Tag Archives: glen ellyn

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!

***

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.

5 Reasons to Hike the December Prairie

“Curiosity, imagination, inventiveness expand with use, like muscles, and atrophy with neglect.”  —Paul Gruchow

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December mornings dawn bright and clear. Venus dazzles in the southeast, just before first light.

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Step outside. Brrrrr! Hello, December, with your mercurial weather and often-frigid temps.

It may seem like a daunting month to hike the prairie. After all, there’s not much going on, right?

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Wrong. For those who venture out to the tallgrass, there are wonders to be had.  Here are five reasons to bundle up, get outside, and go take a look.

1. Critters 

Love ’em or can’t stand ’em, you can’t get away from squirrels in December. Despite their inroads on my backyard bird feeders, I’m a bit of a fan. Walk through any prairie savanna or check the trees scattered across the prairie, and you won’t have to look too hard.

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Check out this tree on the edge of the prairie. How many squirrels can you see?

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I counted at least a dozen, possibly more.  A group of squirrels like this one is called a scurry. Perfection, right?  Those leafy nests high up in the trees are the squirrel condos. You can see one in the above photo, on the left. Squirrel homes, and sometimes a squirrel family group, are called a drey or sometimes, dray.

Most squirrels were enjoying a snack. The scritch scritch scritch scritch of so many furballs gnawing on black walnuts was the soundtrack to our prairie hike.

Not a squirrel fan? Walk on… .

2. Ice Capades

Temperature ups and downs on the prairie leave ponds and streams a virtual canvas for weather to paint its delights upon. Crystals, ice shelves, frozen droplets…the scene changes from moment to moment with the rays of the sun.

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Unless you visit the prairie in December, you’ll miss the magic.

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Isn’t it important for us to witness the beauty in the world?

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As Annie Dillard writes, “Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”

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3. Shifts of Weather

Woolly bear, woolly bear, what do you see? Traditionally, the banded woolly bear caterpillar is the foreteller of winter weather. The longer the black stripes, the longer the winter. This little bear looks as if it’s predicting a mild winter, doesn’t it? But it was out in 17 degree weather! And, we’ve already had one blizzard in the Chicago region. Hmmm.

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The woolly bear caterpillar will emerge in the spring as the isabella tiger moth. Woolly bear, you’re cute.  But I might stick to watching meteorologist Tom Skilling’s weather report.

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4. The Splendors of Grass

We think of grass as juicy, green, and supple. But one of the many delights of prairie grass is its winter wardrobe. Nuanced, ranging through metallic tones of bronze, silver, and gold, the tallgrass changes colors with the slant of the sun.

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Sure, the recent snows flattened the tallgrass. Take a look, and see how your perspective on the prairie changes when the grasses and forbs, towering over your head just a month or two ago, no longer obstruct the view. New vistas open up. Grass takes on different role in December.

5. Mindful Hiking

What does the prairie have in store for you in December? Smell the tang of cold air. Feel the hot sun on your face on a frigid day. Listen to the sounds of the winter residents of the prairie and the prairie savanna; woodpeckers drumming along the edges, the rustle of squirrels dashing from tree to tree on the prairie edges. Taste the last dollop of snow. Check out the coyote scat on the trail to see what “trickster” has been sampling. Persimmons? Meadow vole? The fur and seeds tell the story for those who take time to look. Check the ponds and streams and see who is hanging out there.

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It’s easy to get caught up in the baking, shopping, socializing, and other activities of the holiday season. Need a break? A walk on the prairie may be just the thing to clear your head. What are your motivations to hike the December prairie? Please share them in the comment section below.

Because we all need a little extra push to get outside this month.

Happy hiking!

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The opening quote is from Boundary Waters: Grace of the Wild by Minnesotan Paul Gruchow (1947-2004). Gruchow writes compellingly about the rural life and the natural world in his books. If you haven’t read him before, try Grass Roots: The Universe of Home, or A Prairie Journal.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Venus in the dawn sky, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL: little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; eastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) on the edge of the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; three eastern fox squirrels (Sciurus niger) on the edge of the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ice on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: ice crystals on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  ice on author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; ice on the author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; woolly bear (Pyrrharctia isabella) caterpillar on the prairie trail, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; snow patches on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: bridge in December on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blue heron (Ardea herodias) with a few mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), East Branch of the DuPage River Restoration, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

2018 Holiday Prairie Reading List

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

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

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

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

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Light dustings of snow follow, turning the Midwest magical.

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

Best way to cope with all this weather indecision?

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

2018 Tallgrass Prairie Holiday Reading List

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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