Tag Archives: future

Learning from Leopold

We shall never achieve harmony with the land, anymore than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve but to strive.” –Aldo Leopold


Getting to know prairie restorations and their communities of plants, animals, and people eventually leads to wanting to see the mother of all prairie restorations. Curtis Prairie, at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum in Madison, is the world’s first known prairie restoration. It’s more than 80 years old, and hosts about 200 different types of birds and 35 species of mammals.


When I arrive in early December, the prairie is wrapped in fog. The temperature hovers between freeze and thaw, just enough to make the trails through the tallgrass slushy. My hiking boots slurp mud at every step.


Some of the paths have been cleared; an invitation to explore.


Whoever thinks December lacks color hasn’t hiked the Curtis Prairie.


The reds of gray dogwood pushing into the prairie liven up the metallic gold, silver, and bronze of the grasses. Winter elevates some of the humbler, weedier native plants, like this Canada goldenrod below, to new artistry.


As a prairie restoration steward, I don’t like invasive plants–plants that overwhelm a native landscape. I know too well the damage and havoc they wreak on a prairie. But despite myself, I admire the oriental bittersweet, twining in the tallgrass under the falling snow.  I remember combing the woods as a child with my mother and grandmother in the 1960s, raking vines from trees for Christmas decorations.  Now, I remove oriental bittersweet in natural areas for different reasons.


It’s quiet on the prairie, except for the sounds of traffic in the distance. There’s not a soul out on the tallgrass trails today but me.

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Maybe no human souls — but I have company. A red-tailed hawk soars overhead as it scans the grasses for a mouse. About 20 wild turkeys skirt the edges of the prairie and savanna, then head for some nearby crabapple trees. Frozen fruit lies on the ground. They’re enjoying a little cold crabapple cider, no doubt, to spice up their morning stroll.

Gobble, gobble.


I find the reds of the gray dogwood beautiful in the falling snow. But I know restoration managers are concerned about the encroachment of shrubs into the prairie here. My aesthetic enjoyment is another steward’s headache.


I think of the quote by Leopold that opens this essay. There is joy and inspiration in seeing what restoration efforts like this one have accomplished. There is also reassurance in seeing that other stewards struggle with the same issues I do–native and non-native plants slugging it out for dominance on the prairie; the efforts to provide easy access for visitors during harsh weather;  the desire to foster an appreciation of the prairie in the colder months. The work of restoration is always a process.


The amazing Curtis Prairie at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum continues to be a benchmark in restoration for all of us who care for and appreciate tallgrass prairies. Long may it stay beautiful and healthy.

Leopold’s words remind me that perfection is elusive. The important thing is to keep working towards our goals–for justice, for liberty, and for harmony with the land. May we all continue to strive toward attaining harmony, wherever we call home.


Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), whose quote from “Round River,”(Journals of Aldo Leopold) kicks off this essay, was a professor at University of Wisconsin. He is most famous for his book, A Sand County Almanac, which is part of the foundational study of conservation ethics for many who work in prairie restoration and wildlife management.


All photos copyright Cindy Crosby at Curtis Prairie, Madison, WI (top to bottom): entrance to Curtis Prairie; road through the prairie, trail through the tallgrass; Curtis Prairie in December; Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis); oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus); gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa); wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris); gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa)goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) rosette gall.

Of Birds and Bison

“Bird migration is the one truly unifying natural phenomenon in the world, stitching the continents together in a way that even the great weather systems, which roar out from the poles but fizzle at the equator, fail to do. It is an enormously complex subject, perhaps the most compelling drama in all of natural history.” — Scott Weidensaul


It’s a cold, drizzly day. As much as I’m tempted to curl up on the couch with a good book, plans are underway for a birding outing. Along with six of our friends, my husband Jeff and I head out of the Chicago suburbs and to the famed Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area in Indiana, two hours southeast. This is the big weekend. Thousands of migrating sandhill cranes will be passing through.


This fall, we saw thousands of migrants from the western flyways gathering in southern New Mexico, at Bosque del Apache National Refuge. On the ground, the cranes look almost prehistoric.p1020795

Those red caps! Those rusty feathers! How do they get their bulky bodies airborne? Cranes remind me of the mysteries of flight, and of migration. Why do large groups of birds travel from one place to another, sometimes tens of thousands of miles from their starting point? No one has completely been able to explain  this rhythmic dance. And perhaps, that’s part of the joy in watching them. We don’t fully understand. So we marvel, instead.


The cranes fly over the Chicago suburbs during November and December. Their high pitched cries often pull me out of the house, shielding my eyes against the sun, to watch them move southeast.

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In the Jasper-Pulaski refuge, I’ll get a chance to see these same cranes that fly over my house congregating en masse on the ground, a little farther along on their journey. But first, a stop at Kankakee Sands, a more than 7,000 acre mosaic of prairie, savanna, and wetland in northern Indiana.


Kankakee Sands introduced bison to their prairie this fall, and we’re looking forward to seeing how they’ve settled in. There’s a bison viewing area where I have an excellent up-close-and-personal meeting with the shaggy all-stars.


I wonder if the bison consider this place a “visitor viewing area;” a chance to see people behavior. This one kept an eye on us.


A few brown-headed cowbirds hung out on bison backs, giving us a sense of the difference in sizes. A study in contrasts.


While watching the bison, my friend John suddenly shouts– “prairie falcon!” A first for me. Although prairie falcons are usually found out west, occasionally they pop up in Illinois and Indiana. So quick!


The sun moves toward the western horizon. We leave the bison and birds and drive the short distance to the Jasper-Pulaski refuge. The viewing platform is thick with binocular-wielding birders and the giant scopes of photographers.


Anticipation. A few cranes have already straggled in.We find our places on the platform. In the fields, there is a loud rumble of distinctive crane chatter.Then…. a clamor in the distance. The crane cries rise to a crescendo.


They’re coming! Waves and waves of sandhill cranes. The air froths with cranes; boils with birds. Swirling and tilting in every direction in the last light.


I think of a line from Mary Oliver’s poem, The Wild Geese: “…the world offers itself to your imagination…”.


I imagine these cranes in the morning, taking off to continue their flight to the southern coasts. Why will they go? I don’t fully know. But it gives me a sense of peace and happiness to think about the rest of their journey. To know that this rhythm of nature–these migrations–will continue.

And that for one small part of one evening, I was witness to it.


The opening quote in this essay is by Scott Weidensaul, author of Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds, a finalist for the 2000 Pulitzer Prize in Nonfiction. Weidensaul captures the magic, mystery, and science of migration in this memorable book which still remains one of my favorites in nature writing.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis), Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area, Medaryville, IN; sandhill crane duo (Grus canadensis), Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, San Antonio, NM; wading sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis), at sunrise, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, San Antonio, NM; sandhill cranes  (Grus canadensis),over the author’s prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie grasses in November, Kankakee Sands (The Nature Conservancy), Newton County, IN: bison (Bison bison) grazing, Kankakee Sands (The Nature Conservancy), Newton County, IN; bison (Bison bison), Kankakee Sands (The Nature Conservancy), Newton County, IN; bison (Bison bison) and a cowbird (Molothrus ater), Kankakee Sands (The Nature Conservancy), Newton County, IN; prairie falcon ((Falco mexicanus), Kankakee Sands (The Nature Conservancy), Newton County, IN; watching for cranes, Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area (DNR), Medaryville, IN; crane fly-in (Grus canadensis), Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area (DNR), Medaryville, IN: swirl of sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis), Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area (DNR), Medaryville, IN; sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis), Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area (DNR), Medaryville, IN.

Giving Thanks in the Tallgrass

“Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.” – attributed to Kurt Vonnegut


Why would anyone walk the prairie in November? Come and find out.


See the sandhill cranes, headed south, as they have done from time out of mind. They tell us one season is done; another is unfolding. Are you listening?


Marvel at the curve of a dried compass plant leaf, which once took its directions from the sun.


Enjoy the sweep of prairie sky over the bleached grasses. So much contrast!

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Watch the seeds of many different plants lift and float on a breath of wind.


Others drop and scatter. So many different types of seeds on the prairie! Imagine where they will land…


…and what each seed might become.  Think about how one seed may eventually give life to other living things.

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Marvel at the spiky rattlesnake master seedheads. So much diversity! It’s what makes the prairie rich and interesting.


Even the polished spheres of goldenrod galls each hold a tiny insect inside. The humblest prairie plant does its part to provide a home and nourishment for the winter for a prairie creature.


Miraculous, isn’t it? The world holds wonders. So much diversity; all working together. Everything moving forward.

Take time to look. To  remember. Then, to give thanks.


The opening quote is sometimes attributed to Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007), shared with me by Carolyn McCready. Vonnegut was a prisoner of war during the bombing of Dresden (1945) and lost many of the people he loved to various tragedies, including divorce, suicide, and cancer. Yet, he still believed the world was a beautiful place.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), St. Stephen’s Cemetery PRairie, Carol Stream, IL; sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) over author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; dogbane or Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; seedheads in the tallgrass at St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; fritillary butterfly (Speyeria spp.) on wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; goldenrod gall, St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL.

Prairie in Unlikely Places

“It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.”–Arthur Conan Doyle


When you think of “nature,” do you picture large, sprawling preserves or national parks in other regions, filled with wildlife and unusual plants?


Yes, these are beautiful destinations. But, the most inspirational places in the natural world aren’t always parks and preserves in other parts of the country. Sometimes, it’s the little places where people are caring for nature that move us the most.

You never know where you’re going to find a small patch of planted or remnant prairie. Like these tallgrass plants, hanging out by a graffitied underpass in Bloomington, Indiana.


Or prairie plants scattered along old railroad tracks, like these grasses in northern Indiana.


Recently, I visited the St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie in Carol Stream, Illinois; a tiny prairie remnant off the beaten path. It took me three tries to find it. The view around the prairie might be a clue as to why. Not exactly “pristine” or “untrammeled” nature, is it?


The forbidding entrance — a gravel road through a cement plant, the road lined with buckthorn — echoed the fortress-like feel of the cemetery. Because of vandalism, the cemetery is surrounded by a high, chain-link fence lined with barbed wire.


When you look through it, you can see the prairie. Like the cemetery, it’s also surrounded by a high, chain-link fence.


Bob Jacobsen, the 85-year-old volunteer caretaker for the prairie and cemetery, offered me a short introduction to the tallgrass here. The two acres, he said, were originally purchased and intended to be part of an 1852 German Catholic Church’s cemetery expansion. The cemetery stayed small. The little piece of expansion ground, full of prairie plants, escaped the plow that destroyed most of Illinois prairies when this portion of the state was settled.


This little remnant is hanging on — but just barely. Jacobsen reminisced about the dilapidated state of the prairie during the 1970s. Moped riders and motorcyclists used the prairie as a racetrack, he told me. The fence he put up offers protection from people who don’t recognize the prairie’s value.

He has a vision for this little two-acre remnant.


That it might hang on, despite the build-up all around it. That it will continue, despite the odds. He burns it, weeds it, and hopes for others to carry on the legacy of caring for this little prairie patch in an unlikely place.


“Nature” — and tallgrass prairie remnants like this one– don’t always have the wow factor of a large, protected refuge, vast open spaces, and innumerable wildlife inhabitants.


But sometimes, it’s the small, carefully-protected tiny remnants or surprising mini-restorations in someone’s backyard that give me the most hope. They are a spark in the dark. A match, which may strike interest, then kindle love and appreciation for the prairie in those who don’t know it well. Learning to understand and nurture the small places are a stepping stone to greater appreciation and care for the big tracts of land we need in our world that are also irreplaceable.

These small patches are unlikely survivors in a harsh environment. Light, in the darkness.


Long may those like Bob Jacobsen continue to do their best to keep these small places with original prairie alive and flourishing. And may these remnants and other little prairie reconstructions continue to inspire us to continue our work with prairie. To prompt us to  care for the natural world in the large scenic places. To care for those nooks and crannies full of “nature” in our communities. And, perhaps most importantly, to care for the natural world in our own neighborhoods and backyards, no matter how small they may seem. Paying attention. Making a difference.


The opening quote is by Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), the author who created the  Sherlock Holmes detective series.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): snow geese and sandhill cranes, Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, San Antonio, New Mexico; prairie plants and graffiti, Bloomington, IN:  prairie plants along the railroad tracks, northwestern Indiana; cement plant, Carol Stream, IL; warning sign, St. Stephen’s Cemetery, Carol Stream, IL; St. Stephen’s Cemetery tombstones with prairie in the background, Carol Stream, IL; Indian hemp or dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum), St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; wild asparagus seed (Asparagus officinalis), St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; sunset, Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, San Antonio, New Mexico; unknown aster, St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL.

Three Minutes of Hope on the Prairie

“Truly we live with mysteries too marvelous to be understood.”–Mary Oliver


Forget politics for a moment. Take three minutes to walk with me. Focus on the wonders of the tallgrass prairie in November.

I need a hike where it’s quiet today — don’t you?

November’s Indian summer sighs, then turns and marches toward the cold. Little bluestem throws its confetti of seeds across the tallgrass  in an extravagant last hurrah; a marvel of color and light.


Look at the sky, a kaleidoscope of clouds forming and reforming in different patterns.


It’s an ever-changing painting, so easily taken for granted. Put there…for what? For our joy? For our amazement? The least we can do is take time to look.


Lose yourself in the architecture, colors, and texture of a prairie dock leaf. It is one unique leaf in an infinite number of leaves in the tallgrass, in an infinite number of prairies. Each is its own work of art. Does your mind boggle at the artistry so lavishly displayed?

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Old tree stumps have stories to tell, weathered by the rains and sunshine of thousands of  days. But you have to stop for a moment. Take time to read. And to listen. What story will they tell you?


In November, the prairie does a strip tease, shedding seeds and leaves. What’s left are the essentials for the perennials to survive the winter, much of their life invisible underground. The seeds promise hope for the future.


Even the fuzzy caterpillars that slouch and slinky their way through the tallgrass remind us of future transformation. Moth, you wonder? Or butterfly?

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In November, plant structures are more evident, bleached of their summer and early fall colors.


Trees silhouette themselves against the sky. You admire them, shorn of the distraction of colorful leaves.


It may feel lonely in the tallgrass in November. You’re aware of your smallness in the grand scheme of the universe.


The shaggy bison look tough and well-suited to the coming chill. We, however, sometimes feel fragile wondering what the world may have in readiness for us.


Listen. There is the sound of water. The prairie creek rushes headlong on its way to some far-flung sea. Everything is connected. We’re not alone.


Under the surface of the cold water, the drab, beetle-like dragonfly nymphs wait for warmer weather. They listen for the signal to stretch out their wings; don their dazzling array of bold hues. The signal for change is months away, so they concentrate on growing. Soon enough all will be warmth and light.

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When we shake our heads over the state of the world, remember. These prairie skies, this grass, the wildflowers, the seeds, those large shaggy creatures and small flying winged ones–and furry ones, too–are also the world.

And what  a beautiful and hopeful place the world can be.


The opening quote is from Mary Oliver’s “Mysteries, Yes.” The next lines of the poem read as follows: “Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous to be understood/How grass can be nourishing in the mouths of the lambs/How rivers and stone are forever in allegiance with gravity/ while we ourselves dream of rising.” Mary Oliver (1935-)  is winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and writes extensively about the importance of paying attention to the world around us. The complete poem is included in her book: Evidence: Poems.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie in November, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; old tree stump, Fame Flower knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seed pod, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; great leopard moth (Hypercompe scribonia) caterpillar, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; silky aster (Symphyotrichum sericeum) in November, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  trees in November, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  Clear Creek, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; white faced meadowhawk (Sympetrum obtrusum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Seeds of Hope in an Uncertain World

“Where there is hatred, let me sow love.” — from the Prayer of St. Francis


So much hate. How did we come to this?

The tallgrass offers solace, if only for a few hours. Come hike with me.  See what the prairie has to say about it all. Gain some perspective.


It’s good to be reminded that there is beauty in the world, even if it is sometimes fleeting.


There are small creatures who keep singing, no matter what the headlines say.


Little winged ones who bathe themselves in light.

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Comical critters who make us smile, even when world events and politics seem grim.

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The tallgrass reminds us that the cycle of the seasons will continue.


The prairie ripens its fruits, as it has each autumn for time past remembering.


The grasses and wildflowers foam with seeds.


The seed fluff puffs like fireworks…


…catches the wind, and sails aloft.


Landing in unlikely places.


Other seeds are plucked from thistle plants to line a goldfinch’s nest, and help nurture a new generation.


Each fruit, each seed is a promise. Although the road ahead is fraught with uncertainty…


…we will soon find ourselves at the beginning of a new season.


Every day, beautiful things are unfolding.


The prairie reminds us that the issues that consume our attention are only a blink in the immensity of time.


How will we spend our days this week? Let the seeds we sow for the future be ones that lighten the darkness.


When so many around us speak hate, let’s sow love. Let’s make a difference.


The opening quote is widely attributed to St. Francis of Assisi (1181-2 to 1226). He was known for his simplicity and a love for nature and animals, and often portrayed with a bird in his hand.

All photos above copyright Cindy Crosby at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL (except where noted): view from Fame Flower Knob in October; two cabbage white butterflies (Pieris rapae), an orange sulphur butterfly (Colias eurytheme)and two clouded sulphur butterflies (Colias philodice) puddling by Clear Creek; red-legged grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum); field sparrow (Spizella pusilla) bathing in Clear Creek;  American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus) ; fiery skipper (Hylephila phyleus), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; Nachusa Grasslands in October; ground cherries (Physalis spp.); little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) with sweet everlasting (Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium); virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana);  unknown seed; unknown seed in spider web at Clear Creek; goldfinch (Spinus tristis) on pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor); road through Nachusa Grasslands; common buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) on white clover (Trifolium repens);  eastern comma butterfly (Polygonia comma) at bison watering area;  grasses on Fame Flower Knob with St. Peter’s sandstone; whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata) seed pods. 

Embracing October

“October is a hallelujah! reverberating in my body year-round.” ~John Nichols 

September sings her last blues riff on the prairie.


The calendar pages over to October. We rush to embrace everything the season has to offer, ready for a change. Ready for something new.


The tallgrass crackles with static electricity, throwing off seed sparks in every direction. Do you feel the tingle?


A cool front moves in. Skies cloud over; turn bumpy metal. The bright greens of summer begin to drain into autumn’s palette of russet, copper, and cream.


Leaves loosen their grip. Let go. Let go. A free-fall transition.


You can feel surrender in the air.  A beautiful loss, bittersweet. As Anatole France wrote, “All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy….”


Everywhere in the tallgrass, seeds blow away, fall to the ground, or are collected by volunteers. The seeds are the future; glimpsed but uncertain.


At dawn-break, sun lights the mist rising over the tallgrass. We hold our breath.


What will autumn have in store for us?

I can’t wait to find out.


The opening quote is from The Last Beautiful Days of Autumn by John Nichols (1940-). Nichols also wrote the well-known novel, The Milagro Beanfield War, which explores history, ethnicity, and land and water rights.

Anatole France (1844-1924), who wrote the other quote used in this essay, was a French poet and novelist who won the 1921 Nobel Prize in Literature.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom) Mist rising in big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; you-pick pumpkin patch, Jonamac Orchard, Malta, IL; Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) , Conrad Station Savanna, The Nature Conservancy and DNR, Morocco, IN; road through the tallgrass, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; three leaves, Springbrook Nature Center, Itasca, IL; unknown milkweed (Asclepias spp.), Conrad Station Savanna, The Nature Conservancy and Indiana DNR, Morocco, IL; crescent moon over author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; mist rising with prairie plants and non-natives at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL.