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Bringing Prairie Home

“Your garden will reveal yourself.” — Henry Mitchell

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I’m humming Neil Young’s rowdy “Are You Ready for the Country” under my breath, and occasionally breaking out in song with the few lyrics I remember. Happy music, for a happy morning.  Why? I’m ready to plant some pasque flower seedlings into their new home on the prairie. We collected the seeds last spring, and after a long winter indoors, they’re ready.

As a steward, I look at the tiny wildflowers, so vulnerable in their seed tray, and imagine them  repopulating the prairie.

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I try to imagine them in bloom after a few seasons…

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…and then going to seed, completing the cycle.

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Hope for the future.

The seedlings we’re planting into the larger prairie inspire me each spring to try and improve the little prairie patch in my backyard. The first native plant sales have been in full swing this month. My checkbook has taken a hit!  On the porch are the results: plastic pots of small prairie plants.

The tiny white wild indigo…

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…soon to be as large as a bushel basket. Its white spikes will brighten my backyard, just as it inspires delight on the prairies where I’m a steward.

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A wisp of Indian grass looks like nothing much now….

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…but I have a vision of what it might be, waving over my head in a slant of autumn light.

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I compare my flat of plants against my order list. White prairie clover. Check. Purple prairie clover. Check.

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Then, I close my eyes and think about the future.

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Queen of the prairie, with its signature green leaves…

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…holding the promise of cotton candy color in my backyard prairie patch.

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Rattlesnake master, diminutive in its plastic pot…

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…will someday throw its summer globes of greenish white into my backyard prairie.

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In the biggest pot is my prize prairie shrub; New Jersey tea. Sure, it doesn’t look like much now, sitting in a sheltered spot on my front porch…

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…but I can already see its foamy flowers frothing like a cappuccino, planted next to the patio where I’ll sip my first cup of coffee each morning and admire it.

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The prairies I steward are works in progress. So is my backyard.  Right now, there is standing water. Mud. A whole lot of emerald green growth; some of it not the welcome kind.

But mixed among the weeds in my backyard—and on the prairies where I hike and volunteer—are a kaleidoscope of prairie plant leaf shapes and blooms. The shell-like leaves of alum root. Fuzzy prairie dock leaf paddles. Heart-leaved golden Alexanders.

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In my imagination, I see these prairies as they could be: five, ten, fifteen years from now. So much of the joy is in the planning and the dreaming.  Sure, rabbits and deer will munch on some seedlings. Weather may not cooperate. Voles may demolish this wildflower, or an errant step in the wrong place may flatten one of the grass seedlings. With a bit of luck, and some coddling, I know many of them will make it.

Seeing these vulnerable plants succeed against the odds always offers hope for my own year ahead, with all of its unknown challenges and potential delights. Watching these plants complete the seasonal cycle never fails to comfort me in some small way. The prairie, vulnerable as it is, always moves forward. It’s always growing. Always changing. Always beautiful in new and different ways.

So much is represented in these flats. So many possibilities in small plastic pots.

Little prairie plants. Big dreams.

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Now that’s something to sing about.

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The opening quote is from the charmingly cynical writing of the late garden columnist Henry Mitchell (1924-1993). You can read more about Mitchell here. If you haven’t read Mitchell before, I’d begin with The Essential Earthman, a collection of his columns for the Washington Post.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens) seedlings, DuPage County, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens) in bloom, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens) in seed, DuPage County, IL;  white wild indigo (Baptisia alba), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba) and other wildflowers, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), author’s porch, Glen Ellyn, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Schulenberg Prairie, the Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra) seedling, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) seedling, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) ready for planting, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; heart-leaved golden Alexanders (Zizia apta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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Cindy’s Upcoming Classes and Speaking Events:

Thursday, May 16 & Thursday, May 23: A Cultural History of the Tallgrass Prairie, two evenings on the Schulenberg Prairie and in the classroom. The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: register by clicking here.

Tuesday, May 21–7-8 p.m.Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Flyers, Bloomingdale Garden Club, St. Paul Evangelical Church, 118 First Street, Bloomingdale, IL. Free and Open to the Public

Saturday, June 1: The Tallgrass Prairie: A Conversation, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. Bison tour with book purchase; lecture is free! You must preregister here by May 25 as seating is limited.

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

Showers of Prairie Flowers

 

Rain is grace; rain is the sky condescending to the earth; without rain, there would be no life.– John Updike

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So much rain. Will it ever end?

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Rain or shine, it’s migration week on the prairie. New birds arriving daily.

Egrets stalk the prairie streams, or perch high on dead snags.

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Red-tailed hawks keep their own vigils, alert for unwary prey.

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Resident bluebirds intensify their coloration to deepest sapphire and rust,  busy about the business of home building and finding mates. No holding still. See ya later.

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In the savanna, the early spring ephemerals are beginning to wane, but there are plenty of exciting flowers if you know where to look. Wild ginger holds its maroon flowers close under its leaves, a secret to all but those in the know. And now that’s you.

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The Virginia bluebells cover the woods and savannas in sheets of pinky-purple-periwinkle. This plant has a tiny pollinator.

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Not to be outdone, the wild blue phlox pinwheels bloom under rain-washed skies. Wow. That fragrance! Sweet, without cloying.

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On the prairie, more blues: Jacob’s ladder, just coming into full flower. Like chips from a pale sky.

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Two partially-parasitic prairie wildflowers, bastard toadflax…

bastardtoadflaxWM5619.jpg …and wood betony (pictured below) are just beginning to flower. The “parasitic” part sounds forbidding in name, but is actually a plus. As a prairie steward, I value these two plants as they create openings for wildflowers and damp down the grasses a bit when the grasses threaten to monopolize the prairie. Read more here for additional info.

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On a less scientific note, some Native Americans carried the root of wood betony as a love charm, or used it in various ways to bring feuding couples together. No word on how well it worked for those purposes. But I love the idea that a prairie plant could be so powerful, don’t you?

The new kid blooming on the block this week is hoary puccoon. So unexpected…that orange! A punch of color in the middle of all this rain-inspired green.

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And look—common valerian, Valeriana edulis ciliata. A very high quality plant on the spring prairie–Wilhelm’s Flora gives it a “10” out of a possible “10.” Love seeing it throw its “stinky socks” scent into the prairie air. The leaves are edged with thick white hairs, giving them a distinctive silver edge. Valerian’s thick stalks and bunchy flowers remind me a bit of sprigs of cauliflower.

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These blooms, these birds, those skies —- alternating between thunder and sunshine, rain and rainbows, cumulus and cirrus—announce that the fast-paced spring life of the prairie is underway. It’s nonstop now. From the tiniest crayfish in its burrow, living their lives mostly unnoticed…

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…to the powerful bison, a charismatic megafauna that rules the prairie in all seasons…

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…to the familiar field sparrows, now in steep conservation decline—trilling from prairie shrubs, trees, and utility wires….

 

…the days begin to fill with birdsong, wildflowers, grasses, sedges, new life.

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Get ready, the prairie seems to whisper. Fasten your seatbelt. I’ve got so many surprises in store for you.

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So much to see now.

So much to anticipate.

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The opening quote is by John Updike (1932-2009),  an American writer. Most readers think of him as a novelist (Rabbit, Run; The Witches of Eastwick), but I prefer his poetry. If you haven’t read Seagulls or November, click through and see what you think.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): rain over Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; great egret (Ardea alba), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, the Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild ginger (Asarum canadense reflexum) Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata), Schulenberg Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans);  bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata); wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens); common valerian (Valeriana edulis ciliata), DuPage County, IL; devil crayfish (Cambarus diogenes), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; field sparrow (Spizella pusilla)— a species in steep decline–Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; discovering the spring prairie, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Prairie Violet Variables

“Oh, violets, you did signify, and what shall take your place?” — Mary Oliver

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It’s an exciting time in the Chicago region to be outdoors. From the hefty bald eagles, weighing up to 14 pounds, nesting and raising their young….

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…to the tiniest blue-gray gnatcatchers, weighing in at a quarter of an ounce, hunting for nesting spots, the life of the skies is packed with surprises no matter where you look.

This past week, however, I’m mostly looking down at the prairie’s newly sprouting surface, trying to find violets. They were a favorite of my maternal grandmother, who left me her fine china, covered with the deep purple flowers. I walk the prairies daily through rain, snow, and heat—-a bizarre spring, even by Illinois standards—to see if I might find some. And I think of her as I walk.

On last Tuesday, I hiked with some of my prairie volunteers up to the savanna, where we looked closely at the savanna floor to find “harbinger of spring” in full bloom. Such a infinitesimal little wildflower! We eyeballed one up close for our educational and plant inventory needs, and left the rest of the 20 foot square large population remaining in peace.

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I enjoyed the stroll on the savanna and prairie in the sunshine while it lasted. On Saturday, my marsh marigolds, ringing the tiny backyard prairie pond with gold, were shell-shocked by a sudden winter storm that dropped five inches of white stuff on us in 12 hours. The gold was beautiful in a whole new way for being under heavy snowfall. Just a different way of seeing them.

No word on how the chorus frogs felt about it.

 

By Sunday afternoon, the snowmelt had painted my backyard and the local prairies a bold, crisp green. It’s astonishing to see snow disappear so fast on the burned areas, and linger in the mowed or unburned sections. I went to shoot a photo of the contrast between burned and unburned prairie a few hours later. The snow was completely gone. So much changes from moment to moment, hour to hour, day to day, in April on the prairie. You have to be there, it seems, 24/7, to capture everything the tallgrass has to tell you.

The snow had fled by Monday, but bastard toadflax, which I adore,  was coming into full bloom.

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It was the first prairie wildflower name I ever learned.  Twenty years ago or so, an older woman, Marge, was weeding sweet clover next to me as we volunteered on the prairie. “What’s this?” I asked her. “Oh that—bastard toadflax!” she told me. I was enchanted. Marge has since passed away, but I’ll never forget her taking time to help “the new kid” learn the name of a common prairie wildflower. I think of her whenever I see it.

Other bloomers I find on my hike are less common. As I walk the western suburban prairies in my area, a friend points out the prairie buttercup, a threatened species sparking its waxy gold in the sunshine. It’s a first for me!

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This week, a more common flower—the wild strawberry—-is up, salting the emerald grasses with white. The strawberry blooms poke through the crevices of the paver path, rubbing shoulders with…the violets. Can you ID this violet? (Hint: It’s not the common violet!) If you aren’t sure, read on….

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Of course there are the common violets. The blue violet, Viola sororia, is our state flower. Often, when I teach prairie wildflowers, a student will see violets and say—Hey, I’m trying to weed those out of my yard! Common violets can be a nuisance to some. But to me, they are beautiful, if only for the association with my grandmother. The common violets have lovely heart-shaped leaves and add a welcome splotch of purple to the prairie when not much else is in bloom. The leaves and flowers are edible. High in Vitamin C!

violetseedlingsMAEW41218WM.jpgI love seeing the variations in color—from white to yellow to blue to purple— but  distinguishing between the violets is difficult for this naturalist. Lumpers and splitters, those taxonomists who decide what we call each species, further muddle the issue for me. Supposedly, there are eight kinds of blue violets in our state, depending on who you read. And it doesn’t help that the violets love a good party, and many hybridize without any compunctions about taxonomy.

The two I can ID with certainty are special. It’s the prairie violets (Viola pedatifida) that I see in profusion  on the Schulenberg Prairie where I’m a steward, and on the Belmont Prairie remnant not far away. I tip each flower face up and look for the hairy white interior that says: prairie violet. This is also the one on the paver path shown above, with the wild strawberries. Bet you guessed it right.

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Occasionally, I see the brilliant golden orange anthers of birdfoot violet (Viola pedata), which I encounter at Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL, about 90 miles west. I look at the leaves to help make the ID. Deeply lobed; birdfoot violet. Less lobed, prairie violet. The birdfoot violet leaves do look like little bird’s feet, don’t they? This bloom has a tiny pollinator.

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We’ve lost the birdfoot violets over the past few years on the Schulenberg Prairie. I’ve spent part of my April trying to find a local seed source within 30 miles to jump start a new population. (Any help appreciated! Leave me a comment.) Every missing species is a piece of the prairie puzzle. Lose one species, and the picture seems incomplete.

And who would want to lose one of the violets? My grandmother has been gone now for more than a decade.  I think of her when I show my six grandchildren a violet, or help them ID a bird, or we catch a dragonfly together. It’s her work I’m passing on—her love for the outdoors, which she handed on to my mother, who ensured it was instilled in me. When I drink from one of grandma’s violet patterned teacups, I think of the strong women in my family and their legacy of learning to pay attention to the natural world. It’s their gift to me.

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Now, it’s my turn to share.

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The opening lines are from the lovely poem, Violets, by Mary Oliver (1935-2019) in her poetry collection, Evidence (Beacon Press, 2009).  She passed away in January. If you haven’t read Mary Oliver, consider beginning with New and Selected Poems Volume 1. 

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All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) nesting, Chicago region; a prairie steward examines harbinger of spring (Erigenia bulbosa), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  video clip of marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) in the snow, author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie buttercup (Ranunculus rhomboideus) , DuPage County, IL; wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana) and prairie violets (Viola pedatifida) in the paver path, Belmont Prairie Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; common violet (Viola sororia), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  prairie violet (Viola pedatifida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, birdfoot violet (Viola pedata), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL, nest (possibly a robin’s? ID help welcome!), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Thank you to Paul Marcum of Illinois Botany for help on the prairie buttercup ID.

Cindy’s Classes and Speaking (see more at http://www.cindycrosby.com)

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online continues (through the Morton Arboretum) this week. Registration for the June 26 class is here.

Saturday, May 4– Spring Woodland and Early Prairie Wildflower Walk, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (Sold Out)

Thursday, May 9–Dragonflies and Damselflies: Frequent Flyers of the Garden, Hilltop Garden Club, 10-11 a.m., Oswego Public Library, 32 West Jefferson Street, Oswego, IL. Free and Open to the Public.

A Tallgrass Season on the Brink

“Winter is on the road to spring.” — William A. Quayle

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March is all about transition.  As I write, it’s -1°F. Prairie ponds are frozen; patches of snow linger. In only a few days, the temperatures will soar 50 degrees.

Spring. It’s coming. Two more weeks!

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Skunk cabbage jabs skyward now in our region—or so I’m told. And yet, no matter how I’ve slid and scrabbled through the icy muck in my usual skunk-cabbage-speared haunts this week, I can’t find a single leaf rocketing through the soil. I console myself by scrolling through old photos from previous years, and admiring it nostalgically, like this photo from a previous year.

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Skunk cabbage is the first native plant to bloom each year in the Chicago Region, according to Illinois Wildflowers. It’s the tipping point between winter and spring, although I’ve found it in “bloom” as early as December. But not so this year. We seem a bit like the proverbial Narnia of C.S. Lewis’ children’s book series—frozen in a perpetual winter.

Hiking the prairie in early March, it is tough to believe anything will ever have color again, isn’t it?

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At Nachusa Grasslands, the “sand boil”—a natural spring—is bubbling away, and the stream flowing from the source runs freely, despite the Arctic weather.

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Clouds of mosquitoes and biting flies colonize this spot in late May and June. If heavy rains fall in the early summer, it can become semi-impassible, choked with lush foliage by August. In early March, mosquitoes are only a bad dream. Splotches of ice hopscotch across the grass hummocks and make my hike a slow, uncertain stumble. I’m proud of myself. I only fall once.

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Despite the chill and gloom on the prairie, spring is signaling its imminent arrival. Sandhill crane traffic on the aerial northern expressways is heavy. I don’t always see their confetti-ed exuberance overhead, but their creaky cries are unmistakable.

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Blooms? Well, some plants are trying. In a sheltered south-facing spot against a wall, the non-native but always-welcome snowdrops are in bud and trying halfheartedly to bloom. Indoors, in our prairie greenhouse cooler, we unveiled the results of sowing pasque flower seed this past autumn. Asking me to name my favorite prairie plant is like asking me my favorite flavor of ice cream.  Too difficult to choose! The pasque flower is high on my list.

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Maybe it’s because of pasque flower’s early bloom time, early to mid April in my part of the Chicago Region. On one prairie planting where I’m a steward, all but two of the pasque flower plants have been lost over the past 50-plus years of restoration. Will we lose them all? Not on my watch, I’ve determined. After collecting a handful of seeds last spring and propagating them in the greenhouse…

Pasqueflowers51318SPMAwm.jpg …we have five seedlings to show for it.

Five. Count-em! Five. Not bad for a notoriously difficult seed to germinate. Now, the learning begins. Because they are such early bloomers, do we put these baby seedlings out this spring? With temperatures hovering around zero, this week is out of the question. But when? I don’t know.

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This is where I rely on the network of people who have wrestled with the same questions.  Even if a prairie problem is new to me, it’s probably been answered by someone else. It’s a good lesson in the need for community.

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Spring seems to be having a bit of trouble germinating this year, just like the pasque flower seeds.  On March 4, we broke a 129-year-old record for the coldest high temperature in the Chicago Region: 12°F degrees. I’m not sure it’s something to celebrate.

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It seems further confirmation of a long road ahead before warmer days and wildflowers.

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The cardinals sing me up each morning, their spring mating songs clear in the shattering cold. Sunday, March 10, we “spring forward” in Daylight Savings Time in Illinois, and gain a little extra light at the end of the day, or at least, the perception of it. March 20 is the vernal equinox,  the first day of astronomical spring.

Any sign of spring, natural or artificial, is welcome. I’m ready.

You too?

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William Alfred Quayle (1860-1925) was the president of Baker University, the first university in Kansas, and an Episcopal bishop. He was also a prolific writer of  spiritual texts about the natural world, such as God’s Calendar (1907) and In God’s Out-of-Doors (1902). The complete quote by Quayle from the snippet that begins this blog post is: “Winter is on the road to spring. Some think it a surly road. I do not. A primrose road to spring were not as engaging to my heart as a frozen icicled craggy way angered over by strong winds that never take the iron trumpets from their lips.” (“Headed Into Spring” from The Sanctuary, 1921).

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): pond at College of DuPage Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), Lake Marmo, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) leaf, College of DuPage Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; sand boil, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; sedge meadow, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), author’s prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL;  pasque flower (Anemone patens or sometimes, Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; pasque flower (Anemone patens or sometimes Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), College of DuPage Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; pond-side prairie grasses, College of DuPage Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; white oak (Quercus alba), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; road to Thelma Carpenter Unit, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

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Many thanks to the good folks at Illinois Botany FB page and @Dustindemmer on Twitter who offered advice and help on the pasque flower, from seed collection to planting out. Fingers crossed!

2018 Holiday Prairie Reading List

“A truly good book…teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint…What I began by reading, I must commence by acting.” —Henry David Thoreau

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Mornings dawn on the prairie, cold and wet. After the blizzard that dropped eight inches of snow on the tallgrass last week in the Chicago region…GEbckyardpr1118WM.jpg

…the weather suddenly vacillates. Tentative, indecisive. We go to sleep to the pyrotechnics of thunderstorms and tornado warnings; wake to snowmelt in flood.

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A downpour and high winds chase the heavy snow cover into memory. The grasses are soggy. Pummeled into submission.

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Light dustings of snow follow, turning the Midwest magical.

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The sun suddenly illuminates the prairie. Snow melts. Again. All this in the course of a week.

Best way to cope with all this weather indecision?

Time to curl up in your favorite chair with something hot to drink, an afghan, and a good book. What book, you may ask? Read on, and discover some prairie recommendations that will engage your mind and expand your heart.

2018 Tallgrass Prairie Holiday Reading List

As a former indie bookseller, one of my greatest joys was matching the right book with the right reader. Years later, I can’t resist the impulse to recommend a book. Here are a few from my bookshelves to consider for gift-giving or for personal indulgence.

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There’s no better introduction to the literature of the tallgrass prairie than The Tallgrass Prairie Reader. In this edited collection of essays from John T. Price, spanning the 19th through 21st Centuries and organized by those time periods, you’ll encounter writings from Charles Dickens who toured the prairies (and wasn’t impressed) to Mark Twain to more contemporary writers such as Benjamin Vogt and Steven Apfelbaum; Mary Swander, Lisa Knopp, and Thomas Dean.  Price’s volume includes Louise Erdrich’s essay, “Big Grass,” which is one of the finest lyrical essays written on tallgrass prairie. The Tallgrass Prairie Reader also serves as a springboard to investigating some of the longer works sampled here, such as John Madson’s “Where the Sky Began,” and William Least Heat Moon’s “PrairyErth. History buffs, as well as prairie aficionados, will enjoy this read.

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My go-to prairie writer is the late Paul Gruchow. His essays on the rural life and the prairie are a solid introduction to the tallgrass for anyone who enjoys excellent, thoughtful literature or just a darn good read. In Grass Roots: The Universe of Home, Gruchow reminds us of the emptiness of power and money and the power of paying attention.

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In another of his books, Journal of a Prairie Year, Gruchow takes us on walks through the tallgrass, month by month, mixing observation with personal reflection. If you enjoy reading observational writing of the seasonal variety, this little book will wear well. I re-read it every year.

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One of the most down-to-earth, enjoyable reads about prairie in the past decade is Steven Apfelbaum’s Nature’s Second Chance: Restoring the Ecology of Stone Prairie Farm. Set in Wisconsin, Apfelbaum tells the story of his efforts to restore 80 acres of old farmland to prairie, wetland, and savanna. Don’t miss Chapter 10, “Getting to Know Your Neighbors,” which chronicles a hilarious encounter between the author and a farmer, who wants to rent some of Apfelbaum’s “weedy mess” which he sees as fallow fields. Apfelbaum is principal ecologist and chairman of Applied Ecological Services, a design, consulting, and restoration firm in the Chicago region, so there’s good restoration information throughout, as well as lovely memoir. Warm, personal, and well-written, this is highly recommended. You can see my copy is pretty worn out!

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More inspiration: If you live in the Midwest, and enjoy biographies of prairie and natural resource restoration heroes, you’ll find Arthur Melville Pearson’s Force of Nature a powerful read. I had no idea who George Fell, the founder of the Nature Conservancy, was, nor did I know the critical role he played in saving natural areas, especially in Illinois. Critical reading for Midwestern restorationists, or for those who like to immerse themselves in a fascinating biography. Illuminating!

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Pearson, a volunteer at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, is currently writing a book about Midewin and his experiences there, which should be a welcome addition to prairie literature.  He’s also an excellent speaker and blogger. You can find out more about Pearson here.

And—speaking of Midewin—although The Way of Coyote by Gavin Van Horn is not a book about prairie per se, it includes a lovely essay, “Desire Lines,” about Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL, and Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and the author’s experiences there.  Van Horn is the Director of Cultures of Conservation at The Center for Humans & Nature, where he writes compelling about finding beauty in urban landscapes. Hot off the press.

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Looking for something different? A unique approach to tallgrass prairie are these booklets by comic artist and PhD student Liz Anna Kozik. A welcome entree in restoration literature, and a great avenue to see prairie in new ways.

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Although Kozik concentrates much of her work in Madison, WI, anyone interested in tallgrass prairie restoration will find a treasure trove of information in these slender volumes. Delightful illustrations! Check out more about Liz and her work here.

As a prairie steward, I’m constantly looking for books to help me with specific restoration issues on the prairie. My go-to book is this comprehensive guide from The Tallgrass Prairie Center Guide to Prairie Restoration in the Upper Midwest by Daryl Smith (et al).  If you are planting prairie at home, volunteering on a prairie, managing a restoration site, or just want to understand how prairie restoration is done, you can’t do better than this thorough, extensive treatment of tallgrass prairie. The Tallgrass Prairie Center also has some fabulous short downloadable technical guides that should be in every prairie steward’s toolbox. They span topics such as seed collecting to propagating native plants to evaluating stand establishment. Check them out here.Prairie Read 4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At 120 pages, its companion guide, the slim but equally lengthy-titled The Tallgrass Prairie Center Guide to Seed and Seedling Identification in the Upper Midwest has helped me navigate the mysterious world of prairie seedlings and seeds and their ID—invaluable in the early spring, when prairie plants are coming up, or in the late autumn, after seed collecting. I’m not gonna lie: when those early prairie grasses are first emerging, I still struggle with distinguishing big bluestem from switchgrass. This book is helping me work on strengthening my grass seedling ID. Fingers crossed.

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More than two decades old—but still packed with excellent restoration information—is another technical guide edited by Chicago region restoration guru Stephen Packard and Cornelia Mutel. The book takes you through the nuts and bolts of planning a prairie restoration,  monitoring wildlife, and conducting controlled burns, plus much more. This classic  belongs on every prairie steward’s bookshelf.

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If you want to dig deep into just one aspect of prairie, woodland, and savannas–such as the world of sedges—it’s difficult to do better than Dr. Andrew Hipp’s Field Guide to Wisconsin Sedges: An Introduction to the Genus Carex. Filled with Hipp’s approachable writing and Rachel Davis’ excellent drawings, it’s been invaluable to me as I’ve navigated the confusing world of sedges with my prairie volunteers this past summer. The sedges are difficult. This book makes learning sedge ID seem feasible.

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If you’re looking for an overview of the tallgrass prairie: its history, its ecology, and its management, the seminal book to read is John Madson’s “Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie.” It was the first book I read on the tallgrass prairie that grounded me in understanding what a precious landscape it is. From glaciers to fire to Madson’s beautiful reflections, this is an enduring read. Prairie Read 14

 

 

 

 

 

 

At more than 350 pages, Madson’s book is a deep dive into prairie, which delights some of us, but is a barrier from those who are time-crunched. With this in mind, I wrote The Tallgrass Prairie Reader: An Introduction specifically for those new to prairie, or those who wanted a book they might give a friend or family member who didn’t understand why they were so excited about the whole “prairie thing.”

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At about 140 pages, it’s a quick window into understanding what a prairie is, and why it matters. It’s also been a good starting point for new volunteers, or those who move to the Midwest and are unfamiliar with prairie and want to understand its importance, or achieve a basic grasp of prairie restoration vocabulary.

There are some good regional books which are of interest, no matter where you live, in broadening our view of the tallgrass. This autumn, Joel Sheesley, Artist in Residence for The Conservation Foundation in Illinois, has published a stunning collection of his plein air paintings and essays on the Fox River and the prairies, wetlands, and woodlands that surround it.

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This would be a superb gift for that hard to buy for person who lives in the Chicago Region. A visual treat, as well as a thoughtful read.

And a little further to the north, co-authors Ryan O’Conner, Michael Cost, and Joshua Cohen’s Prairies and Savannas in Michigan: Rediscovering our Natural Heritage, combines lovely photography and thoughtful essays on some of Michigan’s beautiful natural areas.

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Want a more exhaustive regional volume? Joel Greenberg’s 500-plus page A Natural History of the Chicago Region covers everything from prairies to wetlands; mussels to bison; glaciation to fire. It’s a must-read for anyone who lives in the Chicago region. Warning: Greeenberg’s book, with its extensive overview of so many natural history subjects, will send you on rabbit trails of additional reading as well as sparking myriad trips to prairies, beaches, and woodlands in the region.

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And of course, if you want to make a prairie restoration fan’s holiday memorable—or treat yourself—dig deep into your pocketbook and splurge on Dr. Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rericha’s Flora of the Chicago Region (about 1400 pages, color and b&w illustrations, $125). As a prairie steward, I find it’s an invaluable reference in understanding the plants of my region and their insect associations.

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It would be difficult to talk about prairies in the Midwest without mentioning bison. One of the most fascinating books on this topic is Dan O’Brien’s “Buffalo for the Broken Heart: Restoring Life to  a Black Hills Ranch. Vegetarian warning: O’Brien came to bison by way of cattle ranching, and his dream is to blend conservation and a viable ranching business. A poignant, thoughtful read! Find out more about O’Brien’s conservation efforts and bison ranching here.

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It’s difficult to stop! But-but-but–What about the prairie field guides? Books on prairie ethnobotany? And—Cindy—you didn’t  mention the large format prairie coffee table books?  Children’s books?

As the old saying goes, “So many books…. so little time.” I’ll leave the rest on my bookshelves for now for a future post, as well as the  books on my Christmas wish list, such as Benjamin Vogt’s A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion for an Uncertain Future.  This holiday, season, please support your local bookstores by putting a few of these prairie and natural history books on your bookshelf–or someone else’s bookshelf—for the new year. It’s a gift that you can open again and again!

Still looking for just the right prairie book and didn’t see it here? Have a prairie book to recommend? Please leave a note in the comment section at the end of this post so we can all enjoy more prairie book recommendations and learn from each other.

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May your holidays be happier for finding a new book or two to enjoy or to give. Happy reading!

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Henry David Thoreau (1817-62) was a leading transcendentalist, philosopher, poet, essayist, and abolitionist. He’s best known for his book, Walden, and his natural history writings.  One memorable quote from Walden: “Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.” He is also famous for his essay known as Civil Disobedience. You can read more about Thoreau here.

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All landscape photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): blizzard hits the prairie patch, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; snowmelt on the prairie pond, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; flattened prairie patch, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; rural Illinois farm with a light snow cover next to Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL;  sunset, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Tallgrass Thank You Notes

“…I hear a sound, sometimes a little more than a whisper, of something falling, arriving, fallen, a seed …there is no trace of regret in the sound or in the stillness after the falling, no sound of hesitation on the way, no question and no doubt.” M.S. Merwin

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I’ve been catching up on my thank-you notes this week, nudged by the upcoming holiday that reminds me to be grateful. Ironic, isn’t it? A week in the Midwest in which we dedicate ourselves to be thankful falls in one of the gloomiest seasons of the year.

What if Thanksgiving fell in July? Easy to get in a thankful mood.

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Or May, when shooting star blooms carpet the prairie after a long, cold winter; everything seems bathed in joy and delight. Do I feel thankful then? You bet!shootingstarSPMA51918wm

But November! Well, she makes no apologies for who she is.  November’s given me a lot to be grateful for. So, as I write my thank-you notes to people in my life this week, I figure I should write a few to November as well.

Here goes…

Thanks, November–your gray days are a foil for aspects of the prairie I’d otherwise overlook.  Would I notice the dangling seedpods of white wild indigo if they appeared this way in sunny July? Perhaps not. They seem to take on added charisma on gray, snow-spitting days.  “Prairie bling” of a certain kind.

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I appreciate how some of the less exciting plants get their moment in the spotlight this month, November. Late figwort isn’t a particularly glamorous plant, but this month, it gets a makeover. Without the pops of bright July wildflower color or distractions of butterflies and bees, the eye is drawn to figwort’s kitschy structure. Looks a bit like some management diagrams I’ve seen,  or maybe an organizational flow chart.

