, blazing star, black-eyed Susans, and anise hyssop mingle with non-natives autumn joy sedum and deep blue salvia. Great blue lobelia joins the show later in the summer.
Early in the year, non-native spring bulbs have their turn. Species tulips. Daffodils. Snowdrops. They pop up in the prairie dropseed, fill in the bare spots left by last year’s prairie ephemerals. The natives rub shoulders with the non-natives. Each was chosen for a reason.
Another place the natives and non-natives mix is our small, hand-dug pond with no liner—just suburban clay. It’s a wildlife magnet and dragonfly and damselfly favorite.
It brims with cardinal flowers, marsh marigold, native iris, and blue lobelia.
The bullfrogs like it, too.
Across the back of our property is a “prairie patch” full of taller and rougher prairie natives such as prairie dock, compass plant, prairie cordgrass, Joe Pye weed, and spiderwort. Culver’s root mingles with evening primrose. Cup plant takes as much of the lawn as I’ll give it. Near the queen of the prairie, we planted a pawpaw tree.
I try to be aware of why I choose each plant, shrub, or tree. Do the pollinators use it? Okay, the swamp milkweed earns a place over here. Is it a host plant for butterflies, or moths? The pawpaw tree takes a spot on the slope. Is it edible? I’ll let the kale and tomatoes have this raised bed. Does it offer winter interest? The wild bergamot stays on the hill where we can see it from the window.
Does it offer birds protection from predators or severe weather, or give us privacy from nearby neighbors? Okay, I’ll leave one arborvitae on the corner of the house. Do I feel depressed sometimes in February? Sounds like a few early-blooming spring bulbs are in order, where I can see them from the house. What about beauty? Color? Structure? The deep purple clematis paired with the fire-engine red poppies and lavender catmint is a colorful and structural feast for the eyes—all three can stay, although they aren’t natives.
The shooting star would be lost in the bigger prairie patch, so we put it in a higher visibility area. Rattlesnake master is a native prairie plant with interesting structure and blooms, so it lives just off the porch where we can admire it all summer.
I’ve dubbed 2021 our “Year of the Native Shrubs” and a chunk of our garden budget went for just that. We’ve planted a battalion of native bush honeysuckles —Diervilla lonicera—on a bare, west-facing side of the house. We placed a hazelnut between two windows, and added a pair of spicebush for the butterflies in the perennial garden. Native witch hazel is sited on one side of the patio.
Next year, is the “Year of the Native Trees” and I’m already planning my purchases.
We’re still learning how to create a healthy yard. One fact I do know — the Kentucky bluegrass the Midwestern suburbs are so fond of demands heavy fertilizing, herbiciding, aeration, and watering. It’s an aesthetic choice, rather than a healthy choice. With this in mind, each year, our lawn grows a little smaller. We put in a few more natives and yes—a few more non-natives, too. We look for plants that are deep-rooted; those which sequester carbon. The yard has settled into a ratio of about 60 percent natives, 40 percent non-natives—if you don’t count the lawn. My hope is to swing it to more 70-30, but it will take some time, money, and deliberate intention.
I don’t have to let go of my zinnias. There’s also room for some spontaneous joy, like the bird-seeded asparagus or the impulse buy at the garden center. But I do want to be mindful of why I choose most of the plants I do—and that it isn’t just me that I’m planting for.
Thinking ahead, I have plans—big plans. Our front yard needs a pollinator garden. What about bringing some of the prairie dropseed to the front? It’s a well-behaved plant, and shouldn’t raise any questions from the neighbors? Maybe I can take the old ornamental weigela out of the front yard, where they’ve been since we bought the house, and replace them with some shade-loving native shrubs next summer.
I keep reading, learning, and sifting through the arguments for making the best plant choices. There’s a lot to consider. A lot to sift through. I can’t make all the changes I want to overnight. Money and time don’t permit that. But I will continue trying to change our little suburban corner of the world as I read and learn about what makes my backyard a healthier place for insects, birds, and other members of the natural world. I’ll also keep working toward a backyard that delights the five senses, and offers joy in every season.
