“Joyful—now there’s a word we haven’t used in a while.” —Louise Glück
Snow! Glorious snow.
The prairie is adrift with powdery snow, underlaid with ice. Sure, it makes it tougher to get around.
But don’t you love how the snow crystals catch in the prairie dock leaves?
Do you delight in how bright the world suddenly seems?
Do you marvel at how the snow freshens the worn-out and weary? Changes your perspective?
The temperatures are plummeting to minus seven. Minus seven! And yet. It doesn’t matter. Because—that snow!
This week, the world still feels out of kilter. Topsy-turvy.
I’ve forgotten what “normal” is.
But today, that’s okay.
Even clearing the driveway to drive to the prairie isn’t so bad, knowing a hike awaits.
It all feels worthwhile. There are still shadows. But the world seems like a more hopeful place.
Full of possibilities. Potential.
Because of the snow.
I’m reading the Pulitzer Prize winning, Nobel Prize winning, the you-name-it-she’s-won-it prize-winning poet Louise Glück’s (1943-) latest, Winter Recipes from the Collective. It’s a cold, dark read, with a little bit of hope. Good January poetry. Read more about Glück here.
Join Cindy for a program this winter!
“100 Years Around the Morton Arboretum” — Wednesday, January 26, 6:30pm-8:30 pm. Watch history come to life in this special centennial-themed lecture about The Morton Arboretum. Celebrating 100 years, The Morton Arboretum has a fascinating past. Two of the Arboretum’s most knowledgeable historians, author Cindy Crosby and the ever-amazing library collections manager Rita Hassert, will share stories of the Mortons, the Arboretum, and the trees that make this place such a treasure. Join us via Zoom from the comfort of your home. (Now all online). Register here.
February 8-March 1 (Three evenings, 6:30-9pm): The Foundations of Nature Writing Online —Learn the nuts and bolts of excellent nature writing and improve your wordsmithing skills in this online course from The Morton Arboretum. Over the course of four weeks, you will complete three self-paced e-learning modules and attend weekly scheduled Zoom sessions with your instructor and classmates. Whether you’re a blogger, a novelist, a poet, or simply enjoy keeping a personal journal, writing is a fun and meaningful way to deepen your connection to the natural world. February 8, noon Central time: Access self-paced materials online. February 15, 22, and March 1, 6:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Central time: Attend live. Register here.
March 3–Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online –online class with assignments over 60 days; one live Zoom together. Digitally explore the intricacies of the tallgrass prairie landscape and learn how to restore these signature American ecosystems. Look at the history of this particular type of grassland from the descent of glaciers over the Midwest millions of years ago to the introduction of John Deere’s famous plow to where we are today. We will examine different types of prairie, explore the plant and animal communities of the prairie, and discuss strategies specific to restoