“Every day I see or hear something that more or less kills me with delight…it is what I was born for—to look, to listen… .” — Mary Oliver
First-timers to the prairie in December may be underwhelmed. The grass colors are draining away; plants are nibbled and ragged. Shopworn.
But, as the opening lines of the Mary Oliver poem above suggest, for those who hike and look during these gray days, December has its rewards. Kaleidoscope skies delight us in the afternoons, straight out of a Van Gogh painting.
Slow-burning sunsets, trailing scarves of fire, deliver quiet satisfaction. They end some of the shortest days of the year.
As a prairie steward at two different sites, I find December is a good time to reflect on the coming season. At home, I scribble in my notebook. RCG? means, “What will I do about the reed canary grass we can’t get rid of that’s infesting a high-quality area of the prairie?” That caricature of a flower next to it is purple loosestrife, which consistently mounts a stealth operation into the west end of the stream from a subdivision across the road. A reminder that constant vigilance is the price of an invasive-free waterway.
All of these invasive plants will be put on an “alert” list and dealt with in 2018. But for now, they are just words on paper. Something to think about in the abstract.
And then, there is my prairie “wish list.” Oh, such possibilities! Maybe, adding a little cardinal flower in the wetter areas.
Along the streambank, where the native Illinois bundleflower has become an aggressive bully,…
…I can proactively place great blue lobelia. These “blues” may take root, and chase some of my problem plants away. Or, so I hope.
I digitally page through online native plant nursery catalog offerings, make notes, calculate costs. Wonder what the possibilities might be. I pore over my prairie plant inventory list, made this season. What plants have gone missing this year? Who is new that showed up to the party, uninvited? Which species is getting a little aggressive, a little too territory-hungry? A little less monarda—a little more pasqueflower?
In my faith tradition, December is a time of waiting. A time of anticipation. Preparation. On the prairie, as a steward, I find the month of December to be much the same.
A rest from herbicide management, writing workday summaries, or thinking about dragonfly populations in the creeks and ponds of the prairie wetlands.
I like this rhythm of the seasons. I need a pause, one in which I’m not pulling weeds; collecting seeds. Sure, there are tasks that can be done—I’m still trying to wrap up some spreadsheets, finish some year-end reports—but let’s be clear. Nothing is screaming “spray me now!” No seeds I need are being eaten by birds, or explosively shooting off into the grasses before they can be collected.
There is time to catch up on unread piles of articles; to thumb leisurely through a book or two on prairies that I’ve been meaning to read. Find journal essays online about dragonflies. Set workshop dates to train new monitors. Compare notes with other stewards. There is time—precious time—to untangle my thoughts.
With gray skies wrapped around our days like a smothering cloak, the impulse to be indoors, instead of out, is strong. No warm breezes beckon. I don’t wonder if I’m missing a new dragonfly species when I curl up on the couch with a mug of hot tea. I don’t worry that the sweet clover has, seemingly overnight, overrun a new portion of the tallgrass. I can take a break, guilt-free. December is a simpler month; a welcome interlude in the busyness of the life of the prairie.
I don’t know what the new year holds. I prepare as best I can. Scribble lists. Reflect. Dream a little. Prepare. Anticipate. Scribble some more.
When I’m out hiking the trails, I imagine the prairies as they will be, vibrant and blooming in the spring. I look at them now, clear-eyed. Yes, they are brittle, a little shaggy. Ragged under their sprinkle of new snow. Different. But no less beautiful. Then I retreat back home to make a few more lists.
And I savor the pause.
The opening verse is from Mary Oliver’s poem, “Mindful.” If you haven’t read the whole poem, and you love volunteering or caring for the tallgrass prairie in some way throughout the year, this poem is for you. Read it here. It’s beautiful. Oliver (1935-) won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984. Her newest poetry collection is Devotions.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): prairie dock leaf (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cloudy December skies over the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Gensburg-Markham Prairie Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, and Northeastern Illinois University, Markham, IL: vigilant bullfrogs (Lithobates catesbeianus) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; ice in Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Nomia Meadows Farm prairie and wetlands, Franklin Grove, IL; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, Il; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; path through Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), female, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ball gall at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL.