Tag Archives: glen ellyn

Backyard Prairie Reflections

 “Tomorrow is forever, and years pass in no time at all.”–Mary Lawson

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Thunderstorms move through the Chicago region, offering blessed relief for prairies and backyard gardens. The cracked concrete earth soaks up the rain; fuel needed for seed creation and the last pumps of blooms ahead. You can feel the relief in the air.

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Pumpkin spice latte signs appear in coffee shop windows. The afternoon light slants lower; a little pixelled, a little grainy.  In stores, school supplies jostle with unicorn costumes and Halloween candy for shelf space. The first school buses cruise the streets, slowing traffic. Where did summer go?

Late summer and fall wildflowers show up: snakeroot, New England aster, goldenrod, blue vervain, boneset.  There is a last flush of swamp milkweed in the wetter areas.

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Green darner dragonflies move in clouds over the tallgrass; sometimes with black saddlebags and wandering glider dragonflies mixed in. Migration season is underway. My ear is tuned for the first northern birds moving south, but so far, it’s the usual suspects at the backyard feeders.

At Nachusa Grasslands, the bison calves have put on weight. Adult bison lounge in the grasses, in no particular hurry to go anywhere. August is about slowing down. Making time.

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Bunch galls, like alien wildflowers, appear on the goldenrods. This seems to be an especially good year for them. The goldenrod bunch galls, like the one below, are made by a tiny midge which feeds on the plant. The abnormal tissue forms a leafy rosette. Pretty, isn’t it? A harbinger of autumn.

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You’ll see other galls on the prairie if you look closely around you: ball galls, elliptical galls, blister galls. They all have different insect artists, busy at work on their creations. Bugguide.com has an excellent overview here.

The damselfly populations are beginning to taper off; but the violet dancers will hang around on the prairie until the end of the month. Common? Yes.  But no less special for their predictability. That violet!

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So much is happening on the tallgrass prairie in August. It’s difficult to miss a moment of it.

This past week, I’ve been regulated to the house for a bit to recover after some unexpected surgery. I’ve been trying to look at this enforced rest as an opportunity to slow down, catch up on reading,  and to enjoy the view from my back porch.  But with August in full swing on the prairie—and at the cusp of dragonfly migration season—it’s been a challenge. Without my prairie work and prairie hikes—or my natural history classes to teach—my backyard prairie patch, garden full of zinnias and tomatoes, and small pond have all been solace.

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You’d think a suburban backyard prairie patch and garden would be predictable and quiet. But I’m discovering the action never stops. From my vantage point on the porch, I see—for the first time—a great spreadwing damselfly. In my backyard pond! I’ve never seen them in the forest preserve where I once monitored, or the two prairie sites where I walk my dragonfly routes. And here in my backyard —right under my nose—he is.

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We look at each other for a bit.

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I admire his reflection in the pond until the wind fingers the water and ripples erase the image.

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He flies from perch to perch around the pond, then finally lands out of sight. Wow. Sometimes the biggest surprises are in your own backyard.

From the porch I watch the butterflies flap over the tomatoes. An eastern tiger swallowtail sips nectar from a zinnia mixed in with the gray-headed coneflowers. Zinnias mingle with my prairie plants. Although the zinnias are native to Mexico rather than Illinois, they are welcome in my garden as a magnet for pollinators.

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The same zinnia is quickly commandeered by a monarch. I haven’t found many caterpillars in my backyard this summer, but there are a lot of adults.

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Nearby, a painted lady takes her turn nectaring on the flowers.

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She floats to the rangy smartweed growing up through the rattlesnake master plants and rests for a bit on some leaves, letting me admire her soft, open wings. I’ve always struggled with the differences between a painted lady butterfly and the American lady butterfly. So similiar! And yet, different, if you know what to look for.  This bugguide.net side by side comparison has really helped me (click on the link). Take a look and see what you think.

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The Joe Pye weed in the backyard prairie patch is also a butterfly magnet. Bees work each individual petal; tiny dusty rose-pink tassels towering over my head. Moths love it too! An Ailanthus webworm moth competes with the bees for nectar, its bright geometric patterns a startling contrast.

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Bumblebees move from the Joe Pye blooms to buzz the ironweed. So many bees! I’ve tried to learn a few species without much success. Maybe now, I’ll have time.

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As I slowly walk through my backyard, I feel my frustration at not being able to go for a prairie hike dissipate.  Maybe….just maybe…this enforced rest and recovery will be an eye-opener. There’s a lot to see, right in front of me, just off my back porch. A lot to pay attention to. Goldfinches, sipping rainwater from the cup plants. The Cooper’s hawk lurking in a nearby maple, watching my birdfeeders for a snack. Cicadas tuning up. The smell of bee balm, the taste of mountain mint. So much color, music, fragrance, taste, and motion here. In the 20 years we’ve lived in the suburbs, I’ve never been more grateful than today that I planted a prairie patch; dug a small pond. I have a feeling the recovery time will fly.

Summer’s not over yet.

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Adventures await. Both in the backyard prairie and beyond.

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The opening quote is from Canadian novelist Mary Lawson (1946-) in her prize-winning first book, Crow Lake (2002). It’s one of my favorite novels about pond communities, rural life, academia, and northern Canada.  I re-read it every year.

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All photographs copyright Cindy Crosby: thunderstorm over the backyard garden and prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) with blue vervain (Verbena hastata) and late boneset (Eupatorium serotinum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; adult bison (Bison bison) Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; violet dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis violacea) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bunch gall on goldenrod made by a midge (Rhopalomyia solidaginis), Fermilab prairies, Batavia, IL; pond in author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; great spreadwing (Archilestes grandis), author’s backyard in Glen Ellyn, IL; great spreadwing (Arhilestes grandis), author’s backyard in Glen Ellyn, IL; reflection of great spreadwing damselfly (Archilestes grandis), author’s backyard in Glen Ellyn, IL; yellow eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus) with heirloom Cut and Come Again zinnias (Zinnia elegans) and grey-headed coneflowers (Ritibida pinnata), author’s backyard garden and prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) with heirloom Cut and Come Again zinnias (Zinnia elegans) and gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), author’s backyard garden and prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; painted lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui) on a Cut and Come Again zinnia (Zinnia elegans), author’s backyard garden and prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; Ailanthus webworm moth (Atteva aurea) on Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; tall ironweed (Vernonia gigantea) with brown-belted bumblebee (Bombis griseocollis), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; bench on the Schulenberg Prairie in August, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Cindy’s classes and speaking are on www.cindycrosby.com   

Tallgrass Prairie Adventures

 “Let us go on, and take the adventure that shall fall to us.” — C.S. Lewis

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If there’s one phrase my family knows I can’t stand, it’s this one: “Killing time.” Why? Time is precious. It’s irreplaceable. Each day is an adventure, if you let it be so. Why waste a moment?

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I think of this as I walk my dragonfly monitoring routes on the prairie this week. The wind has come up. Instead of gazing over my head for patrolling green darners and black saddlebags, I’m looking lower, in the grasses and prairie wildflowers. There, many of the regular high flying dragonflies hunker down, sheltering from the breezy heat.

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Each season, dragonfly monitors—people like you and me—go to a city park, prairie restoration, forest preserve pond, or local wetland with the intention of regularly collecting data about Odonates. Monitors—dragonfly chasers—spend a good chunk of their summer hours in mosquito-filled areas, counting dragonflies and damselflies and making hash marks on a clipboard. We note what species we see, and how many of each species appears on a certain day in a particular place.

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It sounds a little nutty, perhaps, to spend our days counting insects. But dragonflies and damselflies are a good thermometer for the state of our waterways. Their numbers and species diversity have messages for us about the health of our natural world. All we have to do is listen. Pay attention. Show up.

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Speaking of thermometers: It’s hot. Sweat trickles between my shoulder blades. I check my phone and see the temperature is 88 degrees. The relative humidity of the Midwest makes it seem even hotter, keeping most visitors off of the prairie trails.

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The dragonflies, which maintain body temperature through thermoregulatory behavior, have various gymnastics to help them stay cool.  This female eastern amberwing dragonfly below is obelisking.

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By positioning her abdomen straight up, she reduces some of the direct summer heat hitting her body. Sometimes, you’ll see dragonflies point their abdomens downward for the same reason. Or, if it’s cooler, they’ll use their wings as solar collectors, like this 12-spotted skimmer below. Gathering sunshine.

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This season, I find the blue-fronted dancer damselfly population has erupted out of all imagining. I walk, and I look, and I try to keep track of what I’m seeing. Hash mark, hash mark, hash mark… . I can barely keep track of them, emerging from the grasses on both sides of the prairie trail; a virtual ambush of bright blue insects. Under my feet. Hovering knee high. Blue-fronted dancer damselflies everywhere! Hash mark. Hash mark. I finally quit tallying them at 88 individuals.

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So much dazzling blue! The danger is that as I see so many of one species, I overlook some of the other species that aren’t as prolific. Like this violet dancer, mixed in with the blue-fronteds.

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Or an American rubyspot damselfly, hanging out by the stream.

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Damselflies are so darn tiny. Part of the day’s adventure is to slow down and really look. Carefully. Closely. But I’m always aware of what I’m missing, even as I see so much. All these incredible dragonflies and damselflies! But–that bee over there. What species is it? And what about that butterfly? What’s moving in the grass by the stream? The July prairie explodes with wildflowers all around me as I hike. How can I focus?

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It’s easy to be diverted. On one route,  I narrowly avoid stepping on a bee fly sunning itself on the gravel two-track.

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On another trail, I kick up little puffs of butterflies—maybe pearl crescents? Tough to ID. They rise, then settle back into the clover as I pass.

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I stop to watch a ruby-throated hummingbird swoop across the trail, then hover, sipping nectar from the dark reddish-brown flowers of a tall late figwort plant, towering over my head.  I didn’t know hummingbirds visit these tiny blooms! In the gusty breeze, the oddball flowers rocket wildly back and forth, but the hummingbird maneuvers right along with them. Later, I visit the Prairie Moon Nursery website and read more about this wildflower’s value to butterflies, bees, and—yes—hummingbirds. Who knew?

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There’s always something different and exciting to learn as I walk my dragonfly monitoring routes on the prairie. Always a small adventure of some sort, waiting to happen.

In rain-rutted puddles, bullfrogs leap across the water with an EEK!”

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The common yellowthroat sings his wichety-wichety-wichety from the walnut tree by the wooden bridge over Willoway Brook. I inhale the scent of a hundred thousand wildflowers and grasses; the smell of prairie soil that’s alternately been baked in a hot summer oven and soaked with rain.

As I finish my route near the stream, a red-winged blackbird hovers menacingly over my head, daring me to come closer. Are they still nesting? Must be! He shrieks loudly as I cover my head with my clipboard—just in case—and hurry a bit toward the path leading to the parking lot.

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So much to think about. The writer Paul Gruchow once observed, “Curiosity, imagination, inventiveness expand with use, like muscles, and atrophy with neglect.” One of the pleasures of dragonfly monitoring is the practice of paying close attention to everything on the July prairie. Flexing the muscles of my imagination. Resisting the urge to become jaded and cynical—all too easy in the world we find ourselves in today. Trying to choose where I focus.

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Even a simple hike on the prairie, counting dragonflies, can be an adventure. The writer Annie Dillard penned one of my favorite quotes: How we spend our days, is, of course, how we spend our lives.  I think of this as I watch a black saddlebag dragonfly cruise over my backyard prairie patch, or admire the way the cup plants cradle water in their joined leaves after a torrential downpour, inviting goldfinches to take a drink. I try to ask myself regularly: How am I spending my hours? How am I spending my life?

Every day I struggle to be intentional. To make room for curiosity. Imagination. The life of the spirit. The poet Mary Oliver wrote, When it’s over, I want to say: all my life/ I was a bride married to amazement/ I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

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Instead of “killing time,” I want to cultivate a sense of wonder. To look at every moment as an adventure. To make room for reflection. To walk, and always—always! —be astonished at what I see.

And how can we not be astonished? Look at those dragonflies, those wildflowers!  Listen to that birdsong. Watch the tallgrass ripple in the breeze.

What a beautiful world.

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British writer C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) penned the opening words in this blog from The Chronicles of Narnia, a series of classic children’s books. My favorite book in the series (although it is tough to choose!) is Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Lewis was a contemporary and friend of J.R.R. Tolkien, and part of a writers group known as The Inklings. The books are great for read-aloud, if you have children or grandchildren elementary age and up.

Minnesota writer Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) who wrote one of the quotes that appears in this post, is one of my favorite writers about the natural world. If you haven’t read Gruchow, try Journal of a Prairie Year, or Grass Roots: The Universe of Home. Both terrific reads. I also love his Boundary Waters: The Grace of the Wild.

The late poet Mary Oliver (1935-2019) penned the beautiful poem, When Death Comes, quoted at the end of this post.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bridge over Willoway Brook at the end of July, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata) with unknown grass, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; rattlesnake master (Eyrngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; female blue dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis) on rough blazing star (Liatris aspera), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; female eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; 12-spotted skimmer (Libellula pulchella) on prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya), author’s backyard and prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL;  blue-fronted dancer damselfly (Argia apicalis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet (or variable) dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis  var. violacea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American rubyspot (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands in July, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bee fly (possibly Bombylius major), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tough to ID, but possibly pearl crescent butterfly (Phyciodes tharos), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus or Rana catesbeiana), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Culver’s root in mid July (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; looking back at a dragonfly monitoring route at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

More about Cindy’s speaking and classes at www.cindycrosby.com 

Winter’s Prairie Encore

April is the cruelest month — T.S. Eliot

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Oh what a difference a few hours can make on the tallgrass prairie!

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Those of us in the cross hairs of a narrow band of deep snowfall found Sunday’s bizarre blizzard blast a bit of a surprise. Sure, the meteorologists had hyped it, but we’ve heard those gloom and doom predictions before. I paid little attention

On Saturday evening,  Jeff and I went for a hike on the Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum. So green!

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Sunday afternoon, our view out the back door of our house, just north of the prairie,  was a bit different.

At least five inches accumulated over the course of the day.  More than 1,000 flights were cancelled out of O’Hare Airport. Flights were also diverted in our backyard. The bird feeders were full of downy woodpeckers, cardinals, nuthatches, and a few shell-shocked goldfinches.

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My backyard prairie patch—with its “Monarch Way Station” sign—was barely visible the next morning. No monarchs returning from Mexico here, although the sightings in the Chicago region have already begun.

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At 6:30 a.m. Monday morning, my prairie pond is snow and slush.

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By 4:30 p.m. Monday, the heavy snow cover is mostly a distant memory, and the marsh marigolds look none the worse for wear. Snowstorm? What snowstorm?

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By late afternoon Monday, the sun is bright, our taxes are filed, and the temperatures have topped 50 degrees. Life is good. Sunday’s sudden snowfall is now a great story to tell. My little prairie patch is showing signs of life again , the grass is bright emerald, and the sky is impossibly  blue. Outside my window I hear the chorus frogs issuing some tentative trills. There’s the sound of water rumbling out of the gutters, and drip-splash, drip-splash from the roof. Everywhere, puddles mirror the sky.

How mercurial is spring!

This past week, I’ve been reacquainting myself with the plants of the prairie and savanna as they appear in miniature. Earlier this week, I went for a walk on the Belmont Prairie in nearby Downer’s Grove.

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Rattlesnake master is up.

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Today’s walk, after a prescribed burn, is a scavenger hunt of sorts.  There’s a shout-out to baseball season…

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…and a nod to the Master’s Tournament in Augusta this past weekend.

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I’ve found old wallets full of half-burned money, weeding tools, broken bottles, and a slew of flotsam and jetsam after a prescribed burn. What have you discovered on your prairie walks? Leave me a note at the bottom of this post, and let me know.

On Saturday, hiking the Schulenberg Prairie, I found plenty of empty snail shells.

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I don’t notice them much when the grasses and wildflowers fill in, so this time of year is my chance to study them more closely.   Recently, I read “The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating,” which won the John Burroughs award for nature writing in 2011. It’s the true story of Elisabeth Tova Bailey, who is bedridden with a chronic illness. A friend brings her a pot of field violets with a small snail hiding under the leaves. She spends her days lying in bed, observing the snail. Of the book, E.O. Wilson says simply, “Beautiful.”

Bailey’s discovery of the amazing life of the snail reminds me of how much life we are unaware of, all around us on the prairie.

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I want her powers of paying attention.

Still thinking about the book, I decide to check on the pasque flowers. Last week I found two plants! One had germinated from seeds sowed from the mother plant. It’s tough to see the plants against the rocky grays and browns of the graveled prairie. But now—oh glorious day—there are FOUR blooms. And three plants.

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They look tenuous, don’t they? I love these pasque flowers, struggling through the rocky substrate of the prairie before anything else is in bloom here. So fuzzy! That pale color! I’ve read that the common name “pasque” is said to mean “passing by” (Passover, from the Hebrew “pasakh”) or “Easter,” because of their bloom period. These are right on time.

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Soon, we’ll transplant our new pasque flower seedlings out to join them, started from seeds we gathered last spring and grew in the greenhouse. We’ll baby them through the summer. Sure, we have hundreds of wildflower species on the prairie, but to lose pasque flowers would leave an impossible void. There is nothing else on the prairie like them.

It’s difficult to see the four pasque flowers on the early spring prairie unless you know where to look. Not true for bloodroot, which has been in bloom all week in the prairie savanna.

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As I hike, I admire the bloodroot. I also discover the tiny leaves of purple meadow rue, the pink-veined leaves of shooting star forming tiny clumps, and  the pale yellow mayapple missile points bulleting up through the soil. All signs the season has turned, even with this brief snowy setback.

The marsh marigolds in my little backyard prairie pond, the bloodroot on the prairie savanna, and the pasque flowers all whisper spring to me—snow or no snow. Sure, we may see another  flurry or two before April is over.

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But under the snow melt, the prairie comes alive. It’s all a part of the seasonal dance: snowflakes and sunshine, ice and bloom, freeze and buzz.

No blast of winter is going to stop spring from coming.

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The opening quote is from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Eliot is probably best known for his series of poems, The Four Quartets. You can hear him read Burnt Norton here, or learn more about T.S. Eliot here.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): half moon over Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie greening up after prescribed fire, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; video of snowfall on Sunday outside author’s back door, Glen Ellyn, IL; goldfinches (Spinus tristis) at the feeder, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; author’s backyard prairie pond under snow, Glen Ellyn, IL; author’s backyard prairie pond at 4:30 p.m. the same day with marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) in bloom, Glen Ellyn, IL; Belmont Prairie clouds, Downer’s Grove, IL;  rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; baseball, Belmont Prairie Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; golf ball, Belmont Prairie Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; snail shell (species unknown), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; new growth at Belmont Prairie Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; line of osage orange (Maclura pomifera) trees at East Prairie and Ecological Study Area, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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Cindy’s Classes and Speaking This Week:

Ongoing: Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online continues, through The Morton Arboretum. Next class is in June, register here.

April 18: Spring Wildflower Walk, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: (Sold out)

Discover other classes and speaking at http://www.cindycrosby.com

A Tallgrass Season on the Brink

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

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

Spring. It’s coming. Two more weeks!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You too?

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

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

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

A Prairie Ice Age

“Love life first, then march through the gates of each season; go inside nature and develop the discipline to stop destructive behavior; learn tenderness…; listen to the truth the land will tell you; act accordingly.”–Gretel Ehrlich

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This week, it was anyone’s bet what the day would bring. Ice storm. Snow storm. Rain. Sleet.

Did I mention a day of almost 50-degree temps? When you live in the prairie states, there is never a lack for conversational topics. Nod, smile, comment on the weather. It’s one of the superficial daily trivialities I missed when I lived briefly in the South. The lack of weather chat there—that prattle I’d taken for granted as a Midwesterner—made me long for my roots and brought me back home.

This week, an ice storm shellacked prairies with a half inch of crystal coating. Everything glittered for  two days. Magical. Even under gray skies.

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When the sun came out, things really sparkled, suspended in time and place.

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The snow was mirrored in the sky. Clouds trailed white scarves across the blue.

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Switchgrass, shorn of much of its beauty since autumn, suddenly attained new glamour.

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Plants turned alien under the ice.

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Grasses glinted gold-foil metallic. Bent and broken under their arches of ice, they wait  for the coming fires of the prescribed burns, less than a month away.

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Squirrels, suspended in space, paused in their wild scrambles on impossibly-thin branches to consider the mercurial goings on of February.

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Trails glowed.

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Bur oaks? The stuff of fantasy.

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Each prairie plant, dipped in ice, bowed under the drippy weight.

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As I hiked the prairie, my mind kicked into glassy overdrive.  Glisten. Crystalline. Shimmer. The words kept coming—tumbling over and over in my head. None of them seemed adequate to describe what I saw. So much extravagance!

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Even the praying mantis egg case in its frozen luster merited a second look.

