Tag Archives: downer’s grove

Spring Prairie Moon

“Barn’s burnt down. Now, I can see the moon.” — Mazuta Masahide

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Sunset. A pearl button moon rises due east as the sun flames into the western horizon. Not quite the “Supermoon”  or full “Worm Moon” we’ll have on March 20, in conjunction this year with the vernal equinox.  This evening, we get an almost-there version over the prairie. A sneak preview.

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The prairie is partly burnt. The crew came out today and torched the first sections, leaving a yin and yang of startling contrast.

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Robins flitter and hop over the white ash, scrounging for worms on the scorched surface. March is a critical month for prescribed burns on the prairie. Each morning, natural areas managers check the signs. Wind speed? Check. Wind direction? Check. Humidity? Check.

Most of the prairies Jeff and I hiked this week were still untouched by fire.

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Look deep into the grasses, and you’ll see snowmelt is still pooled around the remains of  Indian grass and big bluestem. Tough to burn.

Tonight, the prairie stream reflects a still-bare tree and sunset glow of cumulus clouds above.

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My old touchstone, the praying mantis egg case I’ve watched through the winter, faces the dying light. It is unmarked by the flames, but empty of life.

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On one side of the trail, ashes.

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On the other, brittle grass stalks and old wildflower stems are prime kindling. Waiting for the burning to resume. The flattened tallgrass glimmers gold. Will the fire be tomorrow? A week from now?

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On most prairies, the answer will be this: Soon.

Our old apple tree on the prairie has weathered many fires. We keep it, as it tells the story of its ancestor, an apple tree planted by the early settlers who first turned the tallgrass under the sharp knife of the plow. Trees like these once provided apples for making  “Apple Jack,” an alcoholic beverage. The drink offered temporary solace and medicine for those pioneers’ hardscrabble days.

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In the receding light, I wonder. Could this be the battered tree’s last spring? Every year, it surprises me by putting out green leaves and flowers.Who knows? It’s resilient. It may be here long after I’m gone.

Tonight, walking this half-burned, ghost of last year’s tallgrass, I feel a rush of joy. Out with the old. I’m ready for something new. Let’s get it finished. Bring on the burn.

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The air smells like a campfire. The memory of the taste of s’mores comes unbidden to my mouth and I realize it is long past dinnertime. Cooling temperatures and the dwindling light are clues the prairie and savanna are settling in for the night. Time to go home.

The red-winged blackbirds keep up their calling contest as I hike back to the car.

 

American robins flutter in and out of the trees, scouting for their bedtime snacks.

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It’s almost dark. A blue bird appears. His vivid sapphire is bright in last light. He bounces for a few seconds on a burned -over bit of scrub that barely holds his weight. At about an ounce, I could mail him with a postage stamp.

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I watch him sway a little longer over the ashes, then fly away. I feel a little bounce in my step as well.

Happiness! Spring.

****

Mazuta Masahide (1657-1723) was a Japanese poet and samurai who was mentored by poetry master Matsuo Basho in the 17th Century in the art of haiku. Read more on haiku here.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): almost full moon over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bridge to Schulenberg Prairie at sunset, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; March on Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; reflections of sunset in Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Chinese praying mantis egg case ((Tenodera sinensis) ravaged by a bird, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ashes from prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; flattened tallgrass at sunset, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; old apple tree (Malus pumila), Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station, Lisle, IL; clouds over Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; video clip of dusk on the prairie and prairie savanna, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;

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Cindy’s March classes, announcements, and events this week:Tallgrass Conversations cover Cindy Pick9a.jpg

Now Available! Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit (with co-author Thomas Dean) is shipping from Ice Cube Press. $24.95, hardcover, full-color. Find it at fine places like The Arboretum Store in Lisle, IL: 630-719-2454; and Books on First in Dixon, IL: (815)285-2665 or at other bookstores across the Midwest.

Nature Writing: Blended Online and In-Person: Tuesday, March 18– continues at The Morton Arboretum through April 2.

March 22: Frequent Flyers of the Garden and Prairie: Dragonflies and Damselflies, Lombard Garden Club, Lombard, IL (Closed Event).

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 27 through The Morton Arboretum. All classwork done remotely. Register here.

Where the Wild Things Are

“In wildness is the preservation of the world” —Henry David Thoreau

*****

This past week, I enjoyed mingling with more than 2,000 other like-minded folks at the Wild Things Conference here in the Chicago region. The synergy created was a radiant spot in a cold, gloomy February. So many people invested in the natural world! So many who gave up their Saturday to learn and share more about wild things. It gives me hope for a brighter future.

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This February, I find myself needing reasons to hope. I enjoy winter. But I’m ready for spring. The signs are beginning to pop up. Lately, as we sleep with our window cracked open to the frigid air, I wake to cardinals singing their spring songs. They drop in for breakfast at our backyard feeders.

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The first sandhill cranes are winging their way high over the region, heading north.  It’s a sure sign that despite the brutal temps and snow, change—spring— is coming.

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The birds always know, don’t they?

After the Wild Things conference, Jeff and I did a reverse migration and headed south to spend a few days on the Florida beaches. We left 50-mph winds and zero temps, shaking snow off our boots, and stepped into another world of sandals and sunshine. It was appropriate that a “mackerel sky” was starting to form on our arrival.

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Are you familiar with this old rhyme?

Mackerel sky, mackerel sky, sometimes wet and sometimes dry.

Or a slightly different version:

Mackerel scales and mare’s tales, make tall ships carry low sails.

Supposedly, seasoned sailors know when a “mackerel sky” forms—-cirrocumulus or altocumulus clouds (the puffy ones) in rows, sometimes with mare’s tales (the wispy cirrus clouds) showing high winds aloft, a weather change was on the way.

So, we weren’t surprised when storm clouds moved in a few hours later.  The birds knew! There was a frenzy of activity beforehand, including a beach-combing blue heron, looking for lunch.

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The skies over the Florida sands  are full of wings. Some birds, like the osprey, we have back home. In the warmer months. I occasionally see them high over the prairies and hear their unmistakable cries.ospreyCaptiva219WM.jpg

Gulls, like this one below, are familiar Chicago residents as well.  Only the backdrop is different.

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I always struggle with gull ID. I brought my old battered National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of North America  with me, but there are pages and pages of gulls. I squint at the gull on the beach in the bright sun, then thoughtfully turn the pages of the guide. Ring-billed gull, perhaps? What do you think?

Other birds here, like the white ibis, remind me that no matter how many birds I recognize from the prairies back home, this is a different world. At least the ibis is an easy ID. The beak is a give-away. And look at those baby blues!

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When I think of the wildflowers of the prairie in February….

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… and contrast them with Florida’s February blooms…

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…it might seem like hands down, Florida would have my heart. Here the February air smells like sweet flowers. We’ve been sniffing all the blooms, but have yet to find the particular flower source. Hibiscus? Nope. Bougainvillea? Nope. A mystery.

At home on the Illinois prairies, the winds smell of snow. Color is a distant memory.

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But as much as I enjoy the heat and the sun, I miss the wild things of home. “We can never have enough of nature,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. True whether we’re in a convention center with 2,000 people talking about mosses and birds at Wild Things, hiking alone on a prairie in winter, or puzzling over a gull ID on a beach in Florida.

I’m grateful for the wild things —wherever I find myself. You too?

***

Henry David Thoreau (1817-62) is best known for his classic, Walden. His words, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…” are some of the most famous lines in nature literature.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; male and female northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Jasper Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area, Medaryville, IN; sky, clouds, and sand, Captiva Island, FL; great blue heron (Ardea herodias), Captiva Island, FL; osprey (Pandion haliaetus), Captiva Island, FL; possibly ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis), Captiva Island, FL; white ibis (Eudocimus albus), Captiva Island, FL, round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; hibiscus (Hibiscus, species unknown), Captiva Island, FL; the invasive Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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Join one of Cindy’s Classes This Week!

Nature Writing–online and in-person, The Morton Arboretum. Begins Tuesday, Feb.26 online! Register here.

History of Wilderness in America –Feb. 28, The Morton Arboretum, part two of two classes. (Closed)

Dragonfly Workshop, March 2, 9-11:30 a.m., Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. Free and open to the public, as well as for new and seasoned monitors. Pre-registration required: Email phrelanzer@aol.com.

A Prairie Ice Age

“Love life first, then march through the gates of each season; go inside nature and develop the discipline to stop destructive behavior; learn tenderness…; listen to the truth the land will tell you; act accordingly.”–Gretel Ehrlich

*****

This week, it was anyone’s bet what the day would bring. Ice storm. Snow storm. Rain. Sleet.

Did I mention a day of almost 50-degree temps? When you live in the prairie states, there is never a lack for conversational topics. Nod, smile, comment on the weather. It’s one of the superficial daily trivialities I missed when I lived briefly in the South. The lack of weather chat there—that prattle I’d taken for granted as a Midwesterner—made me long for my roots and brought me back home.

This week, an ice storm shellacked prairies with a half inch of crystal coating. Everything glittered for  two days. Magical. Even under gray skies.

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When the sun came out, things really sparkled, suspended in time and place.

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The snow was mirrored in the sky. Clouds trailed white scarves across the blue.

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Switchgrass, shorn of much of its beauty since autumn, suddenly attained new glamour.

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Plants turned alien under the ice.

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Grasses glinted gold-foil metallic. Bent and broken under their arches of ice, they wait  for the coming fires of the prescribed burns, less than a month away.

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Squirrels, suspended in space, paused in their wild scrambles on impossibly-thin branches to consider the mercurial goings on of February.

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Trails glowed.

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Bur oaks? The stuff of fantasy.

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Each prairie plant, dipped in ice, bowed under the drippy weight.

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As I hiked the prairie, my mind kicked into glassy overdrive.  Glisten. Crystalline. Shimmer. The words kept coming—tumbling over and over in my head. None of them seemed adequate to describe what I saw. So much extravagance!

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Even the praying mantis egg case in its frozen luster merited a second look.

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Abrupt changes of weather offer fresh shots of paying attention. A reminder of how quickly things change. A memo of how beautiful the world can be. You think that was amazing? Look at this! Each freeze/thaw brings new delights. Each snowstorm causes me to catch my breath, and not just from shoveling.

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Each change of weather causes me to reconsider the familiar.

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I live, slightly on the edge of expectation, wondering what Mother Nature will throw at us next.

You too?

*****

The opening quote is from nature essayist and poet Gretel Ehrlich’s (1946-) The Future of Ice: A Journey into the Cold. Her 1985 debut (and my favorite of her works) is The Solace of Open Spaces, in which she chronicles her time spent working on a Wyoming ranch.

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Preorder Now! Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit by Cindy Crosby and Thomas Dean releases on April 22. $25.95, hardcover, full color photography.  Pre-order at The Morton Arboretum Store or through Ice Cube Press.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): ice storm video, Glen Ellyn, IL; bridge at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, close to prairie plantings, Downer’s Grove, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Schulenberg Prairie and savanna at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown ice-covered vine, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; trail through prairie plantings at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL;  bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bridge over Willoway Brook tributary seen through savanna at Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Chinese praying mantis (Tenodera sinensis) egg case, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; icy grasses at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ice storm at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL.

Join Cindy at Upcoming Events and Classes This Week:

Wednesday, Feb.20, 1:30-3:30 p.m.: Wisconsin Wetlands Association Science Conference, Middleton, WI: Don’t Talk Like a Scientist! Registration here.

Thursday, Feb. 21 &28, 6:30-9 p.m. A History of Wilderness in America, at The Morton Arboretum. We’ll be discussing Wilderness and the American Mind and how our ideas about wilderness have changed through history. Still time to register here.

Saturday, Feb. 23, 11-11:45 a.m.: Wild Things  Conference: The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Shop: Donald Stephen’s Convention Center, Rosemont, IL. Register here.

A Prairie Valentine

How important it is to walk along, not in haste but slowly, looking at everything and calling out Yes!”– Mary Oliver

*****

Ask for their top 10 list of February destinations, and most of my friends would tell you “anywhere warm.” I agree. Toward the end of a Chicago region winter, I’m  ready to shed the shivery cold for a few days and escape to some far-flung beach down south.

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But the beach in February is not my number one destination. I include walking trails through prairie remnants in winter a little higher on my list.

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Tonight, Jeff and I are walking the Belmont Prairie in Downer’s Grove, Illinois. It’s small, as prairies go, but as a remnant—part of the original Illinois tallgrass prairie which escaped development and the plow—it’s special.  Writer John Madson wrote in Where the Sky Began that his “feeling for tallgrass prairie is like that of a modern man who has fallen in love with the face in a faded tintype. Only the frame is still real; the rest is illusion and dream.” Remnants remind me of those “faded tintypes.” Ghosts.

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Very little of our original prairies have survived; about 2,300 high quality acres are left in Illinois. Another reason to be grateful for Belmont Prairie’s 10-acre remnant.

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The grasses are weather-bleached and flattened now. You can imagine how references to the prairie as a sea came to be. Walking the trails here, amid the waves of winter tallgrass, can leave you unsteady on your feet, a little like wading through the surf and sand.belmontprairiegrasseswaves2919WM.jpg

A creek glistens. Puddles of snowmelt glow.  I’ve been re-reading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series this winter, and the creek puts me in mind of Galadriel’s silver elvish rope that helped Frodo and Sam continue their quest to darkest Mordor. Magical. A tiny sliver of creek is also iced in on the right—can you see it in the grasses? Barely visible, but the setting sun sets it alight.

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As we hike, Canada geese begin to settle in, pulling their V-string necklaces across the twilight overhead.

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Geese have a bad rap here in the Chicago suburbs, but I admire their sense of direction, their seamless ability to work as an aerial team, their perfectly spaced flight pattern. Their confidence in knowing the way home.

Honk-honk! The soundtrack of dusk.

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A crescent moon scythes its way across the burgeoning gloom.

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Still enough light to see. The reflections of ice spark the last light.

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Poke around. In the mud and snow pockets, trapped in north-facing crevices, there are signs of spring to come. A few spears of green. Water running under the ice.

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The seeds on the ground attract  more than birds. There are gangs of squirrels, well-fed and prosperous. If I wake early, I might spot a large eastern cottontail scavenging seeds, or even a red fox, whose antics with her kits have delighted us in the neighborhood over the years (and kept the resident chipmunk herds in check). Once in a while, over the years, we’ll surprise her on our back porch.

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Another backyard visitor through the year is the opossum, who finds the seeds under the bird feeders a nice change of diet.

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The opossum’s face looks a bit like a heart, doesn’t it? It reminded me that Valentine’s Day is Thursday. Time to find or make a card, and perhaps shop for a book or two for my best hiking partner. Speaking of him….

As Jeff and I head for the parking lot at Belmont Prairie, the great-horned owl calls from the treeline that hems the tallgrass. I hear the soft murmur. Who-Who- Hoooo.

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Jeff and I once found a great horned owl here—perhaps this very one— in daylight, high in a tree on the edge of the grasses. I owl-prowl sometimes through the woods, hunting for bone and fur-filled scat pellets under trees. Find a pellet under a tree, look up, and you’ll occasionally get lucky and see an owl.

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I think about Mary Oliver’s poem, “Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard,” which begins….”His beak could open a bottle… .” As someone who teaches  nature writing in the Chicago region, I love to read this poem to my students. The sounds of Oliver’s word choices  (“black, smocked crickets”), her contrasts of terror and sweet, and her descriptions  (“when I see his wings open, like two black ferns”) remind me of the joy of words, images, and our experiences outdoors.

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Oliver’s poem about the owl ends; “The hooked head stares from its house of dark, feathery lace. It could be a valentine.”

The owl calls again. I think of the people and prairie I love. And, the joy that sharing a love of wild things with others can bring.

It’s a happiness not quite like any other. Try it yourself. And see.

*****

Mary Oliver (1936-2019), whose words from Owls and Other Fantasies opens this blogpost, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet (1984, American Primitive) and winner of the National Book Award (1992, New and Selected Poems). Her admonition, “Pay attention. Be astonished! Tell about it.,” is some of the best advice I know. She died in January.

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All photographs copyright Cindy Crosby, from Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL, unless noted (top to bottom): beach umbrellas, Sanibel Island, Florida; sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus); Canada rye (Elymus canadensis); parking lot at sunset;  grasses on the prairie;  creek through the prairie; Canada geese (Branta canadensis) heading home; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) at sunset; crescent moon over the tallgrass; ice in the grasses; creek ice with new growth; downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; red fox (Vulpes vulpes), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; sunset over the prairie; Belmont Prairie treeline;  treeline at the edges of the prairie; Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) with common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pappus.

Extreme Prairie Weather

“Adapt or perish, now as is ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.”–H. G. Wells

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How do you cope with wild swings of weather? How do you make it through a tempestuous, fickle Midwestern winter?

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Here in the Midwest this week, we’ve seen swings of temperature from -25 degrees  below zero to 50 degrees or more. When I hiked the Schulenberg Prairie on Saturday, February 2, this was the view from the prairie bench:

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Compare it to this same view when I hiked the prairie two days later, on Monday, February 4:

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Oh, the difference two days makes in February!

I’ve coped with all this weather change armed with my arsenal of hot drinks, a stack of library books, and a pile of afghans. You too? But I’m not sure I can say I’ve fully “adapted.”

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We worry about our non-native plants—and sometimes, with good reason—because they aren’t adapted to our harsh conditions. These garden plants come from far-flung places, where their beauty and exotic good looks brighten up our yards here. I’m a sucker for some of these plants (Moonflowers! Zinnias! Gallardia!), although I garden mostly for natives.

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There is something wonderfully comforting about the Illinois prairie and its suite of plants. Sure, some of them disappear from season to season, obliterated by unusual weather conditions.  But most of our native prairie plants are made for a rollercoaster climate.

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How do prairie plants navigate extreme weather? What makes them different than the orchid flowering on my kitchen counter, or the scarlet runner beans in my summer garden? Let’s take a hike on the February prairie together and think about some of the  ways native plants cope.

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Deep Roots

The February prairie may look desolate, in its transitions between freeze and thaw; frigid and mild.

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But underneath the surface, there is a lot going on. Many of the barely-there, brittle grasses and wildflower fragments you see around you in February have deep roots. Roots that plunge 15 feet or more deep. These roots hold the promise of spring. The promise of renewal.

Can you imagine? Like a time bomb of the best kind, ready to go off at the right moment.

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The growing points under the ground and deep roots help ensure survival from year to year. When fires sweep across the prairie—once caused by lightning strikes and Native Americans, and now set intentionally to mimic the historical ones —its no problem.

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These adaptations are mostly about what’s invisible to us, under the ground. But what about the visible?

Narrow Leaves 

This article from the Illinois State Museum helps us understand why so many of the prairie plants  have narrow leaves. Yes, it’s no accident! Skinny leaves, because of their slim profile, lose less water to evaporation than our more broad-leaved plants. Cool!

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But wait! What about those broad-leaved prairie plants? How do they cope? Which brings us to…

Orientation

Compass plant is famous for it. Prairie dock does it as well. Turning north and south—orienting your leaves to lose the least amount of moisture—is a great adaptation by certain prairie plants to avoid losing moisture to a brutal prairie sun. Sure, it’s tough to notice this in the depths of February, when compass plant leaves are barely hanging on…

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…or the prairie dock leaves are battered and torn.

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Easier, perhaps, in the heat of a July afternoon. In the 1800s, some naturalists thought this positioning was because  the plants had taken up enough iron in the soil to become magnetic. Now we know this leaf position is another way for plants to brave the harsh elements of a Midwestern summer. Read more about the prairie dock and its leaf orientation in this excellent article by plant guru Christopher Benda,   His article also includes information about long taproots, another prairie plant adaptation.

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As someone who often struggles to adapt to change, I admire the strategies of these plant survivalists. They live in one of the most vulnerable places on Earth—the tallgrass prairie. Yet, they know how to cope. I’ve only touched on a few of their adaptations. There are many, many more to explore.

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This week, as the temperatures have see-sawed back and forth through extremes, I have a new appreciation for prairie plants. You too? Why not go for a hike and admire these prairie plants in person?

Maybe they will inspire you, as they have me. That adaptation to difficult conditions is possible. And—you can learn to accept change.

