Tag Archives: February

Skunked at the End of Prairie Winter

“One sometimes finds what one isn’t looking for.” –Alexander Fleming

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Lately, I’ve been hunting skunk cabbage. I’ve seen it around the marshy areas of the lakes and ponds, and I have it on good authority it should be in the swampy areas of the prairie wetlands where I’m a steward supervisor.

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Unfortunately, I keep getting (forgive me) skunked. We’re updating our prairie plant inventory, and we know skunk cabbage was sighted here in 2005. But…where? And so, I keep walking the banks of Willoway Brook, brushing aside leaves, scouring the prairie wetlands. No luck.

I love this elusive plant. Although it can poke through the snow as early as December in the Chicago region, seeing it emerge always says “spring” to me.

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Spring! It’s so close you can almost taste it. You can smell it in the air; feel it in the mud squishing under your hiking boots. March 20 is the vernal equinox—our astronomical spring.  But for those of us ready to rush the season a little, Thursday, March 1, stands in as the official day of meteorological spring.

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Astro-what? Meteorological? Huh?

There’s a great article from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) about the difference  here. A quick overview: meteorological spring—the March 1 kickoff—is  a way for scientists to have consistent statistics  from year to year, using the calendar months as a guide.

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I like using this earlier start date. Just thinking it is officially “spring” improves my attitude. Spring! It’s here Thursday! Well, sort of. Signs of it are everywhere on this almost 50 degree day as I hike the tallgrass. The snowdrops are blooming nearby.

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Out on the prairie, Willoway Brook runs free of ice and snow.

So what’s all the fuss about the other “spring” date? That sort of depressing, middle of March kick-off I mentioned? Why use it? Astronomical spring—based on the position of the Earth to the sun (that “vernal equinox”) means the days we count as the spring season will vary from year to year. Very simply put, an equinox means day and night are of the same duration, or equal.  Astronomical seasons, based on the Earth and Sun’s positions, vary from 89-93 days long each year, NOAA tells us. So if you’re a scientist, it wreaks havoc on your comparison statistics to use the changeable astronomical seasons. Using the months of March, April, and May as “spring” for comparison from year to year makes more sense.

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Of course there’s Leap Year, but hey! Let’s quit while we’re ahead and leave that explanation for another day.

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The Latin “ver” means spring. But many scientists prefer the term “March equinox” as it is more globally universal.

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Keep in mind that for my friends in New Zealand and in the Southern Hemisphere, it makes no sense to say they have a vernal equinox, nor is March the beginning of their spring, as the seasons are the reverse of what we in the Northern Hemisphere experience.

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Whew! Is your head spinning yet?

Mine is, a little.

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Meanwhile, the calendar may say spring this week, but I’m still hunting skunk cabbage in the prairie wetlands. Maybe it has disappeared since our last prairie plant inventory. More likely, I’m just not looking attentively enough.

The bonus is, of course, that as I look for the missing skunk cabbage, I see a lot of other  signs of spring on the way.

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Which makes getting “skunked” so worth it.

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Alexander Fleming (1881-1955), whose quote opens this post, was a brilliant Scottish scientist. After seeing many soldiers die from sepsis during World War 1, he researched the reason antiseptics (which were used to treat infection at the time) were ineffective. His untidy, cluttered lab led to penicillin’s accidental discovery. Fleming’s work is considered the beginning of modern antibiotics.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; frost at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve prairie plantings, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; trail through the Schulenberg Prairie at the end of February, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; water running in Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL;  acorn on ice, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; frost at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve prairie plantings, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Thanks to NOAA for the information on meteorological spring and astronomical spring.

Weathering the February Prairie

“You know what they say about Chicago. If you don’t like the weather, wait fifteen minutes.”– Ralph Kiner

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Pick a card. Any card. The weather on the February prairie is as random as a shuffle of the deck. Who knows what each day will bring?

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This past week in the Midwest illustrates it. First, a glittering frost.

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Then snow, falling an inch an hour.

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Fog.

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Followed by floods of rain.

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Yo-yo weather. Keeping things interesting.

Brittle and weather-beaten; stripped of their leaves, seeds, and flowers,  prairie plants take on an unfamiliar look.

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Their identities keep you guessing; turning back for a second glance. Touching the plant, sniffing it for a sensory clue. Hmmmmm. 

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As the weather zigzags between snow and rain, freeze and thaw…

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…the last seedheads stand out on the prairie.

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Some of the seeds are whittled away by wind, weather, and critters.

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Others have stems which are completely bare.

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Changes in weather give the prairie plants one more chance to shine.

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Highlighted by sun, snow, and ice.

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As rain and flooding melt all the white stuff, and mud sucks our hiking boots at every step, you know the prairie is ready for change. You can hear the word whispered in the wind.

Fire. 

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In only days or weeks, we’ll light a match. What we see now will soon be archived as our memory of what once was. The scorched prairie will be ready for us—site managers and volunteers and stewards— to paint our hopes and dreams upon it. In our imagination, it will be a masterpiece of restoration. This will be the year.

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We study the forecasts, anticipating just the right weather conditions—humidity, temperature, wind direction— to set the prairie ablaze. Each day we shuffle the deck. Cut the cards. Turn one over. Rain. Snow. Fog. Ice.

We’re waiting for just the right card. The one that says Go!

I heard a cardinal sing his spring song this week, despite the heavy snows and other crazy weather changes.

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It won’t be long.

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The opening quote is by Ralph Kiner (1922-2014), a major league baseball player and outfielder with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs, and Cleveland Indians. Kiner was an announcer for the New York Mets until his passing. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1975, and known as one of baseballs “most charming gentlemen.”

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DRN, Downer’s Grove, IL; frost at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; frost at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; snowy day, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, Downer’s Grove, IL;  foggy morning near Danada Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Wheaton, IL; late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium lacinatum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, Downer’s Grove, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrafolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, Downer’s Grove, IL;  stream through Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white vervain (Verbena urticifolia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, Downer’s Grove, IL; rattlesnake master  (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, Downer’s Grove, IL; prescribed burn sign, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; monarch (Danaus plexippus) on butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis ), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL. 

Gold Medal Prairie Snowfall

“The problem with winter sports is that —follow me closely here—they generally take place in winter.”–Dave Barry

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It’s been a few days since the snow-pocalypse here in the Chicago suburbs. Prairie streams and lakes exhale steamy clouds of change. The thermometer free-falls toward zero, then cycles back toward thaw. Everything is covered in white stuff.

Deep snow makes hiking the tallgrass trails more difficult. But worth the extra effort it takes.

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Snow plows fling impassible tall white palisades along the highways and streets. Those same snow plows caused me to mutter frustrated words as they passed my driveway this weekend, slushing it with a dirty wintry mix as I shoveled. I felt like Sisyphus. Shovel out. Snow falls. Shovel out. Snow plow goes by. Shovel out. More snow falls. Repeat.

If there was an Olympic gold medal for snow shoveling, I’d be a contender.

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And yet, how can I complain? At last! We have our necessary winter snow. We’ve been below our average snowfall all season. Made up for it in one glorious February weekend.

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Sure, it stings a little.

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But love it, hate it, we need it. Snow helps moderate the Earth’s temperature. It melts; adds much-needed water to reservoirs and lakes. If you brushed your teeth this morning, ate something grown by a farmer, drank a glass of water or made a pot of coffee, then snow matters to you.

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A substantial snowfall makes everything—including the prairie—a little brighter in February.

Here’s a fun word: albedo. It’s a measure of how much sunlight is reflected by snow back into the atmosphere.  According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center  (yes, there is such a center!),  snow reflects up to 90 percent of sunlight. Simply put, this reflected solar energy helps cool our planet.

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Snow insulates.  It conserves moisture in the prairie soil, then keeps that moisture from evaporating.

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Aesthetically, snow reminds us of the beauty of prairie plants. Provides a background for us to admire their architecture. Like this Joe Pye weed.

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Snow reminds us that the prairie is home to many seemingly invisible creatures who share the world with us. Their stamped luge chutes and prints deboss trails through the tallgrass and savanna.

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Here in the Chicago suburbs, weather forecasters say the piles of snow will melt by the end of the week. Difficult to believe today, looking at our world of icy white.

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Enjoy this event while it lasts. Even if the price of admission is some heavy shoveling.

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Miami journalist and humorist Dave Barry (1947-) received the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1988 for his “consistently effective use of humor as a device for presenting fresh insights into serious concerns.” Barry often chronicles the strangeness of the state of Florida and aging in his 30-plus books; many of which are good cures for winter doldrums. Take a look here.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Willoway Brook tributary, the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; East Side prairie planting along the Northern Europe Collection, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: probably late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bald-faced hornet (Dolichovespula maculata) nest, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; February on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; February on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) tracks through the snow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; visitor (Homo sapiens) hiking the Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. 

In Praise of Snow

What is it about snow? We moan when we see the forecast. Act as if we are personally offended that the white stuff is coming down. Shrug as we salt our driveways and sidewalks for the umpteenth time.

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We seem surprised. Although—isn’t February in Illinois usually about snow?

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The prairie reminds us that snow can be beautiful.

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Snow paints still life after still life, using a limited palette.

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Without the full range of colors available, the prairie in February relies heavily on getting the structures right.

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Tallgrass blanketed with falling flurries offers  both stillness and motion.

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February’s snowy prairie is not so much about growing.  

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True, the deep root systems that plunge beneath the soil line spell life for the season ahead.

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Yet, the prairie’s icy surface tells the story of life on pause; at rest.

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Observing this, we are reminded to take stock of where we have been—and what has been— no matter how painful or difficult it is to look.

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To contemplate who and where we are in the here and now.

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To dream about what the landscape of our future might be.

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It’s this yearly rhythm of growth and rest …

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… that gives us space to reflect. To remember. To imagine.

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It’s  a lot to think about …  the next time we’re shoveling snow.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): savanna, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; squirrel in the snow, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; old field with prairie planting, East Side, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), East Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum; asters (Aster spp.), East Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum;  Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), East Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum; goldenrod (Solidago spp.), East Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum; Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum;  Nachusa Grasslands in winter, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; brambles and snow, East Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum; Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), East Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum; the path, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) on the snow, Meadow Lake, The Morton Arboretum; East Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum;  prairie plants and savanna at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL.

 

A 2015 Prairie Retrospective

May you never forget what is worth remembering; May you never remember what is best forgotten. — old Irish blessing

Every prairie year has its own personality. Every season in the tallgrass is full of surprises.

Thank you for hiking the prairie with me on Tuesdays in 2015. I hope you’ll enjoy this retrospective of the Illinois prairie, month by month.  Who knows what wonderful things are in store for us in 2016?

January

Winter is a good time for naps, as these shaggy bison know. Bringing buffalo to Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL,  was a culmination of a dream for many prairie restorationists. In 2015, we watched the herd grow and a new bison unit open.

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February

Windy winter skies bring their own motion to the prairie, rattling the brittle grasses and seedheads.

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March

Fire is to prairie as water is to life. Because we suppress wildfires, prairie restorationists must used prescribed burns to ensure the prairie regularly goes up in flames. Only a few weeks after all is soot and ashes, the prairie turns emerald with new growth. It’s a resurrection of sorts. A chance for new beginnings that inspires even the most jaded and cynical observer.

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April

A great egret keeps watch over a wet prairie, scanning for small frogs and fish.

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May

As spring breezes ripple prairie ponds and streams, the sounds of insects, frogs, and birds add their notes to the tallgrass soundtrack. Dragonflies emerge.

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June

Pale purple coneflowers  open, heralding the beginning of summer on the prairie. Once revered for their medicinal value, today we appreciate them for their verve and color.

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Like badminton birdies, aren’t they?

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Moist conditions helped queen of the prairie have a banner year in 2015.

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July

Dragonflies are all around us in the warmer months. In July, they clamor for our attention with their numbers and bejeweled colors.  Here, a blue dasher looks out at the prairie with its complex eyes. Below, an American rubyspot hangs over a stream rushing through the tallgrass.

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August

Bee balm rampaged across the prairie in 2015; monarchs sipping beebalm nectar approved. There was good news for monarch butterflies this year — from the tollroads in Illinois which will fund milkweed plantings; to increased numbers of monarchs this season.

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September

Without volunteers, the prairie restoration efforts in the Midwest would be a moot point. Here, a volunteer from an Illinois church group collects seeds on one prairie that will be used to plant a different site.

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October

Asters are the floral bon voyage to the prairie blooming season. It’s bittersweet to see their purples, whites, and golds across the prairie. We know winter is just around the corner.

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The goldenrods join the chorus of goodbyes each autumn.

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November

Milkweed, including this common milkweed, got a lot of attention in 2015 for its value to monarchs. Did you plant some? If not, there’s always next year.

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December

Who says December has to be colorless? In some years, the prairie palette seems to catch fire as winter begins its slow drain of colors from the tallgrass. The oranges, yellows, and reds are a reminder of the prescribed fires that will burn in the spring; waking the prairie up to a new season of life.

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I began my first blog entry this year with the image above; it seems fitting to close out this prairie season with it.

Looking forward to hiking the tallgrass on Tuesdays with you in 2016.

Happy New Year!

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bison in the snow, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; winter sky, NG; prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; after the fire, SP; great egret, NG; pond life, NG; Echinacea pallida, SP; Echinacea pallida, SP; queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra); blue dasher dragonfly, SP; American rubyspot, NG; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) and monarch butterfly; volunteer, SP; smooth blue asters (Symphyotrichum laeve), SP; New England asters (Symphyotrichumnovae-angliae) and goldenrod (Solidago spp. — there were several species represented in this particular patch where I photographed, and the IDs are uncertain) SP; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) DuPage County Forest Preserve; late December grasses, NG.

Old Irish Blessing: original source unknown