Tag Archives: cup plant

October Serenade

“Mornings were cooler and crisper than before. The ever-lengthening shapes of afternoon shadows seemed drawn more irresistibly into the night. Fields were rough and tweedy, as though an old brown woolen jacket had been thrown over them to ward off the chill.” — Vincent G. Dethier

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Oh, wow, October. The prairie is stunning. Although it’s not to everyone’s taste.

Cup plants (Silphium perfoliatum) and sumac (Rhus glabra), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

“No flowers,” say some of my friends. Yes, the blooming flowers now are few. Goldenrods. Asters.

Sky blue aster (Symphyotrichum oolentangiense), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

They melt into the grasses, slowly becoming invisible. Going. Going. Gone—to seed.

Mixed wildflowers and grasses, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Most prairie wildflowers have closed shop for the season.

Prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Finished. Finale.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

They surrender to the inevitable with elegance.

Late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Ravenous insects glean whatever is left for the taking.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) with milkweed bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus), Great Western Prairie, Elmhurst, IL.

So many insects.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) with unknown insect (possibly the four-humped stink bug Brochymena quadripustulata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

They make themselves at home in the prairie wildflower remains.

Ball gall on goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum) Great Western Trail, Elmhurst, IL.

Seeds ripen.

Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Days shorten.

Sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Autumn trickles through my fingers.

Schulenberg Prairie and savanna edge, Lisle, IL.

Each day seems over before I’ve fully woken up. I remind myself, “Pay attention!” But—the prairie is beginning to blur. I rub my eyes and try to focus. So many seeds. So much grass.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

It’s all about the grass.

Prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Loops and whoops and swoops of grass.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Even my old enemy, the invasive reed canary grass on the prairie, shimmers in the morning dew.

Reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

In her eloquent essay in The Tallgrass Prairie Reader, Louise Erdrich writes: “Tallgrass in motion is a world of legato.”

Prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

The wind sighs as it sifts the grasses. The coda is near.

Schulenberg Prairie in Lisle, IL.

What new wonders will unfold?

Natural hybrid between the compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) and prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum)–sometimes referred to as Silphium pinnatifidum, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

I only know this: The wonders will be more nuanced. Less easily available as immediate eye candy than when in the growing season. But no less remarkable.

White wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

We’ll have to pause. Think. Absorb. Take time to look. To really look.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Why not go for a hike and see? Now. Before the snow flies?

Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

The prairie is waiting.

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Vincent G. Dethier (1915-1993) was an entomologist and physiologist, and the author of Crickets and Katydids, Concerts and Solos from which the opening blog post quote was taken. This is a delightful book and accessible to anyone who loves natural history, or who has found joy in the grasshoppers, crickets and katydids of the tallgrass prairie. It takes a little extra work to find the book at your library. Well worth the effort.

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Thanks to Nature Revisited Podcast for their interview with Cindy about dragonflies and prairie! Click here to listen to it on Youtube.

Thanks to Benedictine University for airing: Conservation: The Power of Story with Cindy as part of their Jurica-Suchy Nature Museum “Science Speaker Series.” See it on Youtube here.

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Thank you to Mark and Jess Paulson for their tour of the Great Western Prairie this week. I was so grateful to see it through your eyes!

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Join Cindy for a Program or Class!

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology: Opens online Monday, Nov.1 –Are you a prairie steward or volunteer who wants to learn more about the tallgrass? Do you love hiking the prairie, but don’t know much about it? Enjoy a self-paced curriculum with suggested assignments and due dates as you interact with other like-minded prairie lovers on the discussion boards. Then, join Cindy for a live Zoom Friday, November 12, noon to 1 p.m. CST. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. See more details here.

Winter Prairie Wonders: Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass! Dec. 3 (Friday) 10-11:30 am (CST): Make yourself a cup of hot tea, snuggle under a warm afghan, and join prairie steward and writer Cindy Crosby virtually for this interactive online immersion into the tallgrass prairie in winter. See the aesthetic beauty of the snow-covered grasses and wildflowers in cold weather through colorful images of winter on the prairies. Follow animal tracks to see what creatures are out and about, and see how many you can identify. Learn how birds, pollinators, and mammals use winter prairie plants;  the seeds for nourishment and the grasses and spent wildflowers for overwintering, protection, and cover. Then, listen as Cindy shares brief readings about the prairie in winter that will engage your creativity and nourish your soul.  This is scheduled as a Zoom event through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.

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Save Bell Bowl Prairie!

Please visit www.savebellbowlprairie.org to learn about the planned destruction of a special gravel prairie remnant by the Chicago-Rockford Airport in Rockford, IL. Ask them to reroute their construction. Discover how you can help save this home of the federally-endangered Rusty Patched Bumble Bee. The remnant is slated for bulldozing on November 1. Every small action by those who love prairies will help!

August’s Prairie Alphabet

“There is another alphabet, whispering from every leaf, singing from every river, shimmering from every sky.”–Dejan Stojanovic

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Do you know your August prairie ABC’s? Let’s go for a hike in the tallgrass together and take a look at a few.

A is for Ashy Sunflower, a harbinger of late summer.

Ashy sunflower (Helianthus mollis), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

B is for Big Bluestem, Illinois’ state grass; Missouri’s as well.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

C is for Tall Coreopsis, in full bloom at a prairie near you. Collecting seeds from this plant in October is an exercise in smelly hands. Such a pretty plant; such stinky seeds.

Tall Coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

D is for Dragonfly, those glints of glowing color across the grasses.

Halloween pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

E is for Echinacea, the purple coneflower, attracting pollinators. Its sister plant, the pale purple coneflower, is more likely to be found on prairies in my area.

Rusty-patched bumblebee (Bombus affinis), on purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Big Rock, IL.

F is for Flowering Spurge, Euphorbia corollata, in the same genus as poinsettia.

Flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollota), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

G is for Gaura, one of the few August pinks.

Biennial gaura (Guara biennis), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

H is for Hawk, which spirals on thermals high overhead. Sometimes, a little reminder floats down into the tallgrass.

Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) feather Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

I is for Indigo, now going to black-podded seed. Will the weevils save any seeds for us? Difficult to know. This pod has been ransacked.

White wild indigo (Baptisia alba) pods, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

J is for Joe Pye Weed, that butterfly magnet on the prairie’s edges.

Tiger swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus) on Joe pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

K is for Kankakee Sands, where bison roam.

Bison (Bison bison), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

L is for Liatris, in full purple splendor this month.

American Painted lady (Vanessa virginiensis) on rough blazing star (Liatris aspera) Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

M is for Monarch, the Midwest’s poster child for pollination and conservation. Glad they are having such a good year in Illinois.

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on unknown thistle, Franklin Creek State Natural Area, Franklin Grove, IL.

N is for New England Aster; the first blooms are all the buzz on the prairie.

New england aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

O is for Oenothera biennis, the common evening primrose, that staple of every farm lane and roadside wildflower stand. It’s native and occurs in every county of Illinois.

Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis), College of DuPage East Side Study Area, Glen Ellyn, IL.

P is for Prairie Dropseed. Love the smell? Or hate it? People are divided! I’m a fan.

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Q is for Queen Anne’s Lace, that pretty invasive that is celebrated in a Mary Oliver poem and the impetus for many volunteer workdays on the prairie.

Queen anne’s lace (Daucus carota), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

R is for Ragweed, an unwelcome native. Poor, innocent goldenrod! It often takes the rap for ragweed’s allergy-producing pollen. Aaaahhhhhh-choo! Although goldenrod isn’t completely innocent. It’s a take-over specialist on the tallgrass prairie.

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Wolf Road Prairie, Westchester, IL.

S is for Silphiums; the cup plant, prairie dock, compass plant, and rosin weed. They are having a banner year in my part of prairie country.

Cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), Crosby backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

T is for prairie Trails, that lead to adventure.

Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

U is for Underground, where prairie roots plunge 15 or more feet deep, sequestering carbon. Like an upside-down forest.

Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

V is for Vervain, both blue and hoary.

Blue vervain (Verbena hastata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

W is for Waterways; the ponds, streams, and rivers that cradle life on the prairies.

Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

X is for sphinX moths, which pollinate rare plants like the eastern prairie fringed orchid. Here’s one enjoying a wild bergamot bloom.

Snowberry clearwing moth (Hemaris diffinis) on wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Y is for Yellow. The prairie is sprinkled with gold this month.

Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Z is for the Zip and Zag of black swallowtail butterflies, fluttering from flower to flower.

Black swallowtail butterfly (Papilio polyxenes asterius), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Now you know my August ABC’s. How many of these plants and prairie critters can you find on a prairie near you? What favorites would you add to my August prairie alphabet? Leave me a comment below, and let me know. Then go for a hike and see them for yourself.

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Dejan Stojanovic (1959-), whose quote opens this blog post, is a Serbian poet.

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Join Cindy for a class or program!

August 17, 7pm-8:30 pm —in person —“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Bloomingdale Garden Club, Bloomingdale, IL. Please visit http://www.bloomingdalegardenclub.org/events-new/ for more information and Covid safety protocol for the event and for current event updates.

September 9, 9:30-11 am– in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Oswego Hilltoppers Garden Club, Oswego Public Library. Please visit the club’s Facebook page for guest information, event updates and Covid protocol.

New to the prairie? Want to introduce a friend or family member to the tallgrass? Check out The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction (Northwestern University Press). No jargon, no technical terms — just a fun guide to navigating prairie hikes and developing a deeper relationship with the beautiful grasslands that make the Midwest special.

July’s Backyard Prairie Adventures

“Oh, do you have time to linger for just a little while out of your busy and very important day…?” — Mary Oliver

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Come linger with me for a few moments in my backyard.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Let’s see what the last week of July is up to.

Unknown bee on cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Now, the heat rises from the ground; the air like a warm, soggy blanket out of the dryer that could have used an extra ten minutes. Dew beads the grass blades.

Dew on grass blade, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

I hear a buzz-whirr in my ear as a ruby-throated hummingbird zings by me, heading for sugar water. Ruby-throated hummingbirds appreciate my nectar feeder—-and they love the wildflowers in my garden.

Ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL (2016).

I planted scarlet runner beans, just for them.

Scarlet runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I delight in that kiss of red! More of this color is coming in the backyard. The hummingbirds will be glad when the cardinal flowers open. Almost there.

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees enjoy the bee balm—-or if you prefer, wild bergamot—which blooms in wispy drifts across the garden.

Bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) with a backdrop of gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Myriad pollinators also visit the zinnias, which I have an abiding affection for, although zinnias aren’t native here in my corner of suburban Chicago.

Zinnia (Zinnia elegans), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Other flowers wrap up the business of blooming and begin moving toward seed production. Culver’s root candles are almost burned out. Only a few sparks remain.

Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The bird-sown asparagus has a single seed.

Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Other flowers are just beginning their cycle of bud, bloom, go to seed. Obedient plant’s green spike is a promise of pretty pinky-purple flowers to come.

Obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I enjoy the July transitions.

A giant sunflower is a magnet for the squirrels and chipmunks. They assess. Climb. Nibble. Any day now, I expect to find the stalk snapped.

Sunflower (Helianthus), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Skipper butterflies patrol the garden, ready to plunder the flowers.

Peck’s Skipper (Polites peckius), Crosby backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Black swallowtail caterpiIlars munch on the parsley. I don’t begrudge them a few plants when I know how lovely the butterflies will be. I watch for monarch caterpillars without luck on my butterfly milkweed and common milkweed plants. Where are they this year? What I do see are hordes of oleander aphids that gang up on my whorled milkweed.

Oleander aphids (Aphis nerii Boyer de Fonscolombe) on whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I don’t control these non-native aphids. I let them be. If I did try to get rid of them, it would be with a strong spray of water rather than a pesticide. Whorled milkweed is a host for monarch butterfly caterpillars, just like its better-known milkweed kin in Illinois. The leaves are un-milkweed-ish, but the flowers are a give-away.

Whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticallis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

In my larger prairie planting, tiny eastern forktail damselflies chase even tinier insects for their breakfast. The damselflies’ bright green heads and neon blue abdominal tips help me track them through the grasses. I’m reminded of a morning last week when I waded through Willoway Brook on the prairie, and oh! The abundance of damselflies that I found. So many damselflies! American rubyspots. Stream bluets. Ebony jewelwings.

Ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

I stood in my hip waders, knee-deep, for about ten minutes, watching a variable dancer damselfly toy with a small bubble of dew.

Variable dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Damselflies don’t play with dew drops. Do they? Perhaps not. But it was difficult to characterize the damselfly’s actions as anything other than playful as it batted the droplet back and forth along the grass blade. Think of all these wonders happening every second of every hour of every day.

If only we could be present to them all.

In the backyard, a low thrumming of insects pulses through the prairie patch. Uh, oh. It looks like Queen Anne’s lace has infiltrated part of the prairie planting. I need to pay attention before it takes over.

Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), Joe pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), and cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The cup plants—topping six feet now—are awash with lemon-colored blooms. Each flower is a platform for jostling insects, from honeybees to … well… tiny bees I can’t identify. I try checking them my phone app, iNaturalist, which seems as perplexed about them as I am.

Cup plants (Silphium perfoliatum), with a couple of bees, Crosby backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

So many insects! So many different bees. How will I ever learn them all? A lifetime isn’t long enough, and following my birthday last week, one of the big ones, I’m aware of the window of time closing.

Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

It’s a reminder that each walk in the garden—each hike on the prairie—is time worth savoring.

Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I want to look back on my life and remember that I paid attention.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), with gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

You, too?

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The opening lines are from the poem “Invitation” by the late poet Mary Oliver (1935-2019), part of a collection from her book Devotions. Listen to her read one of my favorite poems, “The Wild Geese,” here.

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Join Cindy for a class or program this summer!

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online: Work through online materials and post your stories about prairie to the discussion boards beginning August 2; learn from other prairie stewards and volunteers about their challenges and success stories.  Join a Live Zoom with Cindy on Wednesday, August 11, from noon-1 p.m. CDT. The coursework is available for 60 days. Learn more and register here.

August 17, 7-8:30 pm —in person —“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Bloomingdale Garden Club, Bloomingdale, IL. Please visit http://www.bloomingdalegardenclub.org/events-new/ for more information and Covid safety protocol for the event.

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Cindy’s book, Chasing Dragonflies, is on sale at Northwestern University Press for 40% off the cover price until July 31! Click here to order — be sure and use Code SUN40 at checkout. Limit 5. See website for full details!

Chasing Dragonflies

At Home with the Tallgrass Prairie

“A perfect summer day is when the sun is shining, the breeze is blowing, the birds are singing, and the lawn mower is broken.”— Jim Dent

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Welcome, July!

It’s hot, hot, hot. The thermometer cruises past 90 degrees. My suburban backyard prairie plantings grow lush and tall by the minute, embracing the temperature. So many blooms!

Now starring in my backyard: hot pink.

Queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra).

The first pink party-time flowers of queen of the prairie cause me to yearn for cotton candy, and its burnt-sugar fragrance and melt-on-your-tongue sweet flavor. I see queen of the prairie and remember my first bicycle at age six: hot pink. As I admire the blooms from my kitchen window, I feel an impulse to make a batch of strawberry lemonade. Think pink! The memories flood in. Queen of the prairie flowers are a sure-fire nostalgia trigger.

Queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra).

The blossoms seem to float across the tallgrass like puffs of cumulus. Queen of the prairie is attractive in bud, too! Look at those tiny pink pearls.

Queen of the Prairie (Filipendula rubra).

Nearby, culver’s root glows in the partial shade. The bees adore it. It’s a little leggy in the good garden soil of my suburban backyard, but no less pretty for sprawling.

Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum) with a honeybee (Apis spp.).

Cup plant helps hold it up. It’s aggressively pushed its way into more and more of my prairie planting. Hmmm. Looks like I might need to do some proactive digging and remove a few plants.

Cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum).

Not a job for a day with temps in the nineties, I convince myself. Maybe later.

Joe pye weed tentatively lobs its first buds above the leaves. It’s a butterfly favorite. Moths and skippers love it too, as do bees and other insects. See the visitor on the leaf?

Red-banded leafhopper (Graphocephala coccinea) on joe pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum).

Earlier this spring, I moaned about the loss of my new jersey tea shrub. The twigs looked lifeless. But look!

New jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus).

The once dead-looking twigs are flush with leaves, and it’s putting on height next to the house. Maybe it’s not a write-off, after all. New jersey tea is in full bloom on the prairies this month. I close my eyes and imagine these little twigs flush with foamy flowers. Someday. Someday.

New jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The first week of July is a time to put the seed catalogs away and close down the planting season. It’s difficult to stop planning and planting; to throw in the trowel. The dreams I had for a front-yard pollinator garden? Maybe next year. My hopes for adding big bluestem to the prairie patch? I mark my calendar to put seeds in when the snow flies. Now, it’s time to focus on enjoying what I planted this season.

To pay attention to the creatures my backyard prairie attracts.

Unknown critter on gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata)

To learn the names of the weeds showing up in large numbers in my prairie plantings. Native? Or aggressive invader? Oops—was that prairie sundrops I yanked out? It was! Ah, well. I can plant more next season.

Blazing star is tipped with new blooms. They’ll continue flowering from the top down, like sparklers.

Cabbage white (Pieris rapae) on blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya).

Prairie smoke, which I planted and lost many years ago, is flourishing in a new spot under the eaves with its prairie neighbors. When I threw prairie smoke plants into the big prairie patch, they trickled out, eventually disappearing. Perhaps they were bullied by the big rough-and-ready cup plants. Here, in the partial shade and dryness of the patio edge, they get lots of personal attention from the gardener. No blooms yet. Next year. I imagine the pink.

Prairie smoke (Geum triflorum) Prairie Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL (2015).

The prairie smoke rubs shoulders with prairie alumroot, as pretty in leaf as it is in bloom.

Prairie alumroot (Heuchera richardsonii).

It doesn’t mind sharing space with whorled milkweed, which promises flowers for the first time this summer in my backyard.

Whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata).

An unusual milkweed, isn’t it? From the leaves, you’d never guess it was an Asclepias. But the monarchs know.

Jacob’s ladder is gone to seed, and a few slim first-year plants of prairie coreopsis jostle for position next to the whorled milkweed. But the piece-de-resistance is the butterflyweed, which I tried and failed with at least three times before finding its sweet spot. Look at it now!

Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) with a honeybee (Apis spp.).

No monarch caterpillars on it yet. I’m hopeful. Adult monarch butterflies loop through the lawn; lighting on common milkweed plants and nectaring from the rainbow blooms of cut-and-come-again zinnias. The hummingbirds like the zinnias too.

Summer in the backyard (2019).

It won’t be long until the monarchs discover the butterflyweed.

This week, the bee balm—wild bergamot—opened. Hummingbird moths as well as the namesake bees use this pretty flower from the mint family. Bee balm contains thymol, an essential oil. If “prairie” had a taste, it would be the antiseptic bee balm leaves and flowers. So refreshing!

Bee balm (Monarada fistulosa) with a bumblebee (Bombus spp.).

My backyard prairie compass plants, lagging behind the already-open blooms on the bigger tallgrass prairies, are closed fists ready to explode into yellow. When they open, the monarchs will be there, along with long-tongued bees and bumblebees and many other insects.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum).

So much is happening in my small suburban prairie patch. It boggles my mind to think of the larger prairie preserves, and the sheer numbers of wildflowers, butterflies, bees and other insects going about their business of living. Whether it is the thousands of acres of prairies like Nachusa Grasslands or the tiny prairie patches such as my backyard, I don’t want to miss a moment. July will be over in the blink of an eye. I want to soak up as much as I can.

For now, in the 90-degree-plus-heat, I’ll pour another strawberry lemonade. Then, I’ll enjoy the view of the prairie from my hammock as I plan my next hike on the prairie preserves.

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The opening quote is from Jim Dent, the author of Hops and History. Prairie in your backyard means less grass to mow, although not less weeds to pull. On hot days like these, it’s good to have an excuse to swing in the hammock with a cold drink and a book, and admire the prairie plantings we made. And –dream a little about next year.

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All photos this week, unless indicated, are by Cindy from her backyard in Glen Ellyn, IL.

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Join Cindy for a class or program this summer!

Beginning Dragonfly and Damselfly ID: online Monday, July 12 and Wednesday, July 14 (two-part class) 10-11:30 am. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. The first session is an introduction to the natural history of the dragonfly, with beautiful images and recommended tools and techniques for identification of species commonly found in northern and central Illinois. Then, put your skills to work outside on your own during the following day in any local preserve, park, or your own backyard. The second session will help you with your field questions and offer more advanced identification skills. To conclude, enjoy an overview of the cultural history of the dragonfly—its place in art, literature, music, and even cuisine! You’ll never see dragonflies in the same way again. To register, click here.

Virtual Summer Prairie Wildflower Walk: online Thursday, July 22, 10-11:30 a.m. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. No matter where you live, join me on Zoom to see the amazing summer tallgrass prairie wildflowers and hear their stories of uses in medicine, folklore, poetry, and even as love charms! Register here.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online: Work through online materials and post your stories about prairie to the discussion boards; learn from other prairie stewards and volunteers about their challenges and success stories.  Join a Live Zoom with Cindy on Wednesday, August 11, from noon-1 p.m. CDT. The coursework is available for 60 days. Register here.

Winter Arrives on the Prairie

“…There exists a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else…”–Mary Oliver

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Gusting winds and gale warnings overnight. Plunging temperatures. We wake up to an ice-cold sunrise. Brrrrr. Today is Dec.1, the first day of meteorological winter.

Astronomical winter is December 21, the winter solstice, when we’ll see more daylight hours again. But today, I’ll take the meteorological date. After an unusually warm November, it feels like the season has changed.

As the cold settles in, the work of the garden is almost finished. Mornings and evenings —jacket-less—I dash outside to the compost pile. Coffee grounds, strawberry hulls, and the odds and ends of Thanksgiving dinner vegetable leftovers mingle and molder in the lidded bucket for that purpose. After unscrewing the top of the Darth Vader-like black plastic helmet that holds the compost (dubbed “The Earth Machine” by the manufacturer) I shake the scraps into the pile, which at this time of year, lies stubbornly unchanged from week to week in the cold. Spring heat, which will turn these scraps into brown gold for my raised garden beds, is still a long way off.

Nearby, the desiccated cup plants, brittle asters, and grasses of my prairie patch rustle in the rising wind.

Swinging the empty bucket, I linger at the raised beds where the still-green parsley, bright wands of rainbow chard, and crisp kale have slowed production, but continue to provide fresh greens for our meals. Today brings temperatures that fall into the mid-20s for a sustained period, so I cross my fingers that I’ll continue the harvest. Other plants have surrendered. The sugar snap peas are in flower, but have long stopped setting pods. Woody overgrown radishes mingle with the parsnips and a few lone beets.

I pull a radish, and it’s nibbled around the edges. Voles? Mice?

More for the compost pile.

*****

Hiking the prairie this week, I notice almost all the green is gone—except on the grassy trails.

The joy of bloom and color—goldenrod, late asters—has passed; the shift of attention continues to move to structure and smell. The cool tang of mountain mint, when gently rubbed between the fingers…

…the dustier, Earl Grey tea-like smell of wild bergamot—bee balm—when vigorously crushed. Mmmm. Smells so good!

I know the wild bergamot —Monarda fistulosa—of the prairie is not the citrus fruit “bergamot” oil found in the tea. And yet. The smell is the same. I love the connection; love drinking Earl Grey on a frigid winter day and tasting prairie on my tongue.

As winter settles in, blue-bright skies will alternate with skies of slate and sleet. On clear nights, newly-visible Orion stalks the crystal whirl of constellations with the advent of this winter season. Seeing him after dark reminds me to go to the bookshelf and find “Orion Rises On The Dunes,” a chapter from Henry Beston’s The Outermost House, and re-read it again.

Indian hemp—or dogbane, if you will (Apocynum cannabinum)—-curls its now-seedless pods on stalks along the trails. The slant of sunlight turns it Santa suit red.

Native Americans knew that Indian hemp fibers can be stripped for good fishing line, cords, and threads. Try it if you grow the plants; it’s easy to make and a wonderful reminder of how the prairie was prized for its utility at one time, as well as its beauty.

As I round a corner of the trail, I discover goldenrod bunch galls, sometimes called “rosette galls.” They’re pretty common on my prairie walks.

But — wow —so many in one place! The galls are everywhere in front of me for yards and yards — the largest group I’ve ever seen.

I wonder what caused this vast profusion? I know the flower-like “gall” itself is made by a tiny fruit fly, Procecidochares atra (check out the link for a good guide to various goldenrod galls). But why are there so many of these rosettes in one place? They look like a winter prairie “wildflower” garden.

On the edge of the prairie where it melds into woods, I spy the still-green leaf of wild ginger. I had forgotten wild ginger keeps its foliage through the long season, unlike its spring ephemeral wildflower counterparts. Prairie Moon Nursery notes that it is a good native ground cover choice for that reason.

I’ve tried to grow it in my backyard, but without luck. So, I look forward to it on my walks. Seeing it at this time of year is a welcome surprise.

There’s always something unexpected on the prairie.

Who knows what other astonishments the first week of winter will bring?

Why not go see?

*****

The opening line is from Mary Oliver’s prose poem “Winter Hours” in her poetry collection, Upstream. Oliver (1935-2019) paid close attention to the natural world; she ends the poem with these words: “For me, the door to the woods is the door to the temple.” I wonder what she would have thought of the prairie?

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at the East Prairie and Ecological Study Area, College of DuPage (COD), Glen Ellyn, IL, unless noted otherwise (top to bottom): prairie grasses and forbs; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum); forgotten seedling pots; Park’s rainbow blend radish (Raphanus raphanistrum subsp. sativus): horseweed (Conyza canadensis); trail through the COD prairie; common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum); beebalm or wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa); beebalm or wild bergamot (Monada fistulosa); prairie grasses (mixed); Indian hemp or dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum); COD East Prairie and Ecological Study Area; rosette or bunch gall on Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis); rosette or bunch galls on Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis); wild ginger (Asarum canadense reflexum); Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum) unknown thistles (possibly pasture thistle, Cirsium discolor).

Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization in 2021. Email Cindy through http://www.cindycrosby.com.

THIS FRIDAY! Literary Gardens Online: Friday, Dec.4, 1-2:30 p.m. CST– Take a break from the news and join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby from wherever you live in the world 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 Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Goudge, Rumer Godden, May Sarton, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Gilbert, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, and Lewis Carroll–and many more! This class is online. Register by Thursday here through The Morton Arboretum.

Just in time for the holidays — Save 40% when you order directly from Northwestern University Press — use Code HOLIDAY40! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History (and also The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction).

Chasing Dragonflies Final Cover 620.jpg

Or pick them up at your favorite indie bookstore such as the Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during these unusual times.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (phrelanzer). Or visit her website at http://www.cindycrosby.com. See you there!

5 Reasons to Hike the October Prairie

The frost makes a flower, the dew makes a star.” — Sylvia Plath

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First frost. We woke up to a silvered backyard, pond, and prairie patch on Monday. The sheet-covered raised beds were strange looking striped and plaid beasts, wrapped against the chill.

Under this mishmash of bedding, cherry tomatoes, okra, zucchini, green beans, celery, and peppers emerged later that morning, a little worse for wear but game to continue their production a week or two longer. Basil and the larger tomatoes left to the frost roulette sagged and browned as the sun warmed them. Goodbye. It’s October, and the days of fruit and flowers are passing swiftly.

In my backyard prairie patch and out in the tallgrass, there are wonders to be seen. Different than those of summer. More nuanced. There are rewards for those who spend time on the October prairie and pay attention. Will you?

Here are five reasons to take a hike this week. Let’s go look.

1. Those Astonishing Asters: Smooth blue asters are in full bloom, and wow-oh-wow that unusual color! There’s nothing like it on the tallgrass in any other season. Feel the leaves, and you’ll see where this aster gets its name. Seeing this beautiful lavender-blue washed through the prairie is one of the perks of hiking in October.

Heath asters—Symphotrichum ericoides—spin across the prairie in small clouded constellations. I love their tiny, perfect flowers. You can see why the name “aster” means “star.”

New England asters bloom fringed purple—so much purple—intense and alluring for bumblebees, honeybees, butterflies, and several species of moth caterpillars, which feed on the plant. It needs pollinators to ensure the resulting seeds are fertile.

2. Leaves Beyond Belief: Sure, there might be a bad pun in there (couldn’t resist) but trees, shrubs, and the leaves of wildflowers, grasses, and vines intensify in hue as the month progresses. Carrion flower, that unusually-named vine, shows off its bright autumn coloration.

Staghorn sumac flames scarlet rainbows among the grasses.

Shagbark hickory, standing sentinel to the entrance of the prairie, is a shower of gold.

Wild plum, growing where I wish it wouldn’t on the Schulenberg Prairie, is none-the-less a pretty foil for tall boneset with its pale flowers.

3. October Skies: There’s something about the sky this month; is it the color?

The clouds?

Maybe it’s that particular slant of the sun as it seems to cling closer to the horizon on its daily swing through the sky. Or the reflection of the afternoon in a cold prairie stream.

Whatever the reason, these prairie skies are worth our attention in October.

4. Sensational Silhouettes: Now the prairie moves from the flash and glamour of blooms toward the elegance of line and curve.

There is beauty in October’s stark architecture as the prairie plants wrap up their season of bloom.

The cup plants no longer hold the morning dew or night rains; their joined leaves sieved by age and decay.

But the promise of 2021 is here in the tallgrass in its seeds. The promise of a future, full of flowers and lush growth.

5. Discovering the Unexpected: What will you see and experience when you hike the tallgrass prairie in October? Perhaps you’ll discover something small—-but eye-catching.

Maybe it’s a familiar plant you see in a new way.

Or perhaps it’s the song of a migrating bird that stops you in your tracks. What was that? Or the familiar whisper of wind through the tallgrass; the rattle of white wild indigo pods blowing in the breeze.

Will you feel your spirits lift at the sight of the last sawtooth sunflowers, turning their faces to the low-slanting sun?

I hope so. And that whatever adventures are ahead in these last months of the chaotic and unpredictable year of 2020…

… I hope you’ll find the courage and strength you need for them.

*****

Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) was best known for her poetry, and her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar. After her suicide, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry; the first person to win the award posthumously.

All photos this week are from the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): author’s garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus); trail through the prairie; smooth blue aster (Symphyotrichum laeve); heath aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides); new england aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), College of DuPage East Prairie Study Area, Glen Ellyn, IL, with honeybee (Apis spp.); carrion flower (probably Smilax ecirrhata); staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); shagbark hickory (Carya ovata); tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum) with wild plum (Prunus americanus); switchgrass (Panicum virgatum); Schulenberg Prairie in October; Willoway Brook; rainbow, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL: tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); bee balm or wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa); cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum); gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata); biennial gaura (Gaura biennis); prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum); white wild indigo (Baptisia alba var. macrophyllia); sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus); bridge over Willoway Brook.

******

Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization this autumn and winter.

Literary Gardens Online: Friday, Dec.4, 1-2:30 p.m Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby from wherever you live in the world for a fun look at great (and not-so-great) 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 Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Goudge, Rumer Godden, May Sarton, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Gilbert, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, and Lewis Carroll–and many more! This class is online. Register here through The Morton Arboretum.

Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.

Chasing Dragonflies Final Cover 620.jpg

Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org, direct from Northwestern University Press (use coupon code NUP2020 for 25% off), or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during these unusual times.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction. 

The Prairie Whispers “Courage”

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” —Viktor Frankl

******

I look out my kitchen window at my prairie planting and see something purple. It’s the first hyacinth in bloom. I’m a native plant aficionado, so hyacinths aren’t really my thing—and I planted prairie over the old garden bulbs that came with the house we purchased 20 years ago. But I welcome hyacinths this week. I welcome their fragrance. Their beauty. That purple.

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As I look out the window, I’m folding a piece of parchment paper to reuse. I’ve been baking. A lot. Comfort baking, I imagine.  I’m also trying to minimize trips to the store during this time of Covid-19 uncertainty. “Shelter in place” means making the most of what we have on hand.

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I think of my grandmother, now long passed, who would have recognized this moment. One of my early memories is of her washing a piece of foil, then folding and putting it away to reuse later. As a child, I scoffed at this, impatient. There is always more than enough of everything, wasn’t there? An endless supply. Little did I know. But she knew.

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Grandma also had a victory garden. Long after World War II was over, her garden gave her a sense of food security. Today, I feel a kinship with her as I start vegetable and flower seeds; spade my soil to plant lettuce, peas, potatoes.

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I feel the ghosts of my grandmothers in my kitchen as I plan meals using the ingredients I have on hand, plant a garden, struggle with uncertainty, just as they once did during the Great Depression and wars. This March, I’ve remembered—and marveled at—the courage they showed as they lived through times of insecurity, fear, and uncertainty. Courage I didn’t appreciate before. Courage I didn’t really understand when I was a child, or even a young adult. Courage I didn’t understand until now.

I wish both my grandmothers were here so we could talk.. They’d tell me their stories of these times, and I could ask them for advice. As a child, I squirmed when they hugged me. What I wouldn’t give to hug my grandmothers now.

*****

Jeff and I hiked the Schulenberg Prairie Sunday in 50-mph wind gusts, needled by sharp darts of drizzle that stung our faces and soaked our jeans. It was cathartic. And invigorating. We hiked  staying “present to the moment” by necessity—aware of the cold we felt as we  sloshed through the flooded prairie trails.

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I noticed the way the black walnut and oak trees were darkened on one side from the slashing rain, and bone dry on the other.

Shadow and light.

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The tallgrass is flattened now. In previous years, its tinder would be gone to ashes from the prescribed burn that happens here each spring. For perhaps the first time in its almost 60-year history, this planted prairie I’m hiking through may not see fire when it needs it. A prescribed fire here calls for a team of two dozen people or more working together, and it’s difficult to envision those simple gatherings happening anytime soon. By the time our Illinois shelter-in-place guidelines are lifted, it will likely be too late.

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I walked, and I wondered, and I looked. In the savannas and woodlands this week…

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…I found sharp-lobed hepatica, nodding in the rain.

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Joy!

I’m looking for a different wildflower today, the pasque flower. Its newer scientific name is Pulsatilla patens, synonymous with the older name,  “Anemone patens.” It’s one of the first native wildflowers to bloom on the prairie. “Pasque” comes from the Hebrew word “pasakh,” “passing over.” The flower blooms despite the flames of early prescribed burns, usually during the Easter season (thus the name “pasque” is also associated with this holiday from the old French language.). When the pasque flower blooms, I feel as if winter has passed.

Last year, the few blooms we had were memorable, perhaps for their scarcity.

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“Anemone” means “windflower.” “Pulsatilla” means “sway” or “tremble” which the pasque flower does in March and April breezes. Appropriate names for a flower that faces down cold, brutal winds, prescribed fire, and seasonal instability.  Our population of these fuzzy-leaved lavender bloomers had dwindled in previous years; down to just one clump plus a few stragglers. Since then, I’ve sown seeds to re-invigorate our plant population from another preserve.

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Would anything be up? Jeff and I slogged through the mud and peered closely. And there! One tiny fuzzed green shoot. And another! Barely detectable in the wind and drizzle.

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Life was going on, despite the chaos of the outer world. Nature calmly follows the rhythm of spring. It was a shot of hope in a dismal month. Brave little pasqueflower. It seemed to whisper to me. Courage.

I find myself trying to summon courage for each day. Not for tomorrow, or for next week, but for the 24 hours ahead of me, in which I need to make good choices. Courage right now, as Governor Andrew Cuomo has said in one of his binge-worthy news conferences on Covid-19, means “looking for the light.” I desperately want to be strong, but some days, it’s tough to know where to start. Looking for the light seems like a good place to begin.SPMAmarch32920WM.jpg

Courage.

The courage to get up each morning, get dressed, make a meal. Even if no one sees us.

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Courage. The courage to rise each morning and school our children.

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Courage. The courage of those who live alone, whether from necessity or from choice—and who ride this season out, bereft of their usual friendships and routines.

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Courage. Those who work in a makeshift office in a bedroom, an attic, a basement, or from the kitchen table. We may deliver groceries, work in hospitals, fill prescriptions. We watch our businesses implode, our freelance work vanish, our jobs lost, our retirement savings plummet.

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And still. We choose to take the next step. We teach a lesson on weather to our children. Go for a walk with the dog and wave to the neighbors—-neighbors we’ve never seen before until two weeks ago and suddenly have gotten to “know” from across the road—because they are out walking too.  We realize that so much is out of our control.

And yet, the world goes on.

In the midst of it, we find courage to make the choices we can make.  Courage to sit through another online meeting—trying to show up with our best game face, even though we feel like getting into bed, pulling the covers over our head, and not coming out for the next month.

Or maybe the next two.

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Courage to be patient with our children as they sense the fear we feel and need us now—and our reassurances—more than ever.

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Courage to be kind to our spouse and those we share space with—adult children, older parents, grandchildren. We find ourselves together 24/7, without the distractions of outside errands and activities. Our margin for patience gets slimmer each day. But we dig deep. We find new reserves. Because patience and kindness are the things that matter most. They are choices we can make.

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We ask for courage to be patient with those who don’t see this crisis the way we do, and act in ways we find irresponsible—or perhaps, overly-cautious.

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Courage to bake bread, start learning a new language, clean out a drawer, begin a journal, plant garden seeds, laugh at an old sitcom, watch re-runs of classic baseball games because there is no opening day. Because the crack of a bat, the roar of the crowds— the  memory of what once was normal is something that reassures us. We find humor in situations—-even when we don’t feel like laughing. Why? Because those are choices available to us, when so many other choices are not.

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We scrape up our last bit of bravery to find courage to live into the next hour, much less the next day. To think ahead? It’s terrifying. We turn on the news, then turn it off. We need to know, but we don’t want to know.

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In a world where once we had so many possibilities at our fingertips —and just about anything we wanted was available to us at the tap of a computer key—we have different choices to make now. How will we live in this new reality? When we look back on this next year—in five years, ten years—what stories are we living out that we we tell our children, our grandchildren, and our friends? How will we use this time we are given? What chapter in our lives will we write? It’s up to us. Today. Right now.

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Don’t surrender to fear.

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We can choose to love. To be kind. To keep moving forward.

Take courage. You’re not alone.

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Together, let’s keep moving forward.

*****

The opening quote is from Viktor Frankl’s (1905-1997) Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl was a Holocaust survivor and Austrian psychiatrist who lost his wife during their incarceration. A quest for meaning was what Frankl said helped him survive tremendous uncertainty and suffering. “Meaning,” he says, came out of three things: work, love, and courage in the face of difficulty. Read more here.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Dutch hyacinth (Hyacinthus orientalis), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; rolling pin, author’s kitchen, Glen Ellyn, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; seed starting, author’s office, Glen Ellyn, IL: flooded trail, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tree lashed by rain, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sharp-lobed hepatica (Anemone acutiloba), Lisle, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla or Anemone patens) in bloom on the Schulenberg Prairie in 2019, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flower (Pulstilla or Anemone patens) seeds, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla or Anemone patens) shoots, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie; Schulenberg Prairie; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), log on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; March on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; western chorus frogs (Pseudacris triseriata); The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); mosses (unknown species, would welcome ID suggestions!); common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; fox squirrel (Sciurus niger), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morotn Arboretum, Lisle, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bridge over Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; chalk art, author’s driveway, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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Cindy’s classes have moved online! For updates on classes and events, please go to http://www.cindycrosby.com. The next Tallgrass Prairie Ecology class online begins in early May. See more information and registration  here.

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Have you always been curious about the native landscape of the Midwest, but didn’t have time to read?  Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit (order directly from Ice Cube Press) and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction  from Northwestern University Press (order from your independent bookseller if they remain open or deliver, or from Bookshop or Amazon.com.  I’m grateful for your support for prairie, books, small publishers, and freelance writers like myself.

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

*******

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.

*****

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.

*****

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.

*****

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   

Winter Prairie Wonders

“The twitter of a chickadee, a flurry of juncos defying the wind, the industry of a downy woodpecker at the suet won’t warm the day, but they do warm the human heart.” — Hal Borland

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Color January gray so far, with a few bright spots.

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It’s been a wet one, as well, with precipitation in all its myriad forms.

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As I wash dishes one morning, I watch the birds and squirrels outside my kitchen window battle over birdseed.

They bicker and flutter and knock each other off the perches in their search for the very best position. I try to broker a truce by bringing out more sunflower and safflower. More peanuts. But as I step outside, I stop short. Listen! The northern cardinal—is singing! The first time through, I thought it was wishful thinking on my part. Then he pealed out the notes again.  Cheer! Cheer! Cheer! The sound of spring.

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Or maybe not exactly “spring.” After reading more on Cornell’s All About Birds website, I learn the males and females both sing; males may sing all year. Ah! So much for spring thoughts.  I regularly hear the “chip! chip!” at dusk and dawn when the cardinal resupplies at the tray feeder. But I hadn’t heard the cardinal’s full-throated song for a good long while. It makes me happy.

Dishes finished, that sweet music is enough to pull me out of the house and out for a prairie hike.

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No cardinals sing in the savanna, but there is a bit of woodpecker hammering and a lone squirrel or two loping silently through the trees. The  pewter skies and sleet, snow, rain, and ice accentuate the colors of the January prairie.

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As I hike through the prairie savanna, admiring the trees blacked with moisture and bright with lichen…

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…snow falls harder. I wrap my scarf  tightly around my neck to ward off the wet. Everything is soaked.

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Late figwort drips with snowmelt diamonds.

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Hiking along Willoway Brook…

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…I admire the winter water transitions.

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Trees lay everywhere, a reminder of other transitions going on. One tree’s life ends, a multitude of new lives begin from that downed tree. Fungi. Mosses.  These fallen trees will serve as homes and food for members of the savanna community; bringing slow change to this transitional place.

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Emerging into the tallgrass from the savanna, the only sounds are the scrunch scrunch scrunch of my boots in the snow, and the occasional hum of traffic from nearby I-88.

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Other than a few light breaths of wind, the tallgrass is motionless. Willoway runs quiet and clear. This silence suits me today. I value the prairie’s opportunities for quiet and reflection.

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And yet, there are many other reasons besides personal ones to appreciate what I’m a steward of here.

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I’ve been reading more this week about prairies as carbon sinks in preparation for a talk at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Arboretum. What are carbon sinks? Why do they matter? I think about this as I stroll the trails.

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A carbon sink is simply a place where carbon is stored. The prairie soil acts as a “carbon sink.” Unlike a forest, where the carbon is mostly stored above ground, in prairies, carbon is taken in and then, stored (or “sequestered”) in the deep roots of prairie plants.

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That’s good news.  It matters, as this carbon sequestration helps keep our planet healthy.  And, I’m more aware of my impact on the world these days, from the miles I drive or fly, to the choices I make in what I eat, what I put my food in (paper or plastic?), whether I use a straw or sip from a glass, or the amount of trash I generate. My personal consumption habits could be overwhelming and depressing, if I let them be. But that would suck all the joy out of life, wouldn’t it?

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And so. I try and balance the despair I feel sometimes over the brokenness of the world and its dilemmas with the gratitude for the beauty and wholeness I find on my prairie walks. The delights of my backyard prairie patch and pond. Or, the enjoyment of watching the birds at my backyard feeders squabbling with the squirrels.

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One reason I’m a prairie steward is this: caring for a prairie reminds me why my personal choices matter. Seeing the tallgrass in all seasons, in its diversity and transitions, helps me remember the legacy I want my children and grandchildren to have. Prairies, the Nature Conservancy tells us, “clean the air we breathe and the water we drink.” Caring for this prairie as both a place for quiet hiking and reflection—and a place that has value in keeping our world a healthier place—gives me a sense of making a difference. It is a touchstone of hope.

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We live in a beautiful world full of wonders. bridgeoverwillowaySPMA12520WM.jpg

No matter what the future holds…

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…I want these prairies to be here for the next generations; places for my children’s children to hike, for them to find room there to reflect, and to enjoy and delight in all its diversity.

A world full of wonders.

******

The opening quote is from Hal Borland’s book: Twelve Moons of the Year, excerpted from his “nature editorials” in the New York Times written before his death in 1978. Borland wrote more than 1,900 of these observational articles for the NYT, and selected 365 for this book. He was a contributing editor to Audubon magazine. Borland wrote more than 30 books, most about the natural world; the genres spanned poetry, fiction, non-fiction, biography, short stories, and even a play. He was also a recipient of the John Burroughs Medal in 1968 for Hill Country Harvest.

*****

All photos this week taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL except where noted (top to bottom): trees in the fog, East Side; melting snow on late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica); video of birds and squirrels at the author’s backyard bird feeders, Glen Ellyn, IL; male and female cardinals ( Cardinalis cardinalis, photo from winter 2019), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie in January, glimpse of Willoway Brook through the savanna; bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa); late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica); Willoway Brook through the prairie savanna; Willoway Brook through the prairie savanna; Willoway Brook through the prairie savanna; bridge and tallgrass; reflections in Willoway Brook; Schulenberg Prairie in January, blackberry (Rubus occidentalis) with snowmelt; prairie grasses in January; native evening primrose (Oenothera speciosa); Schulenberg Prairie savanna; tall goldenrod (probably Solidago canadensis); bridge over Willoway Brook; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum).

******

Please join Cindy at an upcoming event or class this winter:

THE TALLGRASS PRAIRIE: A CONVERSATION: January 30 (Thursday) 9-11:30 a.m.  University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum, Curtis Prairie Visitor Center Auditorium, Madison, WI. More information and tickets here. (Sold out–call to be put on a waiting list)

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.

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 

November Prairie Focus

“Young prairie plants put down deep roots first; only when these have been established do the plants invest much energy in growth above ground. They teach us that the work that matters doesn’t always show.” -Paul Gruchow

******

The cold, gray days of November are here. Beautiful? Yes, in their own way. They offer time for reflection on a year mostly past.

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The sky becomes a slate backdrop to plants which spike and angle and curve. Like silhouette cut-outs.

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Grace notes. Some more interesting now in seed and shape than they were in bloom.

It’s easy for me to overlook what’s good about November. Easier to long for sunshine and warmth; for the fireworks of July wildflowers—purple leadplant spikes and bright orange butterflyweed and lemon-yellow coreopsis. The fresh emerald spikes of grasses pushing through the dark prairie soil in spring. Or even the golds and violets of the autumn prairie.

Seems like we missed part of that season with our early snows.

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As I walk, I think of John Updike’s poem, November:

The stripped and shapely

Maple grieves

The loss of her

Departed leaves.

The ground is hard,

As hard as stone

The year is old

The birds are flown…..

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Much of what I see on the prairie is a matter of focus. In November, I have to remind myself that beauty is here. That the work of restoration is moving forward. It’s a more difficult season than spring when everything is full of promise and possibility. The “prettiness” and promise of the prairie is more obvious in the warmer months. November’s calibration of what constitutes headway, success on a prairie, is different.

Gray. Beige. Black. Brown. The prairie smells of wet earth. Snowmelt. Decay. You’d think this would be distressing, but it’s strangely pleasant. Invigorating.  It’s the fragrance of a work in progress. The cycling of nutrients. The prairie finishes its work of the growing season, then lays the groundwork for the future.

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Sometimes, I look at the November prairie and all I see is the unfinished work of a prairie steward. The native brambles taking over, arcing their spiny branches across the prairie and shading out wildflowers.

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It’s discouraging. Impatience surges. Are we really making a difference here? Or are we like Sisyphus, rolling a boulder uphill, only to have it roll back.

Then, I remember. There was a time when I didn’t  think about these “brambles” because the invasive buckthorn, honeysuckle, and sweet white and yellow clovers were consuming all my stewardship hours. It’s a luxury  now to have most of these problem plants licked (Hubris, don’t strike me down!) and room to think about how to tackle new management  issues.

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Despite my self-reassurance, as I hike I see other potential issues. Are the native grasses dominating the wildflowers? Is the false sunflower spreading too aggressively  in the corner by the bridge?

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I tuck my cold fingers into my pockets and stand on the bridge over Willoway Brook.  Reed canary grass chokes the shoreline. A never-ending problem. Then I look closer. I’m missing the lovely configurations of ice and stream; leaf and stone.

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Just across the bridge is a new “menace.” The past several years I’ve moaned about Illinois bundleflower making inroads into the prairie; it has become a monoculture in spots. Is it a desirable plant? Sure. It belongs on the prairie. But how much is too much? Decisions about how to manage it causes me some frustrating hours. But today, I take a few moments to admire it. Wow. Look at those seed pods.

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There are plants that “don’t belong” on a prairie restoration, and other plants that do, yet get a bit rambunctious. It’s so easy to focus on what’s wrong. Sometimes its tougher to remember what we’ve done well. To focus on the beauty, instead of the chaos.

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Nearby are ruined choirs of cup plants; taller than I am, growth-fueled by rain. Cup plants are the bane of my backyard prairie patch—aggressive thugs that elbow my Culver’s root and spiderwort out of the way.

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But here, on the 100-acre prairie, they are welcome. When I think about it, I realize I’ve not seen them in this area before. They are part of the first waves of prairie plants making inroads in an old field we’re restoring by the Prairie Visitor Center. A sign of success. A sign of progress.

Among the rusts and tans, there are bright bits of color. Carrion flower, now gone to inedible seeds.

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The last flag-leaves of sumac.

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Sumac is also an issue in parts of this prairie. But for now, I relax and enjoy the color.

Nuthatches call from the savanna. The breeze rustles the grasses. Looking over the prairie, focusing on its draining colors and dwindling seedheads…

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… I remember what Paul Gruchow wrote about the tallgrass prairie: “…The work that matters doesn’t always show.”

The day suddenly feels brighter.

*****

Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) was a Minnesota writer who wrote such beautiful books as Travels in Canoe Country; The Boundary Waters: Grace of the Wild; Journal of a Prairie Year; The Necessity of Empty Places; and Grass Roots: The Universe of Home from which this opening quote was taken. There’s nothing like the power of a good book—especially those passages that stick in your mind and are available when you need them the most.

John Updike’s lovely poem November” is found in A Child’s Calendar, first published in 1965. If you’re unfamiliar with his poetry, check out Facing Nature: Poems, Collected Poems: 1953–1993, and Americana and Other Poems (2001).

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken on the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, unless noted:  Willoway Brook in November; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); maple leaf (Acer saccharum) by the Prairie Visitor Station; silky wild rye (Elymus villosus) and log; prairie under snow in November; common blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides); Willoway Brook; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) and unknown asters; cup plants Silphium perfoliatum); carrion vine (probably Smilax ecirrhata); staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides).

Please join Cindy for one of these upcoming classes or talks:

Saturday, December 7, 1:30-3 p.m.—Sterling Stories from the Arboretum Stacks: Grab a friend and spend a lively hour together sipping hot beverages while you enjoy little-known stories about the Morton Arboretum. What’s that old fountain doing in the library? Why was there a white pine planted in the May Watts Reading Garden? Who is REALLY buried in the Morton Cemetery—or not? What book in the Sterling Morton Library stacks has a direct relationship to a beheading? Why does the library have glass shelves? How has salt been a blessing —and a curse—to the Arboretum over its almost 100 years? Listen as 33-year Arboretum veteran library collections manager Rita Hassert and  Cindy Crosby spin entertaining tales of a place you thought you knew….until now.    A lovely afternoon enjoying little known Arboretum’s stories, and a quiet respite from the holiday hustle and bustle. Register here.

Sunday, December 8, 2-3:30 p.m.: Tallgrass Conversations at Prairieview Education Center, 2112 Behan Road, Crystal Lake, IL 815-479-5779 Book signing after the talk! Free and open to the public.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online wraps up this month! Watch for the next course in March. Registration opens on November 19 here.

Nature Writing continues at The Morton Arboretum, on-line and in-person through November 20. Next session begins March 3, 2020. Watch for registration soon!

Find more at www.cindycrosby.com