Tag Archives: glen ellyn

Backyard Prairie Mothapalooza

“The night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.” — Vincent Van Gogh

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Sunshine, thunderstorms, and wind. The heat index tips over 100 one day, then temperatures drop into the 60s the next.

The tallgrass prairie doesn’t blink. It adapts. Then adapts again. The prairie was made for these wild swings of weather.

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By day, the prairie explodes with blooms. July is its zenith for wildflowers.

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So many interesting flowers to see on a hike through the tallgrass!

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So many interesting creatures in my backyard prairie.

SilverSkipperwithbeebalmWMGEbackyard72520And that’s just in the daytime.

Just think of what goes on…after dark.

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Last week was National Moth Week, In the spirit of celebration, Jeff and I put on a “mothapalooza” near our backyard prairie patch. I knew, as a prairie steward, that moths depend on specific associated plants for their caterpillars to survive and thrive. Would the native (and non-native) plants in my backyard be enough of a draw to nurture a thriving moth population?

I didn’t know what moths were nearby, beyond the occasional gray-ish ones that banged away at our front porch light and a sighting of a Beautiful Wood Nymph last summer which stuck around by the front door for a few days. Armed with a Peterson’s Field Guide to Moths, we were about to find out.

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As I read up on moths, I learned there were between 150,000 to 500,000 different species in the world. New moths are discovered all the time. While most are creatures of the night, some fly during the daytime. That made sense. I see the snowberry clearwing moths nectar at the Schulenberg Prairie’s  bee balm blooms….snowberryclearwingWM hummingbird sphinx moth SPMA71419.jpg

…and the hummingbird moths nectar at my native bee balm —- and not-so-native hanging basket of petunias.

But after dark….that was a mystery. Other than a few moths I had seen on my nocturnal front porch visits,  what else might I discover? it was time to find out.

Two of our grandkids, age 4 and 7, were spending the night with us this weekend. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to introduce them to moths. First we built a moth trap. There are many good instructions for inexpensive moth traps online; we adapted one from this video by a precocious young British kid — check it out. After watching it, we were able to pull a moth trap together mostly from odds and ends I had in the garage, and some donated egg cartons from our friend, Hinsdale Prairie Steward Kath Thomas. The egg cartons are stacked inside the bucket for the moths to rest in, like rows of tiny cubicles.

The whole effect is not pretty, but as it turned out, it was functional. It is also catch and release, so the moths can return to the backyard in the morning.

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We also painted a board with moth bait, a stinky concoction of brown sugar, stale beer, and bananas. Some moths, it seems, like this better than lights.

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The UV light was the most expensive part of the set-up, and was a birthday gift from Jeff ordered from Bioquip, where I get my dragonfly supplies. (Thanks, Jeff!) We decided to combine the moth trap and baited board with a moth sheet that we hung on the porch.

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Waiting for dark was made a little easier by setting up our backpacking tent and reading stories to the little ones.

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Then, about the time the fireflies lit up, we began seeing moths.

Small ones, like this Orange Wing moth.MothNightWMorangewing72520GEBackyard

Beautifully colored ones, like this Woody Underwing.

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Seriously cute ones, such as this Giant Eucosma. Its host plant is cupplant. Our prairie patch has plenty of it!

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From time to time, we’d leave the backyard and check the front porch to see what had shown up under the porch light. Most of our photos were taken with my cell phone. Even so, you can see how beautiful this little Venerable Dart moth was. Those fuzzy antennae! Those beautiful wings. We looked in the field guide and saw its host plants include chickweed and tomato plants. Yup! We have both.

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Most moths show up a little later than bedtime for little ones. They didn’t last past 10 p.m. After tucking them in, I kept things going outside until about 1 a.m., when I finally left the moth trap to work its magic and went to bed.

In the morning, still in our PJs, we rushed out to check the trap. Not a lot in there; mostly very tiny moths and a lot of night insects. I can see our moth trap is going to need some work. But one find at the bottom of the trap that wowed the grandkids: a Harnessed Tiger Moth, nestled into one of the cups of an egg carton.

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I’ve seen tiger moths on the prairies, but never in my backyard! I read in my Peterson’s Field Guide to Moths that this species depends on dandelions and clover as host plants for its larvae–or caterpillars. Another reason to not treat our yard with chemicals.

The four of us gently lifted the egg carton out of the bucket and watched as it flew into the gray-headed coneflowers.BackyardGE72520WMgrayheadedconeflowerliatris.jpg

Moth identification is tricky; I’m learning a lot from the Moths of the Eastern United States Facebook Page and my field guide. Buguide.net is also a terrific resource, and iNaturalist, a free app for my phone, did a lot of legwork getting my moths identified—at least to genus. But like learning dragonflies or damselflies or any insect, the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know.

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Such an exciting adventure—the realization that a lifetime will not be  long enough to discover all there is about moths.

Each moth needs a particular plant or several specific plant species in order to survive. Every time I choose to put a host plant in my garden for moths—or leave a “weed” that they depend on for survival like clover or dandelions—I increase the chances of a more healthy and diverse moth population in my little corner of the world.BlackeyedSusanHinsdalePrairieWM72520.jpg

The night is full of amazing creatures. Now, I’ve met a few more of them. Just think of what you might find in your backyard prairie patch or your favorite prairie….after dark.

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Artist Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) whose quote opens today’s blog is considered one of the  most influential painters of all time. His paintings have commanded some of the highest prices at auction in the world, and his painting, “Starry Starry Night” inspired a song by musician Don McLean. Listen to it here.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby and taken in Cindy’s backyard, unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Hinsdale Prairie remnant, Hinsdale, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Hinsdale Prairie remnant, Hinsdale, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Hinsdale Prairie remant, Hinsdale, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) with silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus); Peterson’s Field Guide to Moths; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) with snowberry clearwing moth (Hemaris diffinis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; video of hummingbird clearwing moth (Hemaris thysbe) with non-native petunias (Petunia sp.); homemade moth trap; moth board with painted stinky bait; sheet moth lighting for mothapalooza; REI half-dome tent; Orange Wing moth (Mellilla xanthometata); Woody Underwing moth (Catocala grynea); Giant Eucosma moth (Eucosma gigantica); Venerable Dart moth (Agrotis venerabilis); Harnessed Tiger Moth (Apantesis phalerata); blazing star (Liatris sp.) and gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata); rosin weed (Silphium integrifolium); black-eyed susans (Rudbeckia hirta), Hinsdale Prairie remnant, Hinsdale, IL.

Thanks to Trevor Dean Edmonson who is my moth mentor! Any moth mis-identifications will be happily corrected; I am a rank beginner with moths, and delighted to learn whatever I can.

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Join Cindy for an online class!

Last call for “Tallgrass Prairie Ethnobotany Online” –through The Morton Arboretum! Did you know the prairie was once the source of groceries, medicine, and love charms? Join Cindy for two Friday mornings online, July 31 and August 7, (9-11 a.m.) and learn how people have used and enjoyed prairie plants through history — and today! Spend the week in between on your own, exploring and identifying plants on the prairies of your choice. Register here.

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” –begin a new session in September! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional Zoom session. Register here.

Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Chasing Dragonflies Final Cover 620.jpg

Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org and other book venues. Order direct through Northwestern University Press and receive 40% off this new book and/or “The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction”— use coupon code SUN40 through the end of July. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during this chaotic time.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.  

Prairie Bugs and Blooms

“Most children have a bug period. I never grew out of mine.” — E.O.Wilson

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As the curtain falls on June, rains and heat coax the prairie into luxuriant growth.

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Pale purple coneflowers, white wild indigo, and carrot-colored butterfly weed along with a suite of June’s other familiar wildflowers rampage across the prairie. I marvel at them as I hike. More unusual finds, like bunch flower and its suite of tiny flies and beetle pollinators, are a reason to drop to my knees in wonder.  Flora of the Chicago Region gives it a “10” as its coefficient of conservatism.

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Not far from the bunchflowers, the prairie lilies are in bloom. Another “10!” Such startling color. Somehow, the deer have missed munching on them this season. See if you can find the tiny crab spider.

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An umbrella paper wasp ignores me as it concentrates on an architectural project.

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Prairie coreopsis is a magnet for pollinators. Bees, wasps, moth caterpillars, flies, and beetles can’t resist its bright flowerhead, brimming with nectar and pollen. I love its sunny yellow flowers, a lift for my spirits.

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Wildflowers are the main event on the tallgrass prairie at the end of June. But today, I’m looking for dragonflies and damselflies.  Bugs? Pollinators? Not exactly.  Although they are in the Class Insecta, dragonflies and damselflies aren’t true bugs (Hemiptera)-–rather, they are part of the order Odonata. Although they don’t pollinate plants, dragonflies and damselflies are an important part of the prairie. I don’t have to look hard for them; the prairie is alive with different species in myriad patterns and colors. Some fly up out of the grasses as I hike. Others quietly perch, motionless.

Hello, Halloween pennants! Good to see you back on the prairie again.

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The black saddlebags dragonfly patrols in circles, silhouetted against the summer sky…

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…but I caught this one in a moment of rest.

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Common green darners are….well…common, but I still admire the patterns—that bull’s eye spot!—and coloration that makes them so distinct from any of their kind. Some say green darners look like cyclops. This female is unmistakable.

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In Willoway Brook, the ebony jewelwing damselflies flutter; looping in and out of the tallgrass to swipe smaller insects for breakfast.

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Every wildflower and grass stalk is a potential perch for an Odonate.  Widow skimmers. The blue you see on their wings is pruinescence, and gives it that startling contrast.

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Eastern amberwings hang out on leadplant. This one’s a female! Pretty.

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Male blue dashers watch for prey.

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A 12-spotted skimmers dragonfly basks in the sunshine, trying to regulate its body temperature, which it takes from the temperature around it.

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So many wonders! And summer on the prairie has only just begun.

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It’s going to be an amazing season.

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The opening quote is from E.O. Wilson’s  (1929-) Naturalist. His blindness in one eye from a childhood fishing accident led to his study of ants, which as “little things” were easy for him to focus on. Today, Wilson is recognized as the world’s leading authority on ants. He won several Pulitzer Prizes (1979, 1991) and the U.S. National Medal of Science (1976) among many other awards; he was named one of Time Magazine’s 25 Most Influential People in 1995. Thank you, John Heneghen, for loaning me Naturalist. A very enjoyable read.

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All photos taken at the Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): bunch flower (Melanthium virginicum); prairie lily (Lilium philadelphicum); umbrella paper wasp–dark paper wasp (Polistes fuscatus); prairie coreopsis (Coreopsis palmata); halloween pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina); common black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata); common black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata); common green darner dragonfly, female (Anax junius), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata); widow skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa); eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera); blue dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis);  12-spotted skimmer  dragonfly (Libellula pulchella), pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) and daisy fleabane (one of the Erigeron species, probably strigosus but possibly annuus). Note that many people consider daisy fleabane a weed; although common, it is a cheerful little native with many benefits to insects.

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Join Cindy for online dragonfly classes and online prairie ecology and ethnobotany classes:

“Dragonfly and Damselfly Beginning ID Online” through The Morton Arboretum. July 8 and July 10 –two morning classes online, with a day in between for you to work independently in the field, then bring your questions back for help. Register here.

“Prairie Ethnobotany Online” –through The Morton Arboretum. July 31 and August 7, 9-11 a.m. with a week  in between to enjoy your knowledge in the field. Learn about how people have used and enjoyed prairie plants through history. Register here.

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” begins a new session in September! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional ZOOM session. Register here.

Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org and other book venues. Order direct through Northwestern University Press and receive 25% off — use coupon code NUP2020 and see the information below. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during this chaotic time.Preorder Savings Chasing Dragonflies (1)

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.  

A Belmont Prairie Stroll

“Look carefully and look often” — John Weaver

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May. The spring greens are coming in; the garden overflows with spinach, onions, kale, radishes and the first flush of potato growth.

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Meals now include salads with a mish-mash of whatever looks good or needs a little thinning.

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Severe weather this week poured rain on the garden, making the plants happy. The clouds put on a show that could compete with anything on Broadway. Tornadoes to the north. Tornadoes to the south. Heat that topped 90 degrees.

Spring in Illinois.

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In between the raindrops, heat, and storms, Jeff and I find a sunny evening to hike the Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve in Downer’s Grove, Illinois.

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The rains and heat hurry along the new growth, emerald under last year’s dry grasses in the evening light.

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The prairie is spangled with blue-eyed grass…so much blue-eyed grass. It mingles with orange hoary puccoon.

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Blue-eyed grass is such a tiny flower, neither a grass nor blue-eyed. It’s in the iris family. These flowers at Belmont Prairie are bright white, although you can find this species in blue, ranging to violet.

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Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rereicha’s Flora of the Chicago Region gives it a 6 out of 10 as its coefficent of conservatism score, simply meaning it is moderate in its ability to flourish in degraded areas. Some of its neighbor, the hoary puccoon, is beginning to fade. Soon—in a matter of weeks—these two spring prairie standouts will forgotten in the onslaught of high summer prairie wildflowers and tallgrasses.

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As I walk, I notice the changes a few weeks have brought to this prairie.  Spittlebug froth is everywhere, as if a hiker had spat at plants along the trail.

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I gently lift the mass of foam onto my finger, then tease it apart.

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Hello, spittlebug nymph! Click here to see what it will look like as an adult. The nymph blows these “bubbles” out of its backside, so it isn’t technically “spit.”  In its nymph stage and adult stage, it feeds on plant sap but don’t cause much damage.

There are patches of bubbly spit everywhere, but this isn’t the only white I see. This is the season of white flowers. Pearl buds of bastard toadflax are opening.

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Bedstraw is in flower, its tiny pale blooms almost invisible.

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The first meadow anemone buds show promise of what is to come.

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Yarrow, a weedy native with coefficient of conservatism score of “0” out of “10” (according to Flora of the Chicago Region, where Wilhelm calls it “one of the more common plants of our region”) will open any day now. Butterflies and several moths visit the flowers.

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Another weedy native, Philadelphia fleabane, is everywhere in the wetlands of the preserve. Common? Yes. But cheerful. I love its”fringe.”

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I notice the prairie violets are less prominent now, although still in bloom; common blue violets with their more heart-shaped leaves are scattered among them. The false strawberries—also called “Indian strawberries” or “mock strawberries” —are out for the first time, sunny splashes of yellow flowers across the prairie.

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Their fruit is not at all tasty, as I’ve found from sampling it in my yard where it pops up from time to time. This non-native is only found in about a dozen counties in Illinois. Another cheerful non-native in bloom is dames rocket, which skims the edges of the prairie.

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It’s one we pull from restorations, but I can’t help but admire it this afternoon for its tenacity and its pretty color. I leave it, but feel my fingers itch to yank! yank! However, the parking lot is full of teens congregating, doubtless anxious for some time with friends. To pull something as pretty as dames rocket and carry it out would doubtless be misunderstood and I’m not feeling up to long explanations. Later, I promise myself. I’ll be back for you.

Summer’s tall floral denizens, such as compass plant, are only leaves right now. But such leaves!CompassPlantBelmontPrairieWM52120

So green. So graceful. I imagine the yellow flowers towering over me, up to 12 feet tall this summer.

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Out of the corner of my eye I glimpse a butterfly—-is it a black swallowtail? I’m not sure. I chase it for a while, and it teases me, lighting on a plant here, then as I focus my camera, fluttering off out of reach of my lens. On Memorial Day, Jeff and I saw the first monarch cruise our backyard in the sweltering heat, although it didn’t linger. I think of the monarchs, and how they’ve brightened so many summers before this one. The monarchs will be glad to see the yarrow in bloom this coming week.

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Discovering these butterflies lifts my spirits. So many more to come.

As of last week, the first ruby-throated hummingbirds are coming to the backyard feeders. As the prairie wildflowers progress, I’ll watch for them in the tallgrass, working the bee balm and royal catchfly and late figwort. For now, I enjoy their company at home, and look forward to seeing them on the prairie.

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There’s a lot of promise on the prairie right now. The promise of new discoveries, each time I visit. The promise of more wildflowers unfolding, and their associated pollinators appearing each time I hike here. The promise of learning some new plants, and reacquainting myself with some ones I know well. All I have to do is show up. Pay attention. Be curious.

The summer stretches ahead, with all of its unknowns.

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I’m glad the prairies will be here to offer their own kind of certainty, in a year that is turning out to be full of ambiguity. The certainty of new wildflowers. The certainty of emerging insects and butterflies. The certainty of migrating birds and dragonflies and monarchs.

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The certainty that every hour spent hiking a prairie is an hour well spent.

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John Weaver (1884-1956) was a world renowned prairie ecologist and an expert on grasses. Weaver published the first American ecology textbook and was a faculty member at University of Nebraska.

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All photos taken at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL, unless otherwise noted: (top to bottom): author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; salad from the garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; clouds over author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; path through Belmont Prairie; trees at Belmont Prairie; common blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum) and hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens); common blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum); common blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum) and hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens); spittlebug foam (possibly from Philaenus spumarius); spittlebug nymph (possibly Philaenus spumarius); bastard toadflax (Comandra unbellata); bedstraw (possibly catchweed bedstraw, Galium aparine); meadow anemone (Anemone canadensis); yarrow (Achillea millefolium); Philadelphia fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus); mock strawberry (Potentilla indica); dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis); compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) taken in the authors backyard in 2016, Glen Ellyn, IL); ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) taken in the author’s backyard in 2016, Glen Ellyn, IL); trees at Belmont Prairie; stream through Belmont Prairie.

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Join Cindy for a class online!

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” begins June 7. Work from home at your own pace for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional ZOOM session. Register here.

Nature Journaling is online Monday, June 1 — 11am-12:30pm through The Morton Arboretum: Explore how writing can lead you to gratitude and reflection and deepen connections to yourself and the natural world. In this workshop, you will discover the benefits of writing in a daily journal, get tips for developing the habit of writing, and try out simple prompts to get you on your way. (WELL095) — Register here.

Want more prairie while you are sheltering in place? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.

A Very Prairie Cemetery

“The prairie landscape insists on patience and commitment. It does not give up its secrets and wonders easily.” — James P. Ronda

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It’s the end of the work day at home, and I’m scrolling through Twitter. Then I see it —a tweet by tallgrass artist Liz Anna Kozik about a local prairie awash in shooting star blooms. A prairie I’ve never seen before! It’s only 30 minutes from my home. Jeff looks over my shoulder and sees the photo Liz has posted. Wow! We look at each other.

Let’s go!

The 37-acre Vermont Cemetery Prairie is part of the Forest Preserve District of Will County. One acre of the pioneer cemetery is designated as an Illinois Nature Preserve. This acre, untouched by agricultural plows which destroyed most of Illinois’ original 22 million acres of tallgrass prairie, is a rare piece of our history.

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The cemetery is home to the federally endangered  and state threatened Mead’s milkweed. Illinois has about two dozen native milkweeds, all of them host to the monarch butterfly caterpillar. I’ve seen many of these native milkweeds. But the Mead’s has been elusive. Maybe later this summer, I’ll see it here.

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As we get out of the car, I’m disappointed. Prairie plants? Sure. The immediate area around the parking lot seems to be prairie wetland, and we spot some familiar species.

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Birds are moving through. A killdeer. A mallard. Another mallard. And—what’s that?

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Lesser yellowlegs? I think so. Tringa flavipes. For fun, I look up the meaning of its scientific name. I discover “Tringa” is “a genus of waders, containing the shanks and tattlers.”  Hilarious! The Latin name flavipes is pretty straightforward: flavus is “yellow” and pes means “foot.” I love the scientific names; they always have a story to tell about a member of the natural world. I check the lesser yellowlegs’ range in Cornell’s All About Birds; it seems they are stopping here on their way to their breeding grounds up north.

We watch the lesser yellowlegs move through the wetlands for a while, then continue looking for the cemetery.   Jeff spies it first—-the black fencing in the distance is a tip-off. The Tall Grass Greenway Trail runs parallel to the prairie, between the fence and railroad tracks, flanked by towering power lines.

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A mammoth subdivision borders the other side of the preserve. House after house after house. But few people are at the prairie.

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The fence, which keeps us out, is necessary, as the prairie would easily be damaged by vandalism or poaching. Remnants like this have almost vanished in Illinois; only about 2,300 high quality original prairie acres remain. Remaining prairie remnants tend to be along old railroad tracks, on rocky knobs unsuitable for farming (such as you find at Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL), or in cemeteries, such as these.

Jeff and I walk the perimeter. Outside the cemetery fence, even the ditch and buffer zones are a treasure trove of prairie plants. Golden Alexanders.

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And its cousin, heart-leaved golden Alexanders.

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Compass plants.

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Wild strawberries.

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Tall coreopsis.

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Prairie dropseed.

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All this on the outside of the fence! Magical. Could it really be any better inside?

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We look in.

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Wow.

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So much shooting star. We see bumblebees among the graves, working the flowers in the early evening light.

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Among the shooting star is wood betony…

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..and so much hoary puccoon! These pops of orange are startling among the yellow of wood betony and the pink of shooting star. A few bastard toadflax throw white stars in the grasses.  Sedges are in bloom too! But what species?HoaryPuccoonVermontPrairieCemetery51220WM

I have no idea.

The health of this prairie is a tribute to long-time dedicated stewards Don and Espie Nelson. (Watch a video about their work on this prairie here.) Without the efforts of this dynamic duo, this prairie would not be the vibrant, diverse place we see today. It also owes its existence to Dr. Robert Betz, a professor at Northeastern Illinois University, who worked to restore this remnant in the 1960s through cutting brush and using prescribed fire. He’s one of our Illinois prairie heroes.

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I wonder what those who were buried here would have thought about the importance we put on the prairie flora found here today. Curious, I look up Wilhelmine Grabe, whose name appears on a gravestone with her husband, John Grabe.  She was born in Germany, immigrated here, and died in 1895, at the same age as I am today. What did she think, when she came from the forests of Germany and first walked through a tallgrass prairie? Was she enchanted? Or was she afraid of the vast, empty spaces that became her new home? Did she and her husband, John, work hard to break the prairie sod so they could farm and grow food for their family? Would it puzzle her to see how much we value the last vestiges of prairie here?

I look up other names I see on the markers, but find nothing. There are many other gravestones worn beyond deciphering. All of these markers ask us to remember people who called the prairie state home for a portion of their lives. All of them are now at rest in one of the most beautiful cemeteries I’ve ever seen.

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This prairie…these beautiful prairie wildflowers. This unexpected evening. This visit is a surprise that lifts my spirits and revives my sense of wonder.

The surprises have not all been good ones this week. My ginkgo tree, resilient and indestructible—-I thought — had leafed out. Then—wham! All of its leaves died this week.

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Will it survive? I email the Morton Arboretum’s plant clinic, a free service the Morton Arboretum offers to anyone, anywhere. Sharon, a repository of expert plant knowledge,  diagnoses freeze damage. She says it’s possible my little tree will summon enough energy to put out a new set of leaves.

Or not.

All I can do, she said, is watch…and wait.

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I’ve gotten more practiced at watching and waiting the past two months. No problem.

Another surprise:  Sunday evening, three and a half inches of rain fell in a few hours. The Arboretum is still closed because of the pandemic, so we drive to Leask Lane which borders the west side of the Schulenberg Prairie to see how the prairie has fared. There, we pull off the road to peer through the fence. Willoway Brook rampages wide and wild. As a steward, I know the seeds of invasive plants are coming in with this deluge, and will require attention as the waters subside.

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It’s a challenge I anticipate. But it will be a few more weeks before the Morton Arboretum is open. Although my steward work won’t resume for a bit longer, I’ll be able to hike the Schulenberg Prairie again in less than two weeks.  At last. At last.

I’m anxious to see what the past two months have brought to the prairie. I look over the fence and wonder. Are the small white lady’s slipper orchids in bloom? This should be their week. I remember the delight of discovering them nestled deep in the new grasses.

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It’s a discovery that has never lost its charm, year after year.

What about the shooting star? Will they be visible, even with the old growth, unburned, still in place? Try as I might, I can’t see them. But I remember them, from previous years.

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I think of these years, and how beautiful the wildflowers were. I imagine the queen bumblebees, alighting on one bloom after another,  using their strong thoracic muscles—-performing “buzz pollination”—to loosen the pollen. Like salt sprinkled from a salt shaker.  One thought led to another. Had the federally endangered rusty patched bumblebee emerged? Was it out and about in the wildflowers?

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I wonder if the first eastern forktail damselflies are emerging along Willoway Brook, and what effects the water’s rise and fall are having on the dragonfly and damselfly populations.

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So much is happening! So much to anticipate. June 1, I’ll be back on the prairie I’ve grown to love for the past 22 years where I’ve been steward for almost a decade. Less than two weeks to go now. Until then, I peer through the fence.

It will be worth the wait.

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James P. Ronda, whose quote kicks off the blog today, is the author of Visions of the Tallgrass from University of Oklahoma Press. If you haven’t seen this book of lovely essays with gorgeous photographs by Harvey Payne, check it out here.

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All photographs taken at Vermont Cemetery Prairie, Forest Preserve District of Will County, Naperville, IL unless otherwise noted; copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sign; view of the wetlands; lesser yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes); approach to cemetery remnant; approach to cemetery remnant; golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea); heart-leaved golden Alexanders (Zizia aptera); compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis); cemetery fence; shooting star and gravestone (Dodecatheon meadia); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) and gravestone; wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens) and bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata); prairie and power lines; ginkgo tree (Ginkgo biloba), author’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; small white lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL–photo from previous years; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL–photo from previous years; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia); eastern forktail (Ishnura verticalis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Tremendous thanks to Liz Anna Kozik  for the heads up about Vermont Cemetery Prairie. Check out her tallgrass prairie graphic comics and other art here.

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Join Cindy for a class online!

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology” class online in May through The Morton Arboretum is SOLD OUT.   Sign up now to ensure a spot in our June 7 class here.

Nature Journaling is online Monday, June 1 — 11am-12:30pm through The Morton Arboretum:
Explore how writing can lead you to gratitude and reflection and deepen connections to yourself and the natural world. In this workshop, you will discover the benefits of writing in a daily journal, get tips for developing the habit of writing, and try out simple prompts to get you on your way. (WELL095) — Register here.

Want more prairie while you are sheltering in place? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.

Early May at Nachusa Grasslands

“There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”–J.R.R. Tolkien

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Spring. At last! It’s come to the prairies and savannas in full flush.  Welcome back, prairie trillium.

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Hello, Virginia bluebells!

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A few days of warmth and sunlight followed by rain and cool nights keep the wildflowers fresh and vibrant. And as always, there is the promise of more to come.

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With the first days of May come good news. Our dragonfly data collection efforts at Nachusa Grasslands, restricted in April because of COVID-19,  could now—cautiously—begin. Saturday, Jeff and I drove to Franklin Grove, IL, so I could walk several of my regular routes and see what was flying.Nachusa Fame Flower Knob 5220 rocks WM.jpg

The day started out fair and sunny but gradually turned overcast and windy as we traveled. Yet the thought of being back at Nachusa–taking on a task that felt “normal” for spring—was a lift to our spirits. It felt odd to travel an Interstate highway again. Strange to stop and put gas in the car—our Suburu has gotten about eight weeks to the gallon lately. It’s bizarre to see many businesses shuttered; to pass a shopping outlet mall turned COVID testing center, lined with cars. What was so familiar only months ago is now changed.

Arriving at Nachusa, I hop out of the car to maneuver the heavy metal bars of the bison gate open and drive into the bison unit,

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Jeff and I scan the prairie ahead. The bison are noticeably absent. How such massive animals can disappear into the prairie is a mystery. I know that this spring, at least nine bison calves have been sighted. I look again. Nada. I remember previous summers and the joy I felt when the mamas and new babies appear.

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We continue to look for bison—and dragonflies—as we travel the gravel two-track to one of my route locations. Normally, the first dragonfly monitoring hike of the season is in April, although not much is flying at that time. Common green darners (Anax junius) will have arrived from the south. Freshly-minted  dragonflies and damselflies should be emerging from the ponds and streams, ready to participate in the ancient dance of pairing up and creating new life.Cattails NG PowerlinePonds5220WM.jpg

Although we’ve driven this two-track many times, it looks different this spring. Nachusa is known for prescribed fire; this is the first time I’ve seen its approximately 3,500 acres untouched by flames at this time of year. If you didn’t know it was May—and ignored the temperature —it could easily be January. But look closer, and you see that underlying carpet of emerald.

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Our first stop is a large pond I’ve monitored since 2013. But wait!

Where is it?

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What? It’s gone! Oh no…I can’t bear looking.

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It was in this pond that I saw my first Northern pintails, migrating through Illinois and stopping for a quick paddle and a bite to eat. It was here I had my one and only face-off with a mama bison; me, carelessly walking my route without paying attention to their movements. This pond is where the great egret would stop to rest on its hunting expeditions. So many memories. What could have caused such a change?

I remember the pond as it was in previous years.

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I look again. Wow.

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Later, I learn what’s happened. Beavers! They’ve spent the past months re-sculpting the prairie landscape to be more to their liking. Who would have thought? At Nachusa, I usually think about the thousand pound-plus bison and the changes they may make to the places I frequent. Amazing what a few 50-pound beavers can do in a matter of months. Such a big changes from a small animal. I think of Mary Oliver’s poem “Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard”: “It’s not size, but surge that tells us when we’re in touch with something real…” Although the beavers’ work was slow and gradual; the end result brings about a surge of emotion. The beavers have upended my idea of a place I thought I knew. I feel unsettled.

Onward! Next monitoring route. Once a stream, then re-shaped by beavers several years ago as a pond, now a stream again. It’s fascinating to see the different types of dragonfly and damselfly species change over time with the habitat changes; some dragonflies prefer running water, others choose still water.  Jeff sets up his camp chair and pulls out a book while I pick my way alongside the stream, watching for any insect movement.

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The skies fill with clouds as the wind picks up, although the temperature remains in the 70s. A great blue heron flies over.

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After 30 minutes, it’s clear no Odonates are out and about; at least none I can find. Not surprising at this time of year. I log my times and mark the data sheet with a big fat zero. We pack up, and move to the next route.  Around a curve, over a bridge, and across the prairie on the gravel two-track.  Still no bison. But—stop the car!— I shout. Jeff quickly pulls over, and we get out and marvel over a carpet of wood betony—Pedicularis canadensis—more than I’ve seen in all my years as a prairie steward.

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Wood betony is a hemiparasite which can draw nutrients from other plants, especially prairie grasses. For this reason, it is coveted by prairie stewards who want to open grass-dominate areas for prairie wildflowers. I love this wildflower for its crazy flowers and crinkly leaves.

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The bumblebees are working the pinwheeled blooms, sampling one after another.

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I read on Illinois Wildflowers website later that long-tongued bees are the primary pollinators, including queen bumblebees and mason bees.

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We watch the bees for a while, then clamber back into the car and continue to the next site, a small pool I call the “Power Line Pond.”

Except…not so small anymore.

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The beavers strike again!

This pond is flooded almost beyond recognition.

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When bison came to Nachusa Grasslands, their hooves changed the shoreline of this watering hole, making it difficult to get close to the water in places. Last year, I re-rerouted my data collection hikes in an ever-widening arc to stay on solid footing. Today, I’m grateful for my knee-high rubber boots. Looks like I’ll be wading.

As I slosh through the water, I see them. Common green darners!

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My first dragonfly data for the season. Delighted, I mark my tally sheet.  Jeff and I watch them zip across the expanded pond, occasionally stopping to oviposit, then flying to a new spot to start again. Another common green darner appears, flying solo. One of the best moments of dragonfly season is making the first hash mark on your data sheet. Today is that day. The season is off and running. At last.

There are several small ephemeral pools nearby, perhaps bison-made, that sometimes shelter damselflies of various species. Today, all I see are a few water-striders, admiring themselves in the mirror of the sky-reflected water.

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One of my all-time favorite novels, Crow Lake, tells the story of three children unexpectedly orphaned in rural Canada. The oldest son, about to leave for college, chooses to invest in his siblings and stay home so they won’t be parceled out to various relatives. By doing so, he comes to terms with his losses, including a promising future derailed. Mary Lawson uses the life of a pond—-in particular, its surface tension—as a way to consider how sudden change may re-route our plans; cause us to reinvent ourselves. The outcomes aren’t always what we’d expected, or even hoped for. It’s how we choose to respond to sudden change that shapes us and our future, she shows through her story.

This trio of common green darners  turned out to be all we’d see for the day. A spatter of rain begins, and our hopes of more sightings disappear. We drive out of the bison unit, and head for home. But on the way, we pass Clear Creek, one of my routes I’ve not gotten to today. We swing in and park. The chances are slim to none to see any dragonflies or damselflies, but who can resist one more hike?

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As we walk, we glimpse the quick touch-down of a mourning cloak butterfly. This spring, I’ve only seen the cabbage white butterflies and red admirals. Mourning cloak butterflies are unusual in that they often overwinter, then mate in the spring. This one refused to turn around and give us the full glory of its coloration.

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But I had seen this species in bright sunlight the previous spring, and marveled.

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It is exciting to see the first butterflies of the season. But I want dragonflies. I wade into Clear Creek and scrutinize the shoreline, slowly walking the edges. Later in the season, Clear Creek is populated by ebony jewelwing damselflies and springwater dancer damselflies and shadow darner dragonflies. But today, no damselfly or dragonfly is stirring under the steel gray skies.Clear Creek NG 5220WM

I pull a few garlic mustard plants, then wade back to the trail. Jeff has already hiked to the top of  Fame Flower Knob, overlooking the creek.

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I follow the trail to the top, scrutinizing the new growth as I hike. No dragonflies on the trail…but look!

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Sand phlox. An unexpected delight. And over here…pussy toes.

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Such unusual flowers. Like a cluster of shaggy Q-tips.

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And over here….a small patch of birdfoot violet. So tiny!

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I spend some time admiring them up close. Then, I join Jeff.

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Together we’re silent, taking in the view. It’s familiar, yet changed by circumstances — the lack of prescribed fire, the work of prairie creatures such as bison and beavers, the temporary lack of stewardship activity over the past weeks during Illinois’ quarantine. Witnessing these changes to a place I care about is part of building a relationship with it.

What other changes will 2020 bring?

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There’s no way to know. But I do know this. I’ll be back here, to watch them unfold.

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J.R.R. Tolkien is best loved for his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and the delightful prequel,  The Hobbit. The lines that kick off this post are spoken by the dwarf Thorin to young dwarves in The Hobbit as they look for shelter in a rainstorm on their way to burgle treasure from the fearsome dragon Smaug. Instead of shelter, the dwarves find… well, if you haven’t read the book in a while, this is a great time to revisit it. Read more here.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL, unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum recurvatum), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; smooth Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Fame Flower Knob;  Nachusa in early May; bison (Bison bison) with their little ones (taken in a previous year); pond in early May; Nachusa Grasslands in early May; dried out pond in May; great egret (Ardea alba); pond in 2017; former pond in 2020; stream; great blue heron (Ardea herodias); wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis)); wood betony ((Pedicularis canadensis) with unknown bumblebee (Bombus spp.);  wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis) with unknown bumblebee (Bombus spp.) ; wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis) with unknown bumblebee (Bombus spp.)’ Power Line Pond; Power Line Pond; common green darner dragonflies (Anax junius) at Busse Woods (taken in a previous season), Forest Preserve of Cook County, Schaumburg, IL; water strider (possibly Aquarius remigis); two-track gravel road to Clear Creek; mourning cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa); mourning cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Clear Creek in early May; Fame Flower Knob in early May; sand phlox (Phlox bifida); field pussy toes (Antennaria neglecta); field pussy toes (Antennaria neglecta); birdfoot violets (Viola pedata); Fame Flower Knob in early May, red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus). Thanks to the Kleimans for their help in understanding how beavers are changing Nachusa Grasslands.

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Several of Cindy’s classes have moved online! For updates on classes and events, please go to http://www.cindycrosby.com.

If you enjoyed the “Wild and Wonderful Illinois Wildflowers” webinar, please join me for the new Enchanting Spring Prairie Wildflowers, an online webinar this Friday, May 8 1-2:30 p.m. CST, through The Morton Arboretum. Spring on the prairie is a story of color, pollinator pizazz, and native  plants that shaped North American history through their value as  edibles, medicine, and even love charms! Enjoy colorful  photos of some of Illinois’ most beautiful blooms—and a few native  grasses, too!  Click here to register.  

The next “Tallgrass Prairie Ecology” class online on May 4 through The Morton Arboretum is SOLD OUT.   See more information and registration for our June class  here.

Want more prairie while you are sheltering in place? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.

Prairie Comforts

“If you can’t fly, then run, if you can’t run, then walk, if you can’t walk, then crawl, but by all means keep moving.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

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A bitter wind rattles the windows.  The forecast calls for a possible freeze tonight, jeopardizing my risky plantings of onions, carrots, peas, radishes, kale, and spinach in the backyard garden. Spinach has leafed out. Radishes are up in the raised beds.

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Such tiny seedlings to face a freeze! Enlisting Jeff’s help, I find a sheet and some old towels, then  we drape the raised beds and tuck the ends in with bricks. Now, my garden is ready to face the frigid night ahead.  I hope.

After we finish, I look around the yard and admire what spring has accomplished. Marsh marigolds necklace the pond. Are they blooming in the prairie wetlands right now? I wonder.

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A few marsh marigolds have escaped the pond, leapt the steps leading to the patio, and are in bloom around the hose.

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These enthusiastic wildflowers bring me a lot of joy.  Marsh marigolds are one of the Midwest’s native plants. A similar, but unwelcome yellow flower also stalks my neighborhood: the Ficaria verna, the lesser celandine. On our walks through local subdivisions, Jeff and I spy this invasive hanging out on a street corner and tucked into the edge of a copse of trees.

Ficara Verna-WMlessercelandineLincolnHill41320.jpgAs a prairie steward, I keep my eyes open for this marsh marigold imposter and ruthlessly eradicate it where I can. Give it an inch and it will take over the block. Look at the leaves and flowers of lesser celandine above, then look at the marsh marigolds below. Similar. But different.

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I’m grateful for the marsh marigolds this week. They’re a welcome ray of sunshine. A little bit of comfort .

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On Sunday, Jeff and I drive to our daughter’s house for a subdued Easter celebration. In the spirit of social distancing we set up lawn chairs in a corner of their yard and they watch from the porch as the little ones hunt eggs. Afterwards, we swap holiday food in bags–my bread, their lamb and potatoes—and we head home for our duo Easter dinner.  The sidewalks and neighborhoods are crowded with families riding bikes together; going for walks.

As we drive past the College of DuPage prairies, I notice something different.

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Not a soul in sight.

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Stop! We turn into the parking lot. The skies threaten rain, but that isn’t going to stop us.

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The prairie at this time of year is a mix of burned areas and unburned areas. The prescribed fires that keep a prairie healthy have done their work. That green! I had forgotten how intense it is.

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Prairie dropseed scrub brushes are distinctive at this time of year when other plants are barely up.

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Rattlesnake master is unmistakeable—one of the first prairie plants to poke its leaves out of the ground.RattlesnakeMaster41220CODWMWM

Look closely at those leaves above. Like yucca, aren’t they? As its scientific name, Eryngium yuccifolium intimates. Over there –is that a sedge? Yes! But I’m not completely sure of its ID. Mead’s sedge? Pennsylvania sedge, maybe? Hmmm. I try keying it out on my iNaturalist app, but the app isn’t, either. A little mystery.

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Along the path, the bee balm, Monarda fistulosa, spreads its tender growth like a throw rug. I crush a tiny leaf and inhale. Mmmm.  Like minty oregano.

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The prescribed burn has cleared most of last year’s grasses from the prairie, blackened the earth. Despite the blustery weather, the prairie will warm up quickly.

Already, the fringed clamshells of compass plants hold promise. Although the shoots are only a bit taller than my index finger, I’ll see blooms this summer on stalks up to 12 feet high.

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What will I be thinking in late July when it blooms? What will the world be like? After experiencing this pandemic, and the closure of so many natural areas—and crowds in others—I doubt I will ever take a prairie hike like this one for granted again.

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A killdeer calls, then scrabbles across the prairie. Looking for a nest site? Perhaps. I feel my spirits lift. Killdeer are always one of the first signs of spring on the prairie.

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The College of DuPage prairies offer Jeff and myself some much needed solace. You may have felt, as I felt at first, that it is selfish in these times to grieve such things as the loss of a regular walk in a familiar place, or the disappointment of missing a particular patch of hepatica in bloom…

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…or the loss of missing the arrival of spring migrants to a patch of woodland you visit. Perhaps you are unable to go into the field to do your science research; work you’ve planned and received funding for this season at great personal outpouring of energy. Or maybe you mourn the disappearance of the simple rhythms of being a natural areas volunteer and the companionship of others working with you to to restore a prairie, woodland, or wetland. You wonder what’s happening in the places you love—-some now closed off to you for the safety and well-being of all. A good thing. But difficult.

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These losses—of course!—are small when weighed against the loss of a job; the loss of our health, the loss of a beloved friend or family member. The sadness when we can’t hug our grandchildren. The fear we feel over something as simple as grocery shopping.  I’ve felt small-minded for even fussing over a prairie closed; a crowded natural area. What are these losses, really?  And yet, I’ve come to realize they are important losses, none-the-less. These places are part of us. These ordinary rituals, these rhythms of our lives, when lost, un-moor us, unsettle us, shake us. They come at a time when other rituals and rhythms of life are also upended. We long for the simple comforts of our familiar places and routines. Many of them will be unavailable to us for a while.

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My sister, a therapist, tells me we are experiencing trauma, and all of us will respond differently to it. And without some of our prairie walks and work in the places we know and love, we are forced to find new rituals and rhythms. Even as we do so, each of our losses must be acknowledged and grieved.

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I’m establishing new rituals and reacquainting myself with some older ones I’ve neglected over the past few years. A neighborhood walk each morning and evening. A little sketching. Planting my garden. Putting more thought into meals. Eating breakfast together every morning with Jeff, instead of rushing off to work. Restarting my journal, which had gone through a period of neglect.

Watching the rhubarb and other perennials in my yard emerge. I planted rhubarb several times in my garden, and it was never happy. But at last, its seems, I’ve found a spot it likes. I think of rhubarb pie in a few weeks. Something to anticipate.

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I’m enjoying the pleasures of clearing my prairie patch and backyard borders of last  year’s dead growth. Watching the crinkled shell-shaped leaves of alum root emerge.

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I pay closer attention to my backyard these days on a daily basis. Each day, my backyard prairie patch—and the prairies in my community—offers surprises. Cup plant leaves appear. Birds return. Forgotten onion bulbs sprout in the vegetable garden. This week, I spotted my first dragonfly—a common green darner. These natural rhythms continue, even when so much seems in disarray.

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I’m learning to live with greater ambiguity. Becoming more comfortable with being uncomfortable. Instead of planning my year, I try to plan a single day. It’s about as far ahead as I can think. Sometimes, I realize, not much will be accomplished. And that’s okay.

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There are new glories in the natural world to appreciate each morning. I only have to remember to look. To pay attention. In a world full of uncertainty, I may not be able to “fly,” as Martin Luther King, Jr, said in the opening quote. But I can keep moving forward, a little bit at a time.

The emerging prairie shows the way.

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Martin Luther King, Jr., (1929-68) was a civil rights activist who advocated non-violence. King won the Noble Peace Prize for his work for racial equality, and was assassinated because of this work in 1968. Listen to his most famous speech, “I Have A Dream.” given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): radish (Raphanus raphanistrum subsp. sativus) seedlings, author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; invasive lesser celandine (Ficaria verna), neighborhood side of Willowbrook Wildlife Forest Preserve, Glen Ellyn, IL; marsh marigold, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; street signs, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) overlooking the Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL;  pond on the Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; College of DuPage Prairie in early April; prairie dropseed (Sporabolus heterolepis); Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL: rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas , Glen Ellyn, IL; unknown sedge in the Carex family (possibly Mead’s or Pennsylvania), Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plants (Silphium laciniatum), Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant flower (Silphium laciniatum), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; killdeer (Charadrius vociferus), Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL;  sharp-lobed hepatica (Hepatica nobilis acuta), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (archival photo); Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), College of DuPage Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) emerging, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL;  prairie alum root (Heuchera richardsonii), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; East Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Thank you to Paul Marcum who helped me narrow down the sedge ID.

****

THIS WEEK: Join me for a free spring wildflower webinar through the Morton Arboretum from wherever you are sheltering in place! “Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Wildflowers,” April 17, 1-2:30 p.m. CST.–No cost, but you must register to receive the link and additional instructions:  Register Here.

The next “Tallgrass Prairie Ecology” class online begins in early May through The Morton Arboretum. See more information and registration  here. The website is updated to reflect current conditions. A free spring wildflower webinar is also in the works! Watch for a link on Cindy’s website, coming soon.

Several of Cindy’s classes have moved online! For updates on classes and events, please go to http://www.cindycrosby.com.

Want more prairie while you are sheltering in place? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.

Looking for Light on the Prairie

“The…world becomes even more beautiful the closer you look. All it takes is attention and knowing how to look.” – –Robin Wall Kimmerer

****

What stories does a feather have to tell?

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Jeff and I are hiking Belmont Prairie; our last hike, it turns out, for a while. As we follow the shallow stream to where it disappears…

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…the feather comes into focus at my feet. It looks unreal, with its polka-dotted edge and its graceful arch. Such a lovely silken feather, lying in the mud. I wonder. Who did it belong to? Later, I text a photo of it to a birder friend. Downy or hairy woodpecker, he tells me, most likely. I wonder at the stories this feather could tell.

Once, this feather embodied flight. It provided warmth and waterproofing. Now, it is grounded. Soon, it will disappear into the prairie soil and be unremembered. Except by me.

I’ve felt sad this week. A deep grief. There has been so much loss.

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My usual remedy for sadness and uncertainty is to go to “my” prairies and walk, journal, and think. But the options for hiking have narrowed this week. My prairie stewardship is on hold because of our shelter in place orders. One prairie where I lead a regular work group is closed. Another, requires extensive travel, and I’m no longer comfortable with the idea of driving 90 miles each way. Scientific research and monitoring is halted until the end of the month. Or longer.

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And now, a walk on Belmont Prairie—not far down the road from where I live—is becoming an adventure of the sort I don’t want. Narrow trails. Too many hikers.  Each of us is painfully aware of not getting too close to the other.

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Today, instead of enjoying my walk here, I feel tense.  A hiker appears in front of me, wearing earbuds. I step deep into the tallgrass and we smile at each other as he passes. Too close. Another arrives on a bike. Seeing me, she veers away. A bridge requires single file passage. Because there has been no prescribed burn due to the shelter in place, it’s difficult to see someone until we almost run into each other.

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This, I come to understand as I walk, will be my last hike here for a while. Looks like our backyard prairie may be the best place for Jeff and me during the next few weeks.

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Later, I try to sit with my grief over yet another loss. The loss of beloved places. I try not to ignore my feelings. Not set them aside. But I let myself feel this grief for a few moments. It’s slightly terrifying. My old ways of coping by “going for a hike on the prairie”  are no longer available. I realize I have a choice. I can be angry at what’s closed off to me. I can be depressed at what’s been taken away. Or…

I can be grateful for what I do have.

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I don’t want you to think I’m being Polyanna-ish about this. I’ve been mad this week, and I’ve been sad. I mourned when my  stewardship work was put on hold; and cried again when my other prairie was closed to visitation, science work, and stewardship. These were good decisions by good organizations—made for the health of people. But tough for those of us who love a particular place. Each loss hurt—to not see the emerging pasque flowers bud and bloom, to miss the first crinkled shoots of wood betony pushing through the prairie soil. To not watch the killdeer return. The emerald scrub brushes of newly-emerging prairie dropseed will be long and lush before I’m hiking those trails again.

belmontprairiebackside420WM.jpgThe solace of these familiar and beloved places is no longer available to me. I can choose to continue to be unhappy about this.  Or I can take account of what I do have.

What I do have is a backyard. I have my walks. ‘Round and ’round and ’round the block we go each morning, Jeff and I, soaking up the surprisingly diverse natural world of our neighborhood. Grassy lawns full of common wild violets, our Illinois state wildflower.

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Lawns–some full of diversity, others chemical-ed into monocultured submission. Some are power-edged sharply along sidewalks with volcano-mulched trees, aggressively brought to obedience.

Others are softer, more natural. An eastern-cottontail munches clover in one yard against a backdrop of daffodils. We hear loud cries, and look up as sandhill cranes fly over, somewhere above the bare silver maple limbs etched across blue skies and altocumulus clouds. Like stained glass windows to another world we can only dimly perceive.

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In the cracks of the driveways and the sidewalks blooms a tiny flower. I’m not sure if it’s early Whitlow grass or common chickweed. My iNaturalist app isn’t sure of the ID either. I count the petals, and when I return home, consult my field guides. Chickweed has five petals, deeply cleft—which look like ten at a glance, my guide tells me. Early Whitlow grass, I read, has four petals, deeply cleft, looking as if they are eight petals.

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Chickweed it is!

As I walk, I think about the backyard that will be my “hiking spot” for the foreseeable future. When we moved in, and I met our neighbor Gerould Wilhelm, co-author of Flora of the Chicago Region, I asked his advice. What was the best way to learn native plants of our area? He told me, “Key out one plant in your backyard a day, Cindy. By the time a year has passed, you’ll know 365 plants.” It was great advice, and I took it—for a while. Then I quit. Now might be the time to put my backyard ID into more regular practice.

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I walk through my yard, looking. Over there in the prairie patch—new growth of rattlesnake master and shooting star. And —oh no—buckthorn! Garlic mustard has infiltrated the prairie patch, pond, and garden beds. While my attention was elsewhere doing my stewardship work removing invasives the past few years, these bad-boy plants crept into my yard.

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As I slosh through the wetter areas of the yard, I’m reminded that our house is on the downslope of three other homes in our suburban subdivision. Water, water, everywhere. Our raised beds have helped us solve the problem of growing vegetables in the “swamp.” My little hand-dug pond, sited at the lowest point of the yard, holds some of the water and provides great habitat for western chorus frogs, dragonflies and damselflies, and marsh marigolds which came into bloom a few days ago on the perimeter.

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One of the outflows of all this water is the mosses that accumulate.  But what kinds of mosses? With mosses on my mind, I ordered a  “Common Mosses of the Northeast and Appalachians,” recommended by Dr. Andrew Hipp.  (If you haven’t checked out his thoughtful and intelligent woodland blog, give it a look!) Mosses are…. difficult. I begin with a simple moss that appears in the cracks of our neighborhood sidewalks and backyard patio.

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I follow with a photo of a moss from my Belmont hike.

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Hmmm. It’s a good book. But I can see identifying mosses is going to be a challenge. There’s no instant gratification, and it’s a lot more difficult than ID’ing the chickweed. But, it’s a potentially absorbing activity that I can look forward to over the next few weeks in my backyard. I like having something new to focus on that’s available to me.

After a while, I put the mosses book aside and sit in a patch of sunshine. A cardinal pours out his heart to his lady-love. Goldfinches chitter and chat, then swarm the thistle feeder, resplendent in their brightening plumage.

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It’s good to feel a connection with my backyard. A kinship with the natural world.  ID’ing mosses—feeling the warmth of the sun, listening to birdsong—reminds me that I’m not alone. I needed that reminder right now.  You, too?

We’re in this together.

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Keep looking for the light. It’s there.

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Keep watching for signs of hope. Pay attention.

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Hope and light are all around us. We only need to look.

*****

The opening quote is from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s (1953-) Gathering  Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses (2003). She is best known for Braiding Sweetgrass, but her earlier book is still my favorite.

****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): downy or hairy woodpecker feather, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; stream trickling to an end at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; trail by Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; raccoon (Procyon lotor) tracks, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; footbridge over the stream through Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; Jeff hikes Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; common blue violet (Viola sororia sororia); silver maple (Acer saccharinum) with sky and clouds, author’s neighborhood, Glen Ellyn, IL; common chickweed (Stellaria media), author’s neighborhood, Glen Ellyn, IL;   bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), invasive Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) and native rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; unknown moss (but hopefully not for long!), author’s neighborhood, Glen Ellyn, IL; unknown moss (but hopefully not for long!); Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; goldfinches (Spinus tristis) at the feeder, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; sun halo over author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL: unknown rock on my neighborhood walk, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Thanks to John Heneghan for help with the bird feather ID.

*****

Cindy’s Speaking and Classes

Cindy’s classes have moved online! For updates on classes and events, please go to http://www.cindycrosby.com. The next “Tallgrass Prairie Ecology” class online begins in early May through The Morton Arboretum. See more information and registration  here. The website is updated to reflect current conditions. A free spring wildflower webinar is also in the works! Watch for a link on Cindy’s website, coming soon.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.

A Little Prairie Solace

“Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile, the world goes on…” — Mary Oliver

******

Jeff and I began the hopeful work of garden prep on Sunday. We added a new raised bed and filled it with compost and top soil; then knocked down some old zinnia and tomato stalks in an older raised bed and carted them away.  I spaded and forked in a dollop of compost here, breaking up a dirt clod over there. And then — look! A few sprouting onion sets, missed from the year before. Something alive and growing! So welcome.

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In the herb garden, the chives were up. My Egyptian walking onions were vital enough to cut some of the tops and use them in an omelet. The first greens of the year. In the backyard prairie patch, the signs of life were less evident. But I know it’s only a few days  until the life-force of new plants push through the ground. Spring.

As I raked topsoil, we heard a racket overhead. Waves and waves of sandhill cranes.

The cranes, as it turned out, were flying just ahead of a snowstorm that has since blanketed the Chicago region. By bedtime Sunday, the garden we had readied was covered with white. The pond and the prairie patch as well. We woke Monday morning to a completely different backyard that the one we’d gardened in the day before.

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Everything looked softer somehow, the harsh edges of unraked leaves and prairie grass stalks in the backyard blunted by snow. The activity and bag-lugging and digging the day before was over now for a while.

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I scanned the pewter sky. So silent. The cranes were somewhere north now, ahead of the weather.

*****

On Saturday, the Illinois shelter-in-place order was announced. Feeling unsettled by events, Jeff and I went to the Belmont Prairie for a short hike.

The prairie was empty.

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The sandhill cranes flew over as we hiked. It was reassuring, somehow—certainty in the midst of uncertainty. The cranes migration is a rhythm of spring, as dependable as the sun rising in the morning. Knowing that cranes of some species have been around for at least 10 million years is a comfort. Their lives go on.

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The creek flowed through the prairie, winding its way through this remnant as it likely has since time before human memory. Western chorus frogs sang from the wet areas. Creeeeek! Creeeek!

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A train whistled in the distance. High—oh so high in the sky—a plane  from O’Hare took off for parts unknown, and I thought of my niece, returning that same day from Australia after a study abroad cut short. How glad I was to know she was on her way home! I wondered—how much longer will planes continue to fly?  Will travel cease, as it did after 9/11? Unimaginable, only a month ago, that we would ponder these questions today.

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But life is full of the “unimaginable” right now. I thought of the stories I was hearing from friends; fears for health, for job security, for older family members far away.

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Jeff and I walked, and walked, and walked. In the creek, the new growth of cursed crowfoot spreads across the surface of the water.

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Deer tracks sliced through the grasses and wildflowers and mud…

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….showing where they had made their way through the prairie to drink here. I stepped across the footbridge and peered closer.

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Iris speared through the stream. That vivid green! The prairie was coming alive.

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I turned from the footbridge and made my way along the path. Would the Belmont Prairie stewards be able to burn this remnant prairie this season? How, when groups of people can no longer gather? Disruption. When will life return to “normal?”

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My stewardship work on both prairies where i volunteer is on hold. As it should be.

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All the hustle and bustle of tasks I once deemed imperative have taken a back seat to staying healthy.

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Keeping others healthy.

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And yet. In this midst of knowing so many of the ordinary tasks I take for granted would cease, it felt like a relief to do something—even if “doing something” essentially meant doing nothing. Or at least, less of what I was accustomed to.

****

In our new work-from-home rhythm, Jeff and I went for a walk Monday morning, admiring the transformation of our suburban street. A few houses down, the  neighborhood children—sequestered at home, with schools closed—had made a snowman.Snowman 32320WM

By Monday afternoon, the snow had all but melted. In the wetlands at the Arboretum, the skunk cabbage was in bloom. People were out walking in the neighborhood, desperate perhaps for some fresh air.

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My backyard pond, covered with the white stuff just six hours before, was snow-free by 4 p.m.

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This new rhythm of our days—the rhythm of sticking close to home—has its rewards. The backyard in close proximity has taken on new significance.  I refill the bird feeders, and marvel at the common but welcome birds that visit. Laugh at a fat robin that attacks the suet, or the herd of mourning doves that peck at the safflower seed. The squirrels even get a pass this week as they scale the feeders—a Herculean task, due to squirrel baffles and other deterrents. Their ability to make me laugh is worth a few pounds of birdseed. The snow this weekend brought out the first truly “gold” goldfinches, which showed up at the thistle feeder in full mating plumage. A change of color. Another signpost of spring.

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After our morning walk on Monday, Jeff and I worked from home until supper time. Then, we went for another walk to end the day. We’ve both found that a 30-minute hike helps alleviate the stress that can accumulate when the news of the day feels like…well…too much. These walks are bookends to the day that are helping us establish new rituals of “normalcy.”

Indiangrass32120BelmontPrairieWM.jpgAround and around and around the block we walked, oohing and aahing over simple things. The sound of a cardinal singing. Lichens patterning a a tree branch in olive green. We even saw an owl.

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What will the next few days bring? We don’t know.  Every day is a new challenge in focus. We choose what we can control: Kindness. Patience. Attentiveness.

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Letting go of what we can’t control.

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As we walked around the block, we noticed that the snowman, made that morning by the kids down the block a few hours earlier, was now only a memory.

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But above that slushy mess, the flowering silver maples along the street signaled the hope of spring. Of a new season.

 

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Each day is a new challenge.

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Meanwhile, the natural world goes on.

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We can still choose to pay attention.

*****

The opening quote is from the poem, Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver. This particular poem has been so widespread and oft-quoted that people tend to dismiss it. It remains one of my favorites. Haven’t read it? Check it out here. You’ll be glad you did. Stay well, my friends.

****

All photos and video taken at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL;  unless otherwise indicated (top to bottom): garden bed, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis); author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn,IL; garden beds, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; trail through Belmont Prairie; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis); creek through Belmont Prairie; Indian hemp/dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum); round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata) (infected with a virus); cursed crowfoot (Ranunculus sceleratus–thank you Andrew Hipp, for the correction!); thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica); footbridge over the creek; iris (unknown species); compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium); pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida); queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota); snowman, author’s neighborhood, Glen Ellyn, IL; skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus); The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; pair of goldfinch (Spinus tristis) previously taken in April 2019, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans);  owl, species uncertain, author’s neighborhood, Glen Ellyn, IL;  little girl checks out the natural world; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium); snowman, author’s neighborhood, Glen Ellyn, IL; silver maple (Acer saccharinum), author’s neighborhood, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); Belmont Prairie trail.

***

Cindy’s classes have moved online! For current updates on classes and events, please go to http://www.cindycrosby.com.

*****

Have you always been curious about the native landscape of the Midwest, but didn’t have time to read?  Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit (order directly from Ice Cube Press) and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction  from Northwestern University Press (order from your independent bookseller if they remain open or deliver, or from Amazon.com for delivery in April.).  I’m grateful for your support in this difficult time for prairie, books, small publishers, and freelance writers like myself.

Waiting for Prairie Dragonflies

“Wild beauty sustains us…it makes each of us an heir to wonder.” — Terry Tempest Williams

*****

Crocus bloom in my backyard, bright spots in the brittle little bluestem and prairie dropseed.

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When I see these flower faces turned toward the sun, I know it won’t be long until the dragonflies arrive on the prairie. I check Willoway Brook. Then, the local ponds. A prairie stream.

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Under the water’s surface, the dragonfly and damselfly nymphs are waiting.

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Soon, they’ll emerge…

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…then transform from creatures of the water to their teneral stage. Weak, colorless, they are at the mercy of birds, frogs, and predators with an urge for a “dragonfly crunch” lunch.

TeneralAmericanRubyspotSPMAWilloway6718WM.jpg They slowly transform……

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…to aerial experts with brilliant coloration.

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Those eyes!

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The diversity of Odonates never ceases to startle…

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…delight…

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…and amaze.

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The spreadwing damselflies like this one below (so difficult to ID)….

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…remind us there is mystery in the midst of knowledge. Not everything can be known at a glance. Then, later, the white-faced meadowhawk dragonflies show up, their pearl faces lending confidence to their name and ID.

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Some early emergents seem to scoff at April snows and colder weather. We may even see green darners working the ponds for early insects by the end of March. Weather permitting. Down south, the migratory dragonflies will begin making their way to the Midwest. They’ll arrive soon—at the end of the month or early in April—the green darners, the wandering gliders, the black saddlebags…

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…ready to find a mate.

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Together…

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…they give us hope for a healthy and prolific Odonate future.

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Soon, the prairie will come alive with the whiz and zip of dragonflies and damselflies. Meanwhile, we watch. Anticipating.

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Will you be there to see them return and emerge? Walk the prairie paths. Be alert.

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Eyes to the skies.

I can’t wait.

******

Terry Tempest Williams (1955-) is writer-in-residence at Harvard Divinity School. Her latest book Erosion: Essays of Undoing explores her work as a writer, activist, and educator.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken in previous dragonfly seasons (Top to Bottom): crocus (Crocus sativus), author’s backyard prairie plantings, Glen Ellyn, IL; stream through Springbrook Prairie, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Naperville, IL;  Hine’s emerald dragonfly nymph (Somatochlora hineana), Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; teneral American Rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American Rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana), Nachusa Grasslands, Nature Conservancy of Illinois, Franklin Grove, IL; American Rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Carolina saddlebags (Tramea carolina), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; familiar bluet damselfly (Enallagma civile), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Franklin Grove, IL; eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blue dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown spreadwing (Lestes spp.), Ware Field prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  white-faced meadowhawk (Sympetrum obtrusum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Carolina saddlebags dragonflies (Tramea carolina); Ware Field prairie planting, the Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ebony jewelwing damselflies  (Calopteryx maculata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Halloween pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina); Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; exploring the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; exploring the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

******

Cindy’s new book, Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History is available for preorder now from your favorite indie bookstore, The Morton Arboretum Store, or online  (with original art from Peggy Macnamara, Field Museum artist in residence).  Publication is June 2020 from Northwestern University Press.

Join Cindy for a Class or Talk in March

The Tallgrass Prairie: A ConversationMarch 12  Thursday, 10am-12noon, Leafing Through the Pages Book Club, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Open to the public; however, all regular Arboretum admission fees apply.  Books available at The Arboretum Store.

Dragonfly Workshop, March 14  Saturday, 9-11:30 a.m.  Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. Free and open to new and experienced dragonfly monitors, prairie stewards, and the public, but you must register as space is limited. Contact phrelanzer@gmail.com for more information.  Details will be sent with registration. UPDATE: THIS WORKSHOP IS POSTPONED. Watch for new date soon!

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26 through the Morton Arboretum.  Details and registration here.

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

5 Reasons to Hike the February Prairie

“…Some say that February’s name comes from an ancient and forgotten word meaning “a time that tries the patience.” — Hal Borland

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February is the shortest month of the year. But it may seem like the longest.

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Big, wet snowflakes fall outside. I welcome the snow—-it brightens up the seemingly endless gray skies that feature so prominently this month. Snow helps lift my mood. Hiking the prairie? Even more so.

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Let’s take a stroll on the prairie…

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…and find five good reasons to walk it in February.

1. Experience Weather Swings

Indecisive February!

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The weather shivers between rain, sleet, sunshine and snow. To hike the prairie this month is to experience shifts of temperature in real time. Feel the freezing sleet on your face. Admire the snowflakes that collect on your sleeve. Crystals play on a hundred thousand seedpods, as precipitation pelts the prairie plants.

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I love to discover transitions on the prairie as the temperatures plunge and rise.

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There’s the tension between freeze and thaw; sunshine and leaden skies; the snap of ice under our boots and the suck of mud. February is all about our impatience for the last month of meteorological winter to finish and the first month of meteorological spring to arrive in Illinois. Hurry up! Our minds are already turning to spring. But what a loss it would be, if we failed to enjoy what February has to offer.

2. Signs of the Unseen

I rarely glimpse the meadow voles, prairie voles, or white-footed mice during the warmer months in the tallgrass. Although once in a while I’m surprised, as Jeff and I were this spring when we reached into a prairie trail map box and found these tenants.

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In winter, these mostly-invisible members of the tallgrass community are betrayed by their tracks and tunnels. I think about them as I follow their progress across the prairie.  The collapsed snow tunnels. An occasional escape hole. And my favorite—the sewing machine “stitches” —-tiny tracks evenly spaced—that criss-cross the trails.

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As we hike, Jeff and I leave our tracks alongside their prints—and the tracks of geese, coyotes, deer, and other members of the prairie community. I like that. It reminds me that we’re all a part of this place.

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3.  Plant Silhouettes

The same gray skies that plunge some of us into seasonal affective disorder throw prairie plants into sharp relief this month. It’s a new perspective. Indian hemp pods swing in bundles, bereft of any seeds.

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I’m more aware of the ribbon-like curves of big bluestem leaves, shorn now of  their turkey-footed seadheads.

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I enjoy the rhythmic sway of Indian grass, pushed by periodic blasts of Arctic wind.

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Prairie cinquefoil takes on a ghostly aspect, blurred in the falling sleet.  Its silhouette makes me think of tulips. Of the bulbs beginning to spear through the garden in my backyard. Of spring.

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These grasses and wildflowers won’t be here long.

Fire is coming.

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4. Unexpected Gatherings

When I think “grassland birds,” mourning doves aren’t exactly what comes to mind. But hiking the College of DuPage’s Russell Kirt Prairie this weekend, that’s what turned up. Notice how this mob has fluffed out their feathers against the cold—like down vests, puffy and tinged with color. It reminds me of the down vests I wore in the 1970s.

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Why did they choose this tree on the prairie, and not another? What are they murmuring about? I wonder. After a bit of looking around on birding websites, I discover a group of doves is called a “dole” or “dule,” and sometimes, a “cote, a “bevy,” and even, a “flight.” Flight? Maybe not. These birds look like they’ve settled in for the long haul.

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Seeing them in the tree reminds me of one of my favorite scenes from the original 1967 Disney adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book.” Remember the four vultures, loosely modeled on the Beatles, talking to each other in a tree? “What do you wanna do?” one asks. “I dunno, what do you want to do?” And so it goes. I can imagine these mourning doves asking each other the same question, over and over. Makes me smile.

5. Snow Magic

Hike the prairie in February, and you’ll be aware of contrasts. Snow is the mitigator. A light dusting of snow makes everything softer, brighter, more appealing. Snowmelt softens the crisp edges of senescing plants, like this prairie dock leaf.

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Cup plants, cracked and brittle…

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…become a foil for the crystal flakes, their veins and wrinkles more obvious now than in the summer. This leaf looks like footed pajamas hung on a laundry line, doesn’t it?

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A sprinkling of snow makes February’s gray skies seem a little brighter.

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A little snow makes the month of February a little more do-able. More digestible. Beautiful. Why not go for a hike and see for yourself?

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February will be over before you know it.  The prairie is waiting.

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This winter, I’ve been enjoying the writing of Hal Borland (1900-1978), whose quote from A Sundial of the Seasons, 365 days of natural history observations, opens this post.  It was tough to find his books—all out of print, I believe— so I’m once again grateful to the marvelous Sterling Morton Library of the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL,  which carefully curates vanishing works of literature like Borland’s. Thanks to Mary Joan for introducing me to to his work. The original opening quote is prefaced by the caveat, “There’s no evidence to support it in the dictionaries, but some say… .” Ha!  If the actual etymology of the word “February” isn’t true, the supposed meaning certainly is.

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All photos this week are taken at College of DuPage’s Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL, except where noted (top to bottom): Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum);  Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis); “Prairie Parking” sign with unknown lichens; snowy trail through the prairie; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); COD pond; white-footed mice (Peromyscus spp.), Wolf Road Prairie, Westchester, IL (photo from 2019); mouse and vole trails through the snow;  top of the ridge on COD’s Russell Kirt Prairie; Indian hemp, sometimes called dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum); big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); prairie cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta—us older prairie folks will remember it as Potentilla arguta); little bluestem (Schizachryium scoparium); mourning doves (Zenaida macroura); mourning doves (Zenaida macroura); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum); cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum); tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima) and wild bergamot, sometimes called bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); snowy trail through the prairie.

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Please join Cindy for a class or talk!

Pre-Valentine’s Event! The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Shop: February 13 (Thursday) 8-9 p.m., Park Ridge Garden Club, Centennial Activity Center 100 South Western Avenue Park Ridge, IL. Free and open to the public! Book signing follows.

Wheaton Book Signing! Local Authors Event.  Sunday, 2-3 p.m., Prairie Path Books in Town Square, Wheaton, IL. Free and open to the public. Click here for details.

Nature Writing and Art Retreat, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, February 22 (Saturday) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Cindy will be facilitating the writing portion. Sold Out. Waiting list –register here.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26.  Details and registration here.

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum. For details and registration, click here.  

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

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