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The opening quote is by Herbert George “H.G.” Wells (1866-1946), a prolific writer often referred to as “The Father of Science Fiction.” Wells is best known for his books, The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, and The Invisible Man. A trained biologist, he brought his knowledge to bear in The Island of Dr. Moreau, in which he writes of a doctor who tampers with evolution in animals.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bridge at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie bench on Saturday, February 2, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie bench on Monday, February 4, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; author’s backyard prairie during the Polar Vortex (temperature -25 degrees), Glen Ellyn, IL; silhouettes of prairie plants on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray day on the Schulenberg Prairie (looking through the savanna), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; reflections on the Schulenberg Prairie trail, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) leaves, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Schulenberg Prairie savanna on February 4, 2019, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

December Prairie Delights

“Since we go through this strange and beautiful world of ours only once, it seems a pity to lack the sense of delight and enthusiasm that merely being alive should hold.” — Sigurd Olson

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As the days shorten, hurtling us toward the Winter Solstice Friday, a sunny day is especially welcome.  A prairie hike seems in order. Where to go? On the edge of a subdivision not far from where I live, hedged in by apartment buildings, two interstates, and a golf course, lies the Belmont Prairie Preserve.  A little unplowed prairie remnant, barely hanging on in the suburbs. Let’s go!

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I move slowly on the overgrown path, recovering from knee surgery that will get me back in tallgrass action come spring.  So I take the trail a little more deliberately than usual, which of course, has its own rewards. When you don’t rush, the prairie opens up more of her secrets to you. All around me, the morning frost evaporates. Ragged compass plants look otherworldly, backlit by bright sunshine.

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The melting ice glitters on the grasses.

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A few compass plant seedheads, with their seeds mostly stripped away, silhouette themselves against the deep blue winter sky.

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Its last leaves are wearing away, barely attached to the stem.

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Looking at them, I think of Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Dillard’s remark in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: “I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along. I am aging and eaten and have done my share of eating too. I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wondering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for…and whose beauty bats and shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them.”

It’s difficult to imagine anything nibbling the sandpapery compass plant leaves in December. But all grasses and forbs are parsed down to their essence. I continue to study the compass plants. Rough, cracked stems are patched with resin. Scratch the patches, and you’ll inhale a tang of pine fragrance.

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Compare the rough and ready compass plants to the fluidity and grace of big bluestem. Sure, big bluestem is dried out and desiccated now; most of its seeds disappeared into the beaks  of birds. When green, its foliage is so delicious for wildlife, the plant is sometimes nicknamed “ice cream grass.” But its beauty is only enhanced as the focus shifts from waving turkey-foot seedheads to dry, ribbon-like leaves and hollow stems, flushed with subtle pastel colors.

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Another contrast nearby: Pale purple coneflowers still hold their forbidding seedheads. You can see why the scientific name “Echinacea” means “hedgehog” or “sea urchin.” Handle with care! The seeds inside are mostly long gone, harvested by goldfinches and grassland birds.

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More contrasts: Thimbleweed holds its soft clouds of seedheads aslant in the cold. I rub the cottony tufts between my fingers, admiring their softness. Like Q-tips.

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The thimbleweed is echoed close by in the brushy, bristly seedheads of round-headed bush clover. A fun name to say out loud, isn’t it? Try it. Its scientific name, found at the end of this post, is just as enjoyable.

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It’s these little nature preserves, like the Belmont Prairie remnant, that encapsulate the future of restoration. On a beautiful sunny winter’s day like this one, the future seems full of possibilities.

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So many delights for the senses to be discovered on a remnant prairie in December! And in a world where so many of our natural resources are in jeopardy, isn’t it encouraging to know that here, at least, the tallgrass prairie will live on. As long as we continue to hike it, protect it, and share it with others so they will love and protect it, too.

What other delights will you find this month on the prairie? Go take a look, and find out.

 

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Sigurd Olson (1899-1982) was the Chicago-born author of many books and key environmentalist instrumental in bringing attention to and preserving the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. His writings about wilderness, including the opening quote of this blog post taken from the chapter “Aliveness” in Reflections from the North Country, continue to inspire those who care about the natural world.  Read more about Olson here.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby, and taken at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve in Downer’s Grove, IL: Belmont Nature Preserve in December; backlit compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); grasses matted down after the blizzard and glistening with frost;  compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) seedheads;  thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica); round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata); Belmont Prairie in December.

Making Sense of November’s Prairie

“Don’t you know, some people say, the winter is the best time of them all…”–Neil Young

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I like a good challenge, don’t you? So this mid-November, I’m challenging myself to discover what’s lovable about my least favorite month of the year on the prairie.

Can there really be anything good about November? Every where I see signs of loss. Leaves dropping. Days shortening. Temperatures plunging. I’m not going to lie—I’ve been pretty grumpy about the whole change of seasons so far.