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Abrupt changes of weather offer fresh shots of paying attention. A reminder of how quickly things change. A memo of how beautiful the world can be. You think that was amazing? Look at this! Each freeze/thaw brings new delights. Each snowstorm causes me to catch my breath, and not just from shoveling.

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Each change of weather causes me to reconsider the familiar.

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I live, slightly on the edge of expectation, wondering what Mother Nature will throw at us next.

You too?

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The opening quote is from nature essayist and poet Gretel Ehrlich’s (1946-) The Future of Ice: A Journey into the Cold. Her 1985 debut (and my favorite of her works) is The Solace of Open Spaces, in which she chronicles her time spent working on a Wyoming ranch.

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Preorder Now! Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit by Cindy Crosby and Thomas Dean releases on April 22. $25.95, hardcover, full color photography.  Pre-order at The Morton Arboretum Store or through Ice Cube Press.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): ice storm video, Glen Ellyn, IL; bridge at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, close to prairie plantings, Downer’s Grove, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Schulenberg Prairie and savanna at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown ice-covered vine, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; trail through prairie plantings at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL;  bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bridge over Willoway Brook tributary seen through savanna at Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Chinese praying mantis (Tenodera sinensis) egg case, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; icy grasses at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ice storm at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL.

Join Cindy at Upcoming Events and Classes This Week:

Wednesday, Feb.20, 1:30-3:30 p.m.: Wisconsin Wetlands Association Science Conference, Middleton, WI: Don’t Talk Like a Scientist! Registration here.

Thursday, Feb. 21 &28, 6:30-9 p.m. A History of Wilderness in America, at The Morton Arboretum. We’ll be discussing Wilderness and the American Mind and how our ideas about wilderness have changed through history. Still time to register here.

Saturday, Feb. 23, 11-11:45 a.m.: Wild Things  Conference: The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Shop: Donald Stephen’s Convention Center, Rosemont, IL. Register here.

Extreme Prairie Weather

“Adapt or perish, now as is ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.”–H. G. Wells

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How do you cope with wild swings of weather? How do you make it through a tempestuous, fickle Midwestern winter?

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Here in the Midwest this week, we’ve seen swings of temperature from -25 degrees  below zero to 50 degrees or more. When I hiked the Schulenberg Prairie on Saturday, February 2, this was the view from the prairie bench:

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Compare it to this same view when I hiked the prairie two days later, on Monday, February 4:

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Oh, the difference two days makes in February!

I’ve coped with all this weather change armed with my arsenal of hot drinks, a stack of library books, and a pile of afghans. You too? But I’m not sure I can say I’ve fully “adapted.”

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We worry about our non-native plants—and sometimes, with good reason—because they aren’t adapted to our harsh conditions. These garden plants come from far-flung places, where their beauty and exotic good looks brighten up our yards here. I’m a sucker for some of these plants (Moonflowers! Zinnias! Gallardia!), although I garden mostly for natives.

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There is something wonderfully comforting about the Illinois prairie and its suite of plants. Sure, some of them disappear from season to season, obliterated by unusual weather conditions.  But most of our native prairie plants are made for a rollercoaster climate.

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How do prairie plants navigate extreme weather? What makes them different than the orchid flowering on my kitchen counter, or the scarlet runner beans in my summer garden? Let’s take a hike on the February prairie together and think about some of the  ways native plants cope.

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Deep Roots

The February prairie may look desolate, in its transitions between freeze and thaw; frigid and mild.

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But underneath the surface, there is a lot going on. Many of the barely-there, brittle grasses and wildflower fragments you see around you in February have deep roots. Roots that plunge 15 feet or more deep. These roots hold the promise of spring. The promise of renewal.

Can you imagine? Like a time bomb of the best kind, ready to go off at the right moment.

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The growing points under the ground and deep roots help ensure survival from year to year. When fires sweep across the prairie—once caused by lightning strikes and Native Americans, and now set intentionally to mimic the historical ones —its no problem.

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These adaptations are mostly about what’s invisible to us, under the ground. But what about the visible?

Narrow Leaves 

This article from the Illinois State Museum helps us understand why so many of the prairie plants  have narrow leaves. Yes, it’s no accident! Skinny leaves, because of their slim profile, lose less water to evaporation than our more broad-leaved plants. Cool!

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But wait! What about those broad-leaved prairie plants? How do they cope? Which brings us to…

Orientation

Compass plant is famous for it. Prairie dock does it as well. Turning north and south—orienting your leaves to lose the least amount of moisture—is a great adaptation by certain prairie plants to avoid losing moisture to a brutal prairie sun. Sure, it’s tough to notice this in the depths of February, when compass plant leaves are barely hanging on…

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…or the prairie dock leaves are battered and torn.

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Easier, perhaps, in the heat of a July afternoon. In the 1800s, some naturalists thought this positioning was because  the plants had taken up enough iron in the soil to become magnetic. Now we know this leaf position is another way for plants to brave the harsh elements of a Midwestern summer. Read more about the prairie dock and its leaf orientation in this excellent article by plant guru Christopher Benda,   His article also includes information about long taproots, another prairie plant adaptation.

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As someone who often struggles to adapt to change, I admire the strategies of these plant survivalists. They live in one of the most vulnerable places on Earth—the tallgrass prairie. Yet, they know how to cope. I’ve only touched on a few of their adaptations. There are many, many more to explore.

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This week, as the temperatures have see-sawed back and forth through extremes, I have a new appreciation for prairie plants. You too? Why not go for a hike and admire these prairie plants in person?

Maybe they will inspire you, as they have me. That adaptation to difficult conditions is possible. And—you can learn to accept change.

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The opening quote is by Herbert George “H.G.” Wells (1866-1946), a prolific writer often referred to as “The Father of Science Fiction.” Wells is best known for his books, The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, and The Invisible Man. A trained biologist, he brought his knowledge to bear in The Island of Dr. Moreau, in which he writes of a doctor who tampers with evolution in animals.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bridge at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie bench on Saturday, February 2, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie bench on Monday, February 4, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; author’s backyard prairie during the Polar Vortex (temperature -25 degrees), Glen Ellyn, IL; silhouettes of prairie plants on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray day on the Schulenberg Prairie (looking through the savanna), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; reflections on the Schulenberg Prairie trail, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) leaves, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Schulenberg Prairie savanna on February 4, 2019, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

A Merry Prairie Christmas

“In late December I feel an almost painful hunger for light…It’s tempting to think of winter as the negation of life, but life has too many sequences, too many rhythms, to be altogether quieted by snow and cold.” — Verlyn Klinkenborg

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Christmas morning dawns, cold and overcast. The scent of snow is in the air.

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On the prairie this week, it’s been mostly sunny. Quiet.

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Willoway Brook provides the December soundtrack: water moving fast over rocks. Ice lingers in the shoreline’s shadows.

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Wildflower seedheads silhouette themselves along the edges of the stream.

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Prairie dock leaves, aged and brittle, offer their own late season beauty. Lovelier now, perhaps, than in their first surge of spring green. Spent. No towering yellow blooms to distract us. The marks of age—wrinkles and splotches—will soon end in a flurry of flames.

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Along the edge of the prairie, fragrant sumac fruit could pass for furry holly berries—with a bit of imagination.

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Blown out stars of sudsy asters froth along the gravel two-track.

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Crumpled leaves of pale Indian plantain create stained glass windows when backlit by the winter sun. The woods are often called “cathedrals'” by writers. A bit of a cliché.  But it’s not much of a stretch to call the prairies the same. The tallgrass offers its own benedictions to those who hike it. Especially in solitude.

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Flattened by an early November blizzard, the prairie reminds me of the ocean, washing in grassy waves against the coast of the savanna. I think of Willa Cather, who wrote in “My Antonia”: “As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea…and there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow to be running.”

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The end of the year is just a breath away.

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Who knows what wonders we’ll see on the prairie in the new year? I can’t wait to discover them. How about you?

Happy holidays and Merry Christmas to all!

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The opening quote is from Verlyn Klinkenborg’s The Rural Life. Klinkenborg (1952-) was raised on an Iowa farm. He teaches creative writing at Yale University. Listen to Klinkenborg speak about his writing here.

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All photos (copyright Cindy Crosby) in the blog post today are from the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, except where noted (top to bottom): bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); the Schulenberg Prairie in late December; Willoway Brook reflections; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) seedheads; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica); unknown aster; pale Indian plantain leaves (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium); prairie grasses and savanna; sunset at College of DuPage’s East Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.