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Other flora and fauna of the prairie are worth a second look in November. Carrion flower, which twines its way through the prairie grasses without a lot of fanfare during the warm weather, is a show-stopper this month. (Nope, it’s not edible—unless you’re a bird or a mammal).

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November even gives the humble bison track some seasonal flair. Glitzy!

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Thanks for the unexpected, November. The rhythm of sandhill crane migration through prairie skies is an expected pleasure this month. But November bird life holds some surprises.

John Heneghen's Varied ThrushWM2 111918 Like this little guy, above. Our friends, John and Trisha, had a varied thrush show up this week in their backyard, not far from their prairie patch. The varied thrush is an erratic migrant from the West Coast not normally seen in the Midwest. Its arrival here in the Chicago region is a November serendipity. People drove from around the Midwest to see and add this colorful thrush to their life lists. Who knows what other avian surprises might appear this month?

Hey, November, thanks for teaching me about adapting and surviving.

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The hairs of the compass plant above speak of hard times. Each hair catches moisture and helps retain water, which keeps the compass plant alive through brutal Midwestern droughts. November peels away all the color and glam of a compass plant, and reminds me of how tough some of our prairie plants are. It’s a memo to myself, as well; a reminder that I have cultivated ways to navigate the difficult times of my life.  Survival skills. Adaptations.

November reminds me, “You’ve got this.” 

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Thanks, November for the transition. Change is good, right? Well, maybe. But change is usually difficult. As much as I enjoy the change of seasons, I also have trouble letting go of whatever season I’m in. As I get older, it seems time moves more quickly, with less time to adjust. November, with its segue from autumn into meteorological winter, helps make the transition to the end of the year a little easier.

willowaybrookSPMA118The photo above of Willoway Brook on the Schulenberg Prairie is a study in transitions. Snow has settled around the stream, which is just a breath away from freezing but still runs free and clear. High quality prairie on the left is juxtaposed with invasive reed canary grass along the shoreline, which prairie volunteers battled to a hard-fought draw this season. The partly-dead reed canary grass hangs over the brook, admiring its reflection, perhaps, and—in my mind—thumbing its proverbial nose at us. We’ve decided to let a certain amount of reed canary grass colonize the streambanks as we focus on other restoration activities on the prairie, a decision made simply from a time-management standpoint. The above photo tells many stories about persistence and patience; resistance and acceptance.

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Which reminds me…

Thanks, November, for the people who care for prairie. People like the site managers and volunteers and stewards. People like the prairie donors and environmental activists who make a difference. Those who take a child out to see the prairie. The person who shares a photo of the tallgrass with a friend. People like you—who care about the natural world.

The curtain is coming down on another year in the tallgrass. As it does…

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…I want to say thank you for reading. Thank you for being a part of the work that keeps the tallgrass prairie alive and thriving. Thank you for sharing your love of prairie with others. And, thank you for your part in keeping the tallgrass prairie visible, both in our communities and in people’s hearts and minds.

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What about you? Is there a thank-you note you’d like to write to November? Leave it in the comments section below as a reminder of what we have to be thankful for this month.

Thank you.

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The opening quote is from the poem, Garden Notes, from William Stanley “W.S.” Merwin’s collection, The Moon Before Morning (Copper Canyon Press). Twice a Pulitzer Prize winner, Merwin (1927-) was our 2010-11 United States Poet Laureate, and is known for writing his grief over our destruction of the natural world. Discover more about him at the Poetry Foundation. Click here to listen to him read his powerful and moving poem, Rain Light.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) except for varied thrush as noted: monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), Nomia Meadow Farms prairie, Franklin Grove, IL; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie in May, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) with snowcap, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica) in November, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, carrion flower (probably Smilax lasioneura) in November, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  icy bison (Bison bison) track, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; varied thrush (Ixoreus naevius), photo courtesy John Heneghan, Kane County, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) seedhead, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale Indian plantain seeds (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; snowmelt on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) in November, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; bench on the Schulenberg Prairie in November, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

With grateful thanks to John Heneghen, who shared his varied thrush photo and story with me for this post, and reminded me of another reason to be thankful for the unexpected serendipities of November.

Finding Hope in the November Prairie

“Do not go gentle into that good night…rage, rage against the dying of the light.”—Dylan Thomas

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November, shmo-vember.

Sure, a few hard-core “I love all months of the year” folks out there are going to give a high-five to November. But I’m going to come clean here.

I think November is the toughest month of the year.

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The elections are certainly a part of that.  I despise the mud-slinging, the he-said/she-said, the polarization of the world I find myself in today and the many places where hatred and suspicion are cultivated in public forums. I cast my vote early, feeling a bit like I do when I planted pasque flower seeds on the prairie this season. The odds seem long, but hope was there. The promise of something beautiful. Today, in November, there’s no sign of the pasque flowers.  But I haven’t given up hope. I’m trying to live in “prairie time.” Taking the long view.

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If you live in the Chicago region, our first few days of November have not been promising. Temperatures are cold enough to prompt extra blankets, but not cold enough for a Christmas card-worthy snowstorm.  Rain, desperately needed, came just in time to splash all the (finally) colorful autumn leaves off the trees. High winds decimated most of the rest of the foliage, which lies strewn across prairie trails like discarded party invitations.

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How do you feel about November? Does November give you the blues? If you’re tempted to hang up your hiking boots and sit this month out, here are five reasons to go outside and see the prairie this month. If you feel discouraged by the state of the world—or just discouraged by the month of November and all it brings—this hike’s for you.

1. The Good News About Bison

If you live in the Midwest, chances are you’re within driving distance of seeing bison on a prairie. In the Chicago region, I’m fortunate enough to have bison on three preserves within a two-hour driving distance. There’s something, well, reassuring about their sturdy presence, impervious to cold and rain amid the wind rippling the tallgrass in November. Bison remind me of  strength. Of continuity. Of hope. Here is a species that was almost extinct, and through the efforts of people who care, is now thriving again. We need this kind of inspiration, as the United Nations issued grim news about our natural world that made headlines this week. So hop in the car and drive to your nearest bison preserve. Bring a friend.  Feel your spirits lift?

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2. Encore Performances

Oddly enough, some native plants (and non-natives too!) put on a repeat bloom performance in November. To discover them is a bit of a bizarre scavenger hunt, worth traveling a trail or two to see what you can find. My backyard pond has pops of yellow right now; marsh marigolds which normally bloom in April are hosting a second-run performance. Other late bloomers in my prairie patch, like the obedient plant below, gave a last push of color against its deteriorating foliage this week. You can almost hear them whispering, “Do not go gentle into that good night… .”

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3. Cruising Without Guilt

I always feel a pang of remorse about driving around a natural area. After all, shouldn’t I be on foot, exploring trails, wading through wetlands looking for dragonflies, or sitting on top of a rocky knob, enjoying the breeze? Of course I want to hike this month. But in November, when pounding rain, wind gusts of 30 mph, and temps in the 40s are all in play, I can feel almost virtuous driving through a grassland, enjoying the views, without the shame that might normally accompany my gas-guzzling self. I’m outdoors! Sort of. Braving the elements.

Hey–turn the heater up, will you?

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4. Prairie Plants Take On New Personalities

In November, you can exercise your imagination to describe the familiar prairie plants of summer in new ways. Prairie dock, below, is my November favorite for its transition from flexible sandpaper-y green to a crackled surface. A little like those old decoupaged craft projects we did in the sixties; right down to the tiny beads of “glue.” Maybe you see a prairie dock leaf in November as an aerial view of Death Valley. Or perhaps you see the leaf as the back of an dry, aged hand, with pores, veins and tiny hairs. A mountain range, dotted with snow? Spiderwebs in the rain? Or? Go ahead, your turn!

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Other plants give up the above-ground life in tangled shoelaces slowly draining of color, a virtual jungle of still-green and long-past-the-sell-date leaves.

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And when is a square-stemmed plant not a mint? When it’s a cup plant! After focusing on the signature leaves and flowers of this vigorous, sometimes-aggressive native all summer, we get a good look at the scaffolding. Wonder what tiny critter made that hole?

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5. Those Spellbinding Seeds

It’s  almost worth facing November on the prairie to see how nature plans for the future. Diversity is on display in the form of prairie seeds in all colors, sizes, and shapes.

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Each seed is a possibility. The promise of restoration.

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I need that promise. You too? Of change, of hope, of restoration in the month of November. Especially on an election day, after another week of horrific shootings and dismal headlines. The prairie seeds remind me of all of those who have made a difference in the world. The stewards and site managers who are out there today, as you read this, cutting brush. Collecting seeds. Leading tours of the tallgrass. Painting prairie landscapes.

At the polls, voting to save our natural areas and fund them for the future.

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Doing their part to make sure change happens in the world.  Change doesn’t always come as quickly as we’d like. But the prairie reminds me—keep working toward restoring a  damaged world. It all starts with these small, simple actions that are ours to take.

“Do not go gentle into that good night…rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

You know, November isn’t so bad after all if it brings the opportunity of change—the hope of a better future—with it.  And at this point, I think I’ve talked myself into a hike. You too?

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Let’s go.

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Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) was a Welsh poet, whose lines that open this essay are from a poem of the same name. He told biographers he fell in love with words after learning nursery rhymes as a child. Thomas was a contemporary of T.S. Eliot, who helped bring him to the public’s attention as a very young man. Thomas was a high-school drop-out, an alcoholic, often homeless, hounded by creditors, and frequently cheated on his wife, Caitlin.  He died at age 39 from pneumonia, probably complicated by alcohol poisoning and drug use, and Caitlin was incarcerated for a time in an insane asylum. And yet—out of so much despair and damage—there are these beautiful poems. Click here to hear Thomas read Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom):  Rice Lake-Danada, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Wheaton, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens or Anemone patens) in seed, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; red maple (Acer rubrum) leaves on the path, Kath Thomas’ prairie planting, Hinsdale, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Stone Barn Road, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL: prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) and bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis) seeds, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: rosinweed  (Silphium integrifolium) seeds, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; Remic Ensweiller, prairie manager, leads a tour of the Russell Kirt Prairie at College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Hinsdale Prairie Remnant, Hinsdale, IL.