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But what I found as I hiked reminded me of why this season has its own charms, its own distinctiveness. Need convincing? Read on….

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The sounds of the November prairieare so different than the sounds of late summer and early autumn. Sound travels farther and more clearly in cold weather if conditions are right; check out this interesting article here. Next time you’re hiking through the prairie on a frosty morning, listen. See if you agree.

 

SPMAbench111218WM.jpg The wildlife noises are also different than the summer orchestra of insect songs and bee-buzz. Woodpeckers suddenly become the stars of the savanna show after hovering in the background most of the summer. They hang out on the edge of the prairie; their sharp calls pierce the cold air and their drumming adds a staccato beat to the gray days. Nuthatches chatter companionably to each other. Their calls remind me of clown bicycle horns (listen here).

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This week in the Chicago region, the sandhill cranes are scrawling their calligraphy across the skies, migrating south. Their appearance signals a seasonal transition.  What are they saying to each other? Arguing over directions, maybe? If you have never heard sandhill cranes bugle from high overhead, it’s an other-worldly sound that speaks of movement and change. Intrigued?  Listen to them here. 

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A touch-y, feel-y kind of season… November is a wonderful time to engage that tactile side of your personality. Consider a compass plant leaf. Rub your fingers across the rough surface.  Notice the texture. The leaf gracefully arcs, bowing to the inevitable, concentrating its energy in the plant’s deep roots for winter.

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Slide your fingers along the big bluestem “stem.” Feel that polished smoothness? It’s said that early settlers found these stems made a great substitute for lost knitting needles. No word on what gauge size.

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Mmmm… those smells!… Go on, inhale. Wakes you up, doesn’t it? These damp, gray days of mid-November have their own particular scent. Earthy. The sharpness of cold. A whisper of plant decay. A tang of the last wild bergamot, which smells of a cross between Earl Grey tea and thyme. When I sniff the gray-headed coneflower seeds, it brings lemons to mind; maybe even a bit of licorice. The hot buttered popcorn scent of prairie dropseed is long gone; the sweet floral smell of the common milkweed is memory.

But November has its own perfumery.

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Tasty!  Ah, the last leaves of mountain mint. You can still find a few green-ish ones, if you look. They aren’t as pliable as they were back in July, but they retain a little minty zing.  The crumbly rosin of compass plant is still pleasant in the mouth; a bit piney and not as problematically sticky.

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And of course, there is plenty to seefor those who look closely.  The first serious snowfall—you know, where there’s actual white stuff on the tallgrass and not just flakes in the air—can’t help but spark delight. Sure, you’ll hear people  moan, “I’m not ready for this,” but seeing the first real snow on the ground is comforting. Despite politics, shootings, wildfires, and global tragedies, the seasons keep rolling along.

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The often-gray skies of November are a foil for the metallic colors of the grasses, which are a backdrop for the silhouettes of spent seedheads

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It’s a different way of seeing at this time of the year. More difficult to find the beauty. But it’s there.

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Don’t forget…as you use your five senses to explore the November prairie, there is “the sixth sense.” Making the connection of the heart to what we experience. November reminds us of our own mortality—of the cycle of great abundance and heartbreaking loss; growth and rest—that we experience during our short time on this planet.  November on the prairie is homely, humble, and quiet. It reminds us, as that great prairie writer Paul Gruchow wrote in Grass Roots: The Universe of Home,the work that matters doesn’t always show.”

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Like all months, November has its own experiences to offer. New things to teach me. A time for reflection.

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If I have the courage to look November squarely in its seasonal face, instead of avoiding it, maybe I’ll learn something.

So. Bring it on, November. I’m really to learn from you, and experience all you have to offer.

What about you?

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The opening epigram is from Neil Young’s song “Little Wing,” from his much-maligned album, Hawks and Doves. Despite mockery from my friends, this is one of my favorite Young albums. It will grow on you. Promise.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) mixed November leaves, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; trail with light snow, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove Park District and The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove, IL; bench overlooking Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis), Schulenberg prairie edge, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  sandhill cranes  (Antigone canadensis) over author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant leaf (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; November grasses and forbs, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) rosin, Schulenberg Prairie,  The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, United States Department of Agriculture/Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Wilmington, IL; prairie cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL;  bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.