One plant at a time.
Doug Tallamy (1951-) is a professor in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware. He and his wife Cindy live in Oxford, Pennsylvania.
Join Cindy for a program or a class online!
The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden Online: June 2, 7-8:30 p.m. Illinois’ nickname is “The Prairie State.” Listen to stories of the history of the tallgrass prairie and its amazing plants and creatures –-from blooms to butterflies to bison. Discover plants that work well in the home garden as you enjoy learning about Illinois’ “landscape of home.” Presented by Sag Moraine Native Plant Community. More information here.
Literary Gardens Online: June 8, 6:30-7:30 p.m. Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby for a fun look at 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 Mary Oliver, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, Lewis Carroll–and many more! See your garden with new eyes—and come away with a list of books you can’t wait to explore. Registration through the Downers Grove Public Library coming soon here.
Plant A Backyard Prairie:Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.
The Wild Garden’s Frequent Fliers: Dragonflies and Damselflies: Online, Thursday June 17, 7-8:30 p.m. CDT, Rock River Valley Wild Ones. Discover the wild and wonderful lives of these fascinating insects with the author of “Chasing Dragonflies” in this hour-long interactive Zoom program (with Q&A to follow). To join Rock River Valley Wild Ones and participate, discover more here.
“Barn’s burnt down. Now I can see the moon.”—Mizuta Masahi
Look what’s rising over the newly-burned prairies. Sugar Moon? Worm Moon? Paschal Moon? By any name, it is beautiful.
At the Morton Arboretum just outside Chicago, there’s another sort of moonscape this week.
The Schulenberg Prairie, which burned a week ago.
Few people walk the just-burned prairie.
Can you blame them, when hundreds of thousands of spring bulbs are in bloom in parks and preserves and backyards, not far away?
Native wildflowers are up in the woodlands. Virginia bluebells emerge, with leaves like ping pong paddles.
Jacob’s ladder unspools its ferny leaves in the savannas.
On the unburned Belmont Prairie just a few miles from my house, rattlesnake master spears through the soil.
Native wild strawberries spread their leaves in the sunshine. Soon, white flowers and tiny strawberries will cover the prairie remnant here.
So much green growth on the prairies I walk this week! So many signs of spring flowers. You can see why people are out admiring the spring flowers.
No wonder a blackened landscape holds little attraction.
And yet. There is a different sort of way of experiencing beauty here.
There’s a sense of something given away today in exchange for something in the future. A willingness to let go. To reset. To start over.
Loss is here, make no mistake about it. Fire is deadly. Fire is voracious. The prairie’s old apple tree, a relic of settlement, is burned beyond recognition. After years of surviving prescribed burns, it seemed a certain centenarian. Now, it will not see another season.
I’ll miss passing this little piece of history on my prairie hikes; a reminder that people like the ones who planted this apple tree—or its predecessors —forever changed the Midwest prairies. Another tree not far from it, which was prime real estate for the Baltimore orioles and their nests, will have to be removed for the safety of volunteers and visitors.
I walk the black earth and find more casualties. Bones. Two baby turtles, unable to scramble away from the wall of fire. A tiny beetle.
All of these losses—and others—-are small griefs, but griefs none the less. Prairie management means trade-offs. What gives life to one plant or animal may be a death knell for another.
Signs of life are here—if you look closely. Tiny insects buzz along the singed earth.
Mallard ducks quack their way down Willoway Brook.
And when I see the charred prairie willows…
…with their spring-soft “puffs”…
…I feel the life of the prairie continuing on, more vibrant than before.
After the fire.
Mizuta Masahide (1657–1723), whose quote begins this post, studied poetry under the tutelage of Matsuo Basho (1644 –1694) in Japan. Another of his lovely poems: While I walk on/the moon keeps pace beside me:/friend in the water.
Virtual Wildflower Walks Online: Section A: Friday, April 9, 11:30 am to 1:00 pm CST Woodland Wildflowers, Section B: Thursday, May 6, 6:30 to 8:00 pm CST Woodland and Prairie Wildflowers. Wander through the ever-changing array of blooms in our woodlands and prairies in this virtual walk. Learn how to identify spring wildflowers, and hear about their folklore. In April, the woodlands begin to blossom with ephemerals, and weeks later, the prairie joins in the fun! Each session will cover what’s blooming in our local woodlands and prairies as the spring unfolds. Enjoy this fleeting spring pleasure, with new flowers revealing themselves each week. Register here.
A Brief History of Trees in America: Online,Wednesday,April 28, 7-8 pm CST Sponsored by Friends of the Green Bay Trail and the Glencoe Public Library. From oaks to sugar maples to the American chestnut: trees changed the course of American history. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation as you remember and celebrate the trees influential in your personal history and your garden. Registration here.
Plant A Backyard Prairie:Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Register here.
“The afternoon is bright, with spring in the air, a mild March afternoon, with the breath of April stirring… .”—Antonio Machado
It’s 63 degrees. I leave my heavy winter coat, gloves, and scarf in the closet and pull out my windbreaker for the first time in months.
Winter hasn’t quite let go. No mistake about it. But the five senses say a shift in seasons is underway.
In between the prairie dropseed planted along the edges of my backyard patio, the crocus and snowdrops have emerged from their dark sojourn underground.
When I dug them in last October, the pandemic seemed to have gone on forever. Vaccination was only a dream. Spring seemed a long way off. Today, I count the flowers—10, 20, 40… . Look how far we’ve come.
Cardinal song wakes us in the morning. The windows are cracked open to take advantage of the smell of clean, laundered air.
On the prairie trails I see a honey bee, flying low to the ground, looking for something blooming. Not much. Warm temperatures and hot sun have brought the earliest prairie fliers out today. My ears catch the buzz—a sound I haven’t heard in months. Soon, I won’t even register it when the pollinators are out in numbers. Today, that “buzz” is still new enough to catch my attention.
In the afternoon, hundreds of sandhill cranes pass overhead, their cries audible even inside the house. We stand on the back porch, eyes shielded against the bright sun, watching.
Waves upon waves upon waves. Heading north to the top of the world. Flying determinedly toward something they only dimly remember.
On the prairie, ice still slicks the trails where shadows lie. We pull on knee-high rubber boots and slosh through slush.
In spots the paths are springy like a mattress. The trail gives unexpectedly and I tumble down, sprawling, laughing. It’s like sinking into a pillow– although a cold, muddy one. In spring, there are so many new sounds and scents it’s easy to forget to watch your step.
Burdock burs, grasping at their last chance to hitchhike a ride, catch our clothes. We spend a few minutes pulling them off. Ouch! I’d forgotten how sharp they are. Years ago, I remember our collie getting into a big patch of burdock. Impossible to remove. I spent a good long while with the scissors, cutting the burs out.
All around me are the last seeds of 2020; those that remain uneaten by voles, undisturbed by winter storms. Seed dispersal is so varied on the prairie! Wind and animals; people and birds—we all have a role to play in the continuing life of plants. Even now, the vanishing snow is filtering the fallen seeds into the soil, ready for a new life.
Inhale. The smell of damp earth. Not the scent of fall’s decay, but something similar.
The fragrance teases my nose. Tickles my memory. It’s the spring’s “prairie perfume.”
The sky begins to cloud with tiny popcorn cumulus. The warmth of the day takes on a bit of a chill. These are the last days of tallgrass.
Any day now, fire will come to these prairies. Smoke-plumes will rise in the distance. The old season will be burned away.
Until then, the brittle grasses and battered wildflowers wait, tinder for the flames.
Today, spring seems like something exotic, something new.
It’s not a shout yet. It’s barely a whisper.
Can you hear it?
The quote that opens this post is by Antonio Machado (Antonio Cipriano José María y Francisco de Santa Ana Machado y Ruiz) (1875-1939) from Selected Poems, #3. Machado is regarded as one of Spain’s greatest poets. Reflective and spiritual, his poems explore love, grief, history and the landscape of Spain. A longer excerpt (as translated by Alan Trueblood), reads: “The afternoon is bright, /with spring in the air, /a mild March afternoon,/with the breath of April stirring,/ I am alone in the quiet patio/ looking for some old untried illusion -/some shadow on the whiteness of the wall/some memory asleep/on the stone rim of the fountain,/perhaps in the air/the light swish of some trailing gown.”
Virtual Wildflower Walks Online: Section A: Friday, April 9, 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. CST Woodland Wildflowers, Section B: Thursday, May 6, 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. CST Woodland and Prairie Wildflowers. Wander through the ever-changing array of blooms in our woodlands and prairies in this virtual walk. Learn how to identify spring wildflowers, and hear about their folklore. In April, the woodlands begin to blossom with ephemerals, and weeks later, the prairie joins in the fun! Each session will cover what’s blooming in our local woodlands and prairies as the spring unfolds. Enjoy this fleeting spring pleasure, with new flowers revealing themselves each week. Register here.
Plant A Backyard Prairie:Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm. CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Register here.
“Wild beauty sustains us…it makes each of us an heir to wonder.” — Terry Tempest Williams
Crocus bloom in my backyard, bright spots in the brittle little bluestem and prairie dropseed.
When I see these flower faces turned toward the sun, I know it won’t be long until the dragonflies arrive on the prairie. I check Willoway Brook. Then, the local ponds. A prairie stream.
Under the water’s surface, the dragonfly and damselfly nymphs are waiting.
Soon, they’ll emerge…
…then transform from creatures of the water to their teneral stage. Weak, colorless, they are at the mercy of birds, frogs, and predators with an urge for a “dragonfly crunch” lunch.
They slowly transform……
…to aerial experts with brilliant coloration.
The diversity of Odonates never ceases to startle…
The spreadwing damselflies like this one below (so difficult to ID)….
…remind us there is mystery in the midst of knowledge. Not everything can be known at a glance. Then, later, the white-faced meadowhawk dragonflies show up, their pearl faces lending confidence to their name and ID.
Some early emergents seem to scoff at April snows and colder weather. We may even see green darners working the ponds for early insects by the end of March. Weather permitting. Down south, the migratory dragonflies will begin making their way to the Midwest. They’ll arrive soon—at the end of the month or early in April—the green darners, the wandering gliders, the black saddlebags…
…ready to find a mate.
…they give us hope for a healthy and prolific Odonate future.
Soon, the prairie will come alive with the whiz and zip of dragonflies and damselflies. Meanwhile, we watch. Anticipating.
Will you be there to see them return and emerge? Walk the prairie paths. Be alert.
Eyes to the skies.
I can’t wait.
Terry Tempest Williams (1955-) is writer-in-residence at Harvard Divinity School. Her latest book Erosion: Essays of Undoingexplores her work as a writer, activist, and educator.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken in previous dragonfly seasons (Top to Bottom): crocus (Crocus sativus), author’s backyard prairie plantings, Glen Ellyn, IL; stream through Springbrook Prairie, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Naperville, IL; Hine’s emerald dragonfly nymph (Somatochlora hineana), Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; teneral American Rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American Rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana), Nachusa Grasslands, Nature Conservancy of Illinois, Franklin Grove, IL; American Rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Carolina saddlebags (Tramea carolina), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; familiar bluet damselfly (Enallagma civile), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Franklin Grove, IL; eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blue dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown spreadwing (Lestes spp.), Ware Field prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white-faced meadowhawk (Sympetrum obtrusum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Carolina saddlebags dragonflies (Tramea carolina); Ware Field prairie planting, the Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ebony jewelwing damselflies (Calopteryx maculata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Halloween pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina); Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; exploring the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; exploring the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.
The Tallgrass Prairie: A Conversation— March 12Thursday, 10am-12noon, Leafing Through the Pages Book Club, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Open to the public; however, all regular Arboretum admission fees apply. Books available at The Arboretum Store.
Dragonfly Workshop, March 14 Saturday, 9-11:30 a.m. Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. Free and open to new and experienced dragonfly monitors, prairie stewards, and the public, but you must register as space is limited. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. Details will be sent with registration. UPDATE: THIS WORKSHOP IS POSTPONED. Watch for new date soon!
Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Onlinebegins March 26 through the Morton Arboretum. Details and registration here.
“No winter lasts forever, no spring skips its turn.” — Hal Borland
February’s weather roller coaster continues its wild ride into the end of the month. The weather cools. Warms. Cools again. Mornings are unexpectedly shrouded by fog.
Milkweed bugs emerge early. Too early? Confused, they look for their signature plant and find only the last bleached-out stands of grasses and crumbling wildflowers.
The brittle grasses, defeated by winter, wait.
There’s a lick of flame. The tallgrass is intentionally torched…
The flames consume the last elegant silver and gold seed heads; currency of the rich prairie landscape.
In a flash, the muscled stems and starred coneflower seed heads…
…and diverse species of grasses…
…of the past season disappear.
The landscape changes to one of smoke and ash.
A day or two passes. The prairie, sleek in the aftermath of fire, is a just-cleaned blackboard.
What new memories will we chalk upon it?
Slowly, the signs of spring appear. On the edge of the burned prairie, St. John’s wort leaves tentatively unfurl.
Overhead, sandhill cranes scrawl their graceful cursive flight patterns as they head north.
There’s a fresh smell in the air. A difference in the slant of the sun. It’s as if a window is opening to something new.
We feel it. Spring. The heat of the prescribed fire. The emerging insects. The green of new leaves. The arrival of the sandhills.
On the last day of February, we wait for it.
A season on the brink.
Hal Borland (1900-1978) was an American nature writer and journalist. Born in Nebraska, he went on to school in Colorado, then to New York city as a writer for The New York Times. In 1968, he won the John Burroughs medal for distinguished nature writing for Hill Country Harvest.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; milkweed bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tallgrass in February, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie burn, Glen Ellyn, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Canada wild rye (Elmyus canadensis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: after the burn, Burlington Prairie Preserve, Kane County Forest Preserve and Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Burlington, IL; after the burn, Burlington Prairie Preserve, Kane County Forest Preserve and Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Burlington, IL; Kalm’s St. John’s wort (Hypericum kalmianum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) over author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL: railroad at Burlington Prairie Preserve, Kane County Forest Preserve and Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Burlington, IL.
Last week, I dreaded picking up a newspaper; despaired of the suffering and unkindness that seemed to permeate the world. Everything seemed off-kilter. Unpredictable.
And then, they came. Waves and waves of sandhill cranes.
Each spring, they cover Chicago’s skies, headed north. Late each year, often after the snow flies, they wing their way back south.
The cranes bookend the prairie growing season.
They arrive at the same time as fire; the prescribed burns that sweep the tallgrass clean, and create a clean slate…
…ready for the sums of a new year to be chalked upon it.
As I struggle to count the cranes flying over this week– 25, 50, 100, 2,000–I feel the excitement of what lies ahead.
But I know when they leave, I’ll feel a sense of loss. In some ways I take them for granted.
There was a time when I thought of the ash trees in the woodlands around the prairies as merely part of the landscape. I believed they would stand, year after year.
Today, decimated by a tiny insect, they are cut down and piled up as rubble: wiped from woodlands, streets, and our part of the world.
Only the scribbled messages left by the emerald ash borers remain.
My grandchildren will never know a world with ash trees. And I wonder. Like the ash trees, will the cranes be here one season, then suddenly gone? Leaving an empty sky behind?
The cranes are something we count on in Illinois. Like the sunrise and sunset; the blooming of spring bulbs…
…and the coloring of autumn leaves.
We depend on the cranes to mark the passing of the seasons.
Rather than worry about their loss, I’m going to store away the magical moments they bring. When I hear the loud cries of the cranes–like the erratic purr of a cat magnified thousands of times– I’ll remember to listen for the harmony around me, not the discord. The kind voices; not the strident or cruel.
Despite their whirlwind choreography, the cranes know where they are going. The present disorder of the world, I tell myself, doesn’t mean we’re headed for long-term chaos.
I’ll let the cranes remind me to be grateful for beauty, compassion, and grace; even when those things seem difficult to find in the world.
And I’ll count the days. Until the return of the cranes.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Meadow Lake, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sandhill cranes, prairie interpretive trail, Fermilab, Batavia, IL; sandhill cranes, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; lupine (Lupinus perennis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; grasses in prairie planting, Meadow Lake, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hiking the prairie interpretive trail at Fermilab, Batavia, IL; great St. John’s wort (Hypericum pyramidatum), switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Meadow Lake, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; pile of ash logs and other trees, prairie interpretive trail, Fermilab, Batavia, IL; ash log with emerald ash borer gallery, prairie interpretive trail, Fermilab, Batavia, IL; yellow crocus, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; purple and white spring crocus, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; autumn color, East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tree and shrub, prairie interpretive trail, Fermilab, Batavia, IL; red-winged blackbird, Meadow Lake, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sandhill cranes migrating north over the prairie interpretive trail, Fermilab, Batavia, IL; prairie interpretive trail, Fermilab, Batavia, IL.
Forget the scraps of snow still visible in the shadier corners of the prairie.
Overlook the still-cold temperatures.
The first signs of spring are everywhere. Sunrises are earlier.
Sunsets are later.
In our gardens and yards, daffodils, crocus, and hyacinths knife up their bundles of leaves.
Temperatures tease us by briefly climbing into the upper 50s. Snowdrops heed the signal; offer their first blooms. Who will break the news to them that a winter storm is in the forecast, only days away?
All our glimpses of early spring are not sweetness and light. This week, warm winds howled up to 60 mph across the prairie. A spring tantrum, more than a winter storm.
No longer frozen, the prairie paths shout “mud season!” Go for a hike, and your boots slurp, slurp, slurp with every step.
The ice that limned the creeks and streams has disappeared … temporarily, anyway. Water runs fast with snowmelt; cold and clear.
Faintly familiar, but long-gone birds reappear and begin adding notes to the tallgrass soundtrack. Killdeer. The first tentative notes of red-winged blackbirds. Winter’s juncos still hang around, not getting the spring memo. But give them a few weeks and they’ll pack their bags and head north. Soon the dickcissels and bob-o-links will be back on their regular tallgrass perches.
In the last days of February, I study the prairie sky for migrating snow geese. I see them thick as storm clouds on weather radar reports. Yet, the sky remains empty, except for a few ubiquitous Canada geese.
Nonetheless, I like knowing the snowies are flying somewhere above me. A sign of spring. On the move north.
On the move, like the life of the prairie. The end of one season;
… the beginning of something new.
Yes, there will be more snow and ice. February’s full moon is named by Native American’s as the “Full Snows Moon.” I watched it rise last night; a harbinger of more snow and cold on the way.
But we’ve gotten our first whiff of spring. And it is good.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Rice-Lake Danada prairie planting, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Wheaton, IL; trail, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunrise looking east from author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; sunset, Nachusa Grassland, Franklin Grove, IL; crocus shoots, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; snowdrops, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; storm over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; muddy trail, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; dickcissel, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; Canada geese over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; snow geese and Ross’s geese, Bosque del Apache, San Antonio, New Mexico; sunset, Russell Kirt Prairie East, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL (looking west); full moon, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.
Cindy Crosby is the author, compiler, or contributor to more than 20 books. Her most recent is "Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History" (Northwestern University Press, 2020). She teaches prairie ecology, nature writing, and natural history classes, and is a prairie steward who has volunteered countless hours in prairie restoration. See Cindy's upcoming online speaking events and classes at www.cindycrosby.com.