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5 Reasons to Hike the February Prairie

“…Some say that February’s name comes from an ancient and forgotten word meaning “a time that tries the patience.” — Hal Borland

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February is the shortest month of the year. But it may seem like the longest.

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Big, wet snowflakes fall outside. I welcome the snow—-it brightens up the seemingly endless gray skies that feature so prominently this month. Snow helps lift my mood. Hiking the prairie? Even more so.

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Let’s take a stroll on the prairie…

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…and find five good reasons to walk it in February.

1. Experience Weather Swings

Indecisive February!

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The weather shivers between rain, sleet, sunshine and snow. To hike the prairie this month is to experience shifts of temperature in real time. Feel the freezing sleet on your face. Admire the snowflakes that collect on your sleeve. Crystals play on a hundred thousand seedpods, as precipitation pelts the prairie plants.

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I love to discover transitions on the prairie as the temperatures plunge and rise.

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There’s the tension between freeze and thaw; sunshine and leaden skies; the snap of ice under our boots and the suck of mud. February is all about our impatience for the last month of meteorological winter to finish and the first month of meteorological spring to arrive in Illinois. Hurry up! Our minds are already turning to spring. But what a loss it would be, if we failed to enjoy what February has to offer.

2. Signs of the Unseen

I rarely glimpse the meadow voles, prairie voles, or white-footed mice during the warmer months in the tallgrass. Although once in a while I’m surprised, as Jeff and I were this spring when we reached into a prairie trail map box and found these tenants.

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In winter, these mostly-invisible members of the tallgrass community are betrayed by their tracks and tunnels. I think about them as I follow their progress across the prairie.  The collapsed snow tunnels. An occasional escape hole. And my favorite—the sewing machine “stitches” —-tiny tracks evenly spaced—that criss-cross the trails.

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As we hike, Jeff and I leave our tracks alongside their prints—and the tracks of geese, coyotes, deer, and other members of the prairie community. I like that. It reminds me that we’re all a part of this place.

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3.  Plant Silhouettes

The same gray skies that plunge some of us into seasonal affective disorder throw prairie plants into sharp relief this month. It’s a new perspective. Indian hemp pods swing in bundles, bereft of any seeds.

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I’m more aware of the ribbon-like curves of big bluestem leaves, shorn now of  their turkey-footed seadheads.

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I enjoy the rhythmic sway of Indian grass, pushed by periodic blasts of Arctic wind.

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Prairie cinquefoil takes on a ghostly aspect, blurred in the falling sleet.  Its silhouette makes me think of tulips. Of the bulbs beginning to spear through the garden in my backyard. Of spring.

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These grasses and wildflowers won’t be here long.

Fire is coming.

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4. Unexpected Gatherings

When I think “grassland birds,” mourning doves aren’t exactly what comes to mind. But hiking the College of DuPage’s Russell Kirt Prairie this weekend, that’s what turned up. Notice how this mob has fluffed out their feathers against the cold—like down vests, puffy and tinged with color. It reminds me of the down vests I wore in the 1970s.

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Why did they choose this tree on the prairie, and not another? What are they murmuring about? I wonder. After a bit of looking around on birding websites, I discover a group of doves is called a “dole” or “dule,” and sometimes, a “cote, a “bevy,” and even, a “flight.” Flight? Maybe not. These birds look like they’ve settled in for the long haul.

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Seeing them in the tree reminds me of one of my favorite scenes from the original 1967 Disney adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book.” Remember the four vultures, loosely modeled on the Beatles, talking to each other in a tree? “What do you wanna do?” one asks. “I dunno, what do you want to do?” And so it goes. I can imagine these mourning doves asking each other the same question, over and over. Makes me smile.

5. Snow Magic

Hike the prairie in February, and you’ll be aware of contrasts. Snow is the mitigator. A light dusting of snow makes everything softer, brighter, more appealing. Snowmelt softens the crisp edges of senescing plants, like this prairie dock leaf.

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Cup plants, cracked and brittle…

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…become a foil for the crystal flakes, their veins and wrinkles more obvious now than in the summer. This leaf looks like footed pajamas hung on a laundry line, doesn’t it?

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A sprinkling of snow makes February’s gray skies seem a little brighter.

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A little snow makes the month of February a little more do-able. More digestible. Beautiful. Why not go for a hike and see for yourself?

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February will be over before you know it.  The prairie is waiting.

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This winter, I’ve been enjoying the writing of Hal Borland (1900-1978), whose quote from A Sundial of the Seasons, 365 days of natural history observations, opens this post.  It was tough to find his books—all out of print, I believe— so I’m once again grateful to the marvelous Sterling Morton Library of the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL,  which carefully curates vanishing works of literature like Borland’s. Thanks to Mary Joan for introducing me to to his work. The original opening quote is prefaced by the caveat, “There’s no evidence to support it in the dictionaries, but some say… .” Ha!  If the actual etymology of the word “February” isn’t true, the supposed meaning certainly is.

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All photos this week are taken at College of DuPage’s Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL, except where noted (top to bottom): Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum);  Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis); “Prairie Parking” sign with unknown lichens; snowy trail through the prairie; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); COD pond; white-footed mice (Peromyscus spp.), Wolf Road Prairie, Westchester, IL (photo from 2019); mouse and vole trails through the snow;  top of the ridge on COD’s Russell Kirt Prairie; Indian hemp, sometimes called dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum); big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); prairie cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta—us older prairie folks will remember it as Potentilla arguta); little bluestem (Schizachryium scoparium); mourning doves (Zenaida macroura); mourning doves (Zenaida macroura); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum); cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum); tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima) and wild bergamot, sometimes called bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); snowy trail through the prairie.

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Please join Cindy for a class or talk!

Pre-Valentine’s Event! The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Shop: February 13 (Thursday) 8-9 p.m., Park Ridge Garden Club, Centennial Activity Center 100 South Western Avenue Park Ridge, IL. Free and open to the public! Book signing follows.

Wheaton Book Signing! Local Authors Event.  Sunday, 2-3 p.m., Prairie Path Books in Town Square, Wheaton, IL. Free and open to the public. Click here for details.

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.  

See more at http://www.cindycrosby.com   

A New Year in the Tallgrass

“Joy as I see it involves embracing life. … Joy isn’t the opposite of sorrow, but encompasses and transcends sorrow. You know you’re truly connected with yourself when you’re experiencing joy.” — Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge

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Where did 2019 go? The time passed so quickly.

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This year we saw changes on the prairies we love. After the prescribed burns that torched the tallgrass…

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… we marveled at the new growth soon after.

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Watched the early pasque flowers bloom….

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and then, set seeds for the future.

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We stood amazed at the constellations of shooting star, bent and humming with bumble bees.

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Then, were astonished at the July wildflowers. Sure, we seem them each summer. But each year seems like a miracle.

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Now, at the end of December, the prairie has its own sort of loveliness. The beauty of sky and clouds…

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…the delights of a single seedhead.

Pasture thistle.

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Bee balm.

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Blazing star.

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Each prairie plant has a different method of making seeds and ensuring its future. Each has  a story to tell.

Remembering the familiar cycle of prescribed fire, new growth, flushes of color, and fruition of seed are all comforting at the close of the year.

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It comforts us as we remember how, in 2019, we wrote our own stories. Some of us lost people we loved. Had surgery. Battled cancer. Made new friends. Laughed a lot. Cried a lot, too. Weeded, seeded. Planned and worked to make those plans—both on the prairie and off—a reality. Celebrated the successes. Resolved to learn from the failures.

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In 2019, there were the surprises and vagaries of weather. Remember the big snow in April? Then, the cold and wet through the middle of June. Blazing hot in July. Snow on Halloween. Sixty degree days in December. Through it all, the prairie sailed on. The tallgrass  prairie was built for these extremes.

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Woven through 2019 was joy. True joy. The kind that is hard-won. The prairie, with its glories and challenges, defeats and delights, reminds us of this. Fire brings growth. Deep roots hold firm, drawing from long-held reserves when unexpected events throw the season out of kilter. The prairie survives.

It survives, also in part, because of people with vision.  Each prairie is a story of sweat and joy; patience and persistence. Of survival. Like a Polaroid snapshot, stewards and volunteers bring struggling remnants back into sharp focus.

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2019 was the continuing story of people who care enough to preserve places that aren’t always easy—at first glance–to understand. When I drive by the roughly 105-acre Gensburg-Markham prairie on congested I-294, set aside in 1971, I wonder what most commuters whizzing by this precious remnant think about it. Do they know what was saved, and why it matters? Do they wonder why it was never developed? Or is it just a blur in their rear view mirrors as they speed to their destinations?

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Do the people who drive by the 91-acre Sundrop Prairie, dedicated in 2000 and part of the Indian Boundary Prairies in Markham, IL, know what a treasure these acres contain?

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The tallgrass grows and changes. Our understanding of their importance evolves. And yet, the prairies continue on, as they have for hundreds of thousands of years. There’s a comfort in knowing that when we’re gone, the prairies will continue to survive and thrive under the care of future generations.

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I think of these things as I hike a prairie trail at Fermilab in the last days of the year. According to the Chicago Tribune, “In 1975 when he heard that Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, near Batavia, was looking for suggestions on what to do with the thousands of acres it owned, Bob Betz sat down with then-director Robert Wilson and went over his vision of having a restored prairie on the property. ‘And when Dr. Wilson asked how long it was going to take, Dr. Betz said, ‘Ten, 20 or maybe 30 years,’ then Dr. Wilson said, ‘Well, we better get started this afternoon.’ ” From these beginnings, beautiful prairies were planted and now thrive at Fermilab.

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Prairie remnants like the Indian Boundary Prairies—Sundrop and Gensburg-Markham— require people to discover them, bring them to the attention of the rest of us, and then, care for them with prescribed fire and stewardship. They require organizations like the Nature Conservancy and Northeastern Illinois University and others, and the generous donations of individuals, to ensure their protection. They require vision. And action. I think of Bob Betz, and his work with the Indian Boundary Prairies, as well as with Fermilab’s natural areas.  I think of the volunteers who undertake a hundred different tasks to maintain prairies today.

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Other preserves, like Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL–which has both remnant and planted prairies—shows the rewards of focused funding and care since 1986 by the Nature Conservancy Illinois and later, joined in that care by Friends of Nachusa Grasslands. I think also of the 100-acre Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum just outside of Chicago, and the volunteers, including myself, who dedicate time each season to cut brush, plant new natives, and collect seeds. Such different prairies! Each one irreplaceable.

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Now, it’s time to close another chapter in the life of the prairies. 2019 is a wrap.

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2020 is waiting. So much possibility!

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So much good work to do. So much joy to look forward to.

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The opening quote is included in the book, Poemcrazy: Freeing Your Life with Words by Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge. It’s one of my favorite books on writing; I re-read it at least once a year.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Sundrop Prairie, Midlothian, IL: prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; greening up after the prescribed burn, top of Dot’s Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL: pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens) in bloom, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatiilla patens) in seed, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; July at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; the end of December at Fermilab Natural Areas, interpretive trail, Batavia, IL; pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; blazing star (probably Liastris aspera), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Sundrop Prairie, Midlothian, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Sundrop Prairie, Midlothian, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Sundrop Prairie, Midlothian, IL; backlit prairie plants (unknown), Sundrop Prairie, Midlothian, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; Illinois nature preserve sign, Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; Sundrop Prairie in December, Midlothian, IL; Gensburg-Markham Prairie with bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), grasses, and wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; Fermilab interpretive trail edges at the end of December, Batavia, IL; Carolina horsenettle (Solanum carolinense), Fermilab interpretive prairie trail, Batavia, IL: prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; Wilson Hall from the interpretive trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL;  interpretive trail at Fermilab Natural Areas at the end of December, Batavia, 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. 

Happy New Year! Thank you for reading. See you in 2020.

Saving Prairie

“Let us go on, and take the adventure that shall fall to us.” — C.S. Lewis

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Wolf Road Prairie! How could anyone resist visiting a nature preserve with a name like this one? It seems ripe with possibilities for adventure.

The sunshine over the 80-acre preserve is welcome, although the wind makes the temperature seem colder than the high 20s.

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Jeff and I drive around the preserve, unsure where where the trails are. We can see prairie plants, so we know we’re in the right place. Hmmm.

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Time to ask directions. A helpful member of the  “Save the Prairie Society” is shoveling snow, getting ready for an open house at the historical structure on the property. He greets us warmly, and shows us where the trails begin.

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We see right away we’re not alone on the prairie. Look at those tracks! Rush hour.

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Little critters have left their imprints, like sewing machine stitches, across the prairie.Who made the tracks? We wonder. Prairie voles? Mice? Difficult to tell.

We cross through a wetland…

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…and see other signs of the preserve’s inhabitants.

A nest of a bird, long flown.

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I’m puzzled by the interesting galls on the sunflowers. My gall knowledge is limited. Sunflower crown gall, maybe?

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There’s a goldenrod bunch gall–sometimes called a rosette gall—I recognize on the other side of the trail. Like a dried out winter flower of sorts.

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I make a mental note to refresh my gall knowledge—at least of the goldenrod galls! There’s so much to learn while hiking the winter prairie. Always something new, something different. Later at home, I’ll chase down different bits of information, based on our hike. Crown gall. Bunch gall. Adventures of a different kind.

As we hike the south-side prairie savanna remnant…

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…we find sidewalks, left over from a pre-Depression Era time when this acreage was slated for a housing development. The contractors got as far as putting in the sidewalks before the project was scrapped. Jeff, who’s a history buff, is delighted.

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I’m excited, too. According to an excellent article by the Salt Creek Greenway Association, the preserve was threatened again by a proposed housing development in the 1970s. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources and Forest Preserve District of Cook County were able to acquire the acreage and save the fine examples of savanna and black soil prairie remnant.  What a success story!

In January 2019, the story continues. Although the cooler palette of Wolf Road prairie in winter tends toward white, brown, and blue, with bits of pale yellow…

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…little bluestem warms up the tallgrass with reds and golds. Its last clinging seeds sparkle in the sunshine.

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Winter on the prairie brings certain plants into focus. Little bluestem is only one example.

In the summer, I appreciate pale purple coneflowers for their swash of pink-purple color across the grasses. In January, I find myself focusing on a single plant’s structure.

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Culver’s root, bereft of summer pollinators and long past bloom, takes on sinuous grace and motion in stark relief against the snow.

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Even the rough and tumble goldenrod assumes a more delicate beauty in silhouette.

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I imagine what this prairie, savanna, and wetland preserve will look like in a few months. Covered with wildflowers. Limned with birdsong. Full of diverse color and motion. Still, seeing Wolf Road Prairie under a layer of snow in the sunshine has its own beauty.

We almost lost this prairie. Twice.

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I’m grateful to hike it today.

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In a time when so many of our natural areas are threatened, Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve stands as an example of what can happen when people care. What other prairies or natural areas should we speak up and protect today, which might otherwise be lost, underfunded, or developed? These are adventures in caring. Adventures in making a difference.

Somewhere, a new prairie adventure is waiting.

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The opening quote is from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, a book in the series “The Chronicles of Narnia,” by C.S. Lewis. I love this series, and read it out loud to my adult children when they were growing up.

All photos this week are from Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sky over the wetland; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) in the prairie display garden; hiking the north side of Wolf Road Prairie; small mouse or vole tracks in the snow; cattail (Typha latifolia, Typha angustifolia or Typha x glauca); unknown bird’s nest; possibly sunflower crown gall (a plant disease); goldenrod gall bunch or rosette—made by a goldenrod gall midge  (Rhopalomyia solidaginis); prairie savanna with bur oaks (Quercus macrocarpa); old sidewalk under the snow in the savanna; snow shadows on the prairie;  little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium); pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) seedhead; Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum); goldenrod (possibly Solidago canadensis); sign for Wolf Road Prairie; trail headed south with little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), a rusty orange haze along the trail and in the distance.

Thank you to the members of the Save the Prairie Society and Heritage Project Committee who so generously pointed out trails, gave us a tour of The Franzosenbusch Prairie House Nature Center and Museum, and were warm and welcoming on our visit there. Check out their Facebook page and other social media.

Prairie Walking

“The path is made in the walking of it.” — Zhuangzi

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On one side of my desk are precarious stacks of hiking books. Next to them is a list of more books on walking that I’ve lost or loaned out over the years, and now need to beg, borrow, or buy. As I prep for a talk on “Great Hikes in Literature” in a few weeks I already feel a bit overwhelmed by the amount of books on this topic. Books on the Appalachian Trail. Books on the Pacific Crest Trail. Tomes on hiking through America, Alaska, Great Britain, Australia. Fictional quests by the hobbit Frodo for the “one ring to rule them all. ” Children on walking adventures in “The Chronicles of Narnia.” Not to mention all the one-off essays compiled in outdoorsy collections.

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At the core of these books are central themes: We hike to try to understand something about ourselves. We hike to work through grief, loss, or pain. We hike to make a statement or protest. We hike to find a spiritual dimension in our lives. We hike to challenge our idea of what our limits are. We hike to understand more about the world around us. We go on quests! We hike when we’ve lost our way.

When life falls apart, we go for a walk.

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And sometimes, we just feel the urge to put one foot in front of the other. For as long as it takes. For as far as we can go.

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When my two kids were teenagers and I was cranky and out of sorts, they’d look at each other knowingly. “Mom, did you go for your walk on the prairie today?” Often the answer was “no!” They could see the difference that a simple hike made.

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Now, my children are grown and have children of their own. But I still find that hiking is as necessary to me as breathing.  There is something about walking that stimulates creativity, lowers stress levels, and opens us to different perspectives. Besides, going for a walk is a time honored tradition!  You can’t help but think of that oft-quoted line from John Muir: “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

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My first big solo hike was 30-plus miles. As I prepared to leave, a friend told me—“I could never do that! How can you be alone with your thoughts for so long?” True words. The greatest enemy of a long solo hike is not fear. It’s listening to your life, without the distractions and white noise that our everyday work pressures and social life mask.

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Today, I’m hiking the prairie as an observer. Not much of a personal agenda. For those who love wildflowers, I would argue that there is no better month than July to see a wash of electric color across the tallgrass prairies. Lately, drenching rains have alternated with baking heat. It’s brought forth a bevvy of blooms.

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Few people visit the prairie this month because of the high temperatures, humidity, and bugs. It’s true these are issues. Whenever I check the weather report before I go for a walk, I get the same posting. “EXTREME MOSQUITO ACTIVITY.” Well, whatever. That’s what mosquito headnets are for, right?

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The dragonflies, like this widow skimmer below, appreciate the clouds of mosquitoes in a way I never will. Probably much as we enjoy a mecca of restaurants spread out along the freeway to choose from on our travels.

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These past few weeks, me and my prairie volunteers are busy collecting seeds. Many of the early spring blooming plants have seeds that are ripe and ready. It’s not easy to find the shooting star seed capsules or cream wild indigo pods under the burgeoning grasses. So green, lush, and high! At the end of a work morning, our backs ache from stooping and searching. Today,  I spot some prairie parsley seeds. I pull some, and leave the ones that aren’t quite ready.

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I pop the ripe seeds into my shirt pocket. Later I’ll put them in a brown paper bag, label it, and leave it in the cool, dark tool room for our staff. Ready to reseed a new prairie restoration. The dry seeds rattling around in my pocket feel like hope for the future.

Our pasque flower seeds, collected earlier this season, are in the greenhouse now. We cross our fingers and hope that these notoriously difficult to grow seeds will germinate. If they do, we’ll plant them on the prairie next spring. It’s difficult to remember the joy I felt at the pasque flower’s pale lavender blooms back in April. The first of its delicate color on the prairie. Now, in July, the prairie is profligate with pops of purple. I appreciate this haze of bright color in a different way than I did the pasque flower’s more subtle hues earlier in the season.

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Walking the tallgrass trails in the high humidity, I notice that the air is saturated with the smell of common milkweed. Surely one of the most underrated fragrances in the natural world! A little prairie aromatherapy.

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The pink of the common milkweed is more pastel and subdued than the July sunsets, which lean toward the color of neon flamingo yard ornaments. These sunsets grow more brilliant each evening.

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The crickets and cicadas tune up in the dwindling light as I finish my hike. The temperature drops. I think of the sunset to come and feel peaceful. Quiet.

My prairie walks this week aren’t anything epic. They are over in an hour or so, unlike the quests and hundreds-of-miles hikes I’ll be teaching about in a few weeks. I’m not counting my steps, nor am I challenging myself to see how far I can go, or grieving anything particular. But these short hikes are a good reminder of some of the many reasons why we walk.

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To try and know ourselves. To pay attention. To look for signs of hope. And to continue to marvel at the delights and complexity of the natural world.

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Zhuangzi is an ancient Chinese writer, who is credited with many parables and sayings. “Zhuangzi” also refers to Chinese text by the same name (476-221 BC) which contains fables and quotes such as the one opening this blog post. The idea of spontaneous, carefree walking is a common theme among these writings.

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Love to hike? Or do you enjoy reading about epic walks from the comfort of your easy chair? I’ll be leading a lecture and discussion called “Great Hikes in Literature” at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL on Sunday afternoon, August 5, 2018. Click here to register: Great Hikes in Literature. Hope to see you there!

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): stack of “great walks” books, author’s desk, Glen Ellyn, IL; rocky knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) bloom, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera) on Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix), Schulenberg Prairie savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; the Schulenberg Prairie in mid-July, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea) with widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie parsley (Polytaenia nuttallii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; pearl crescent butterfly (Phyciodes tharos), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Prairie Bugs, Blooms, and Butterflies

“Adding butterflies to your life is like adding another dimension.” — Sharman Apt Russell

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There’s something good to be said for mosquitoes. Yup, you read that here. I remind myself of this as I pull on my head net. There’s not a soul on the prairie at the end of this July afternoon, and selfishly, I’m glad to have the prairie all to myself. Bugs plus heat plus humidity=A Quiet Hike.

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Well, not exactly quiet. A red-winged blackbird erupts in a cacophony of sound. His volume increases as make my way down the trail. Too close to his nest? I move on a little quicker than I had planned. A common yellow-throat is singing his “wichety-wichety-wichety;” the birdsong soundtrack to this particular prairie in summer. Nearby, a ruby-throated hummingbird stops to rest on a tree branch, silhouetted against the blindingly blue sky.

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July is the steamy month that the Illinois prairie begins to make its move to earn its name: tallgrass.  Big bluestem is tassling out. Other grasses are waist-high. Suddenly this month, compass plants spike the prairie, like hundreds of periscopes erupting from a sea of rippling green. As I draw closer to one plant, I see the silphium weevils have carefully sliced the top flowers off. On the stem is a sticky, glittering wound, which oozes plant resin.

silphiumweevilcompassplantSPMAwm7918.jpgI pull off a dab of the sticky stuff and taste it. Refreshing! Native American children reportedly chewed this sap like Wrigley’s spearmint gum. I’m more cautious. It tastes good, but it is tough to scrape off my teeth. Once it’s on your fingers, you stick to everything you touch in the next hour.

Brushing past the compass plants, I wade through Culver’s root, lush after the long season of rain and heat. The bees love it.

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And so do the butterflies.

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A nectaring viceroy butterfly performs a series of gymnastics to get every last drop from a Culver’s root stand.  Sideways…

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…wings backlit by the lowering sun…

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…upside down.

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I watch it until it flies away.

Nearby, on whorled milkweed, it’s a black bug bonanza. How many do you see in the photo below? The whorled milkweed tolerates a lot of disturbance, and we have a nice stand of it here in one of the more degraded prairie areas.

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It boggles my mind to think this is only one milkweed plant, on one prairie. So much activity!  So many insects here that are likely invisible to my eyes. All going about their business of keeping the prairie healthy and thriving.

Speaking of which…The bright patches of butterfly weed are true to their name today.  This bloom has a coral hairstreak butterfly and a fritillary—plus a bee—all competing for real estate. The bedraggled fritillary, doubtless frayed by birds trying to get a nibble of its wings, looks like it is winning the battle for supremacy. What a tough customer for such a fragile insect! As I watch, the bee and the coral hairstreak are forced off the flowers.

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And at last, I spot a monarch. Ah. I was hoping to see you.

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As I finish the trail, something yellow catches my eye. The first goldenrod buds. Already? Summer just started! Or so it seems.

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The goldenrod is a reminder to enjoy every moment of this time on the prairie. Autumn will be here before we know it. Difficult to believe on this steamy July afternoon.

So for now, I’m going to enjoy the butterflies, bugs, and blooms of July.  Store up the colors, sights, and sounds of summer. While they last.

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The opening quote is by Sharman Apt Russell (1954-)  from her book, “An Obsession with Butterflies: Our Long Love Affair with a Singular Insect.”

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Schulenberg Prairie in July, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) bloom lopped off by weevils, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown bee on Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus)  nectaring on Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) nectaring on Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) ) nectaring on Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) nectaring on Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; video of viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus)  nectaring on Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; whorled milkweed (Asclepias virticillata) with some unknown bugs, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) with two butterflies (left, probably a coral hairstreak, Satyrium titus; right, a fritillary, Speyeria,  although she’s pretty dinged up by  bird nibbles to tell as to species), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; monarch (Danaus plexippus) on butterfly weed (Asclepis tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; early goldenrod (Solidago juncea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

A Vision for Prairie

“What are we made of? How did the universe begin? What secrets do the smallest, most elemental particles of matter hold, and how can they help us understand the intricacies of space and time?”–Fermilab

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I’m pondering some the above questions as I hike Fermilab’s prairies and natural areas. It’s 95 degrees with a heat index of about 110. Outside is not where the rational part of me wants to be. But today, I have a chance to explore some of the iconic prairie plantings at Fermilab. I don’t want to miss the opportunity.

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Fermilab is a 6,800 acre particle physics laboratory about an hour west of Chicago, established in 1967.  Their stated vision is to “solve the mysteries of matter, energy, space and time for the benefit of all.” I admire Fermilab’s drive to know. But as someone who barely passed physics in high school and dropped out of calculus, I’m not here for the  particle accelerators and neutrino science. I’m here for their prairie.

And what beautiful sweeps of tallgrass are all around me.

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The compass plant flowers (above) wave over my head, their periscope-like blooms splashing the prairie with yellow. Waist-high Culver’s root (below) is in the early stages of bloom. Its white candles are luminescent in the tallgrass.

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To restore prairie in this place is an act of creativity and the imagination, as well as an act of science. Biochemist Dr. Robert Betz had a vision for the vast acreage that surrounds Fermilab’s accelerator ring and the grounds around the various research labs and buildings. Today, the results of that vision and the tireless work of volunteers, with leadership by ecologist Ryan Campbell, are almost 1,000 acres of planted tallgrass prairie. The prairie, along with other natural areas, encompasses “high-quality aquatic habitats, rare orchids, and even nesting Osprey”.

All around me is evidence of a successful outcome. Butterflies are puddling along the two-track, including this pretty little tailed-blue. They’re attracted to the salts and minerals in the dirt.

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Impressive oak savannas edge the prairies. Their cool shade is a welcome contrast to the blazing heat. The wetlands along the two-track gravel road are home to myriad dragonflies, water birds, and other aquatic life. The wetlands are lush. Brimming with water after the rain of previous weeks.

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Speaking of dragonflies! They are out in full force on my hike, despite the fierce heat. As I walk,  at least half a dozen Halloween pennant dragonflies are stationed in the tallgrass at regular intervals. Although much about dragonfly body temperature regulation is unknown, we do know that when it is hot they use strategies to lower their body heat. This one has its abdomen pointed downward to cool off.

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Other times you’ll see dragonflies doing handstands across the prairie in hot weather, a thermoregulatory practice called obelisking that helps deflect heat.

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I need some strategies of my  own to get out of the hot, sticky weather—strategies that don’t involve standing on my head or other gymnastics. Time to find my air-conditioned car. Whew!

Each prairie has its own delights. On the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum where I’m a steward supervisor, bunchflower is in eye-popping bloom this week. BunchflowerSPMA7218CROSBYwm.jpg

The lilies make me want to sit for an hour and just look. (Mosquitoes quickly put an end to that notion.)

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Nachusa Grasslands, where I’m also a steward,  is carpeted with wildflowers of all descriptions this month. Like an impressionist painting, isn’t it?

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These two prairies both have some beautiful butterflies. Like this black swallowtail at the Schulenberg Prairie, which flew erratically across the flowers and led me on a merry chase for a closer view.

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Sometimes, as I’m busy tending to my responsibilities on these two sites, it’s easy to forget how many other astonishing prairies there are all around me.  The last time I hiked Fermilab this year, it had just been burned. Look at it now!

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There is joy in the familiar. But delight in new discoveries.  Although I’ve been coming to Fermilab Natural Areas off and on now for years, today’s short road trip is a mental post-it note reminder to myself to not get in a “prairie rut.” Visit new prairies.  Discover the delights of seeing prairie restoration in all its variations. Expand my perspective. Learn from what other stewards are doing. Hit the road and see what new tallgrass adventures await.

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Where will your next prairie adventure take you?

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The opening quote is from Fermilab’s website. If you want to learn more about Fermilabs Natural Areas, click here to read more about their work and volunteer program.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) with Wilson Hall in the background, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) bloom, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; Eastern tailed-blue (Cupido comyntas), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; wetlands at Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; Halloween pennant (Celithemis eponina), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL;  meadowhawk dragonfly–probably a white-faced  (Sympetrum obtrusum) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bunchflower (Melanthium virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Michigan lily (Lilium michiganense) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; early summer at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) on rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  regal fritillary butterfly (Speyeria idalia), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; road through Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

Grateful thanks to art gallery curator Georgia Schwender who (despite ferocious heat) offered me a tour of some of Fermilab’s natural areas. Check out Fermilab’s Art Gallery on the second floor of the Wilson Building in all seasons. Look for Fermilab’s “Seeing the Prairie” exhibit July 27-September 28, 2018. 

Stories from the Tallgrass

Walk with me on the prairie.

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Listen. For the prairie is a storyteller.

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After a baptism by fire each spring…

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…it appears to be defeated. And yet.

 

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It reminds us that resurrection from the darkest night of the soul is possible.

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We learn from the prairie about reliance. The grasses and flowers depend on prescribed burns each season to keep the tallgrass open. The frequent fires make make the prairie the best it can be: over the long haul.

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The prairie tells us stories of resilience.

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The prairie grasses and wildflowers plunge their roots deep into the black soil. Anchored and nourished through drought, wind, fire, and flood, they survive–and thrive.

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The prairie tells us about the value of diversity. That nothing is too small, ignored, or overlooked to be important.

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We need every grass and flower.  Each shaggy mammal.

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Every tiny insect. 

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There is violence and suffering on the prairie…

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but we see the bigger picture. Redemption.

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Listen to the prairie. Draw from it strength and the courage to keep moving forward.

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Discover what stories the prairie has for you. 

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And in the listening, find comfort and peace.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bridge with Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum),  Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; meadow anemone (Anemone canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn, Glen Ellyn, IL; after the burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; after the burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  wild white indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie willow (Salix humilis humilis), Schulenberg Prairie right before the burn, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie plantain, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; regal fritillary, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; bison, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; , Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  12-spotted skimmer, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; storm over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cloud break over the author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; boardwalk over prairie fen, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; path through the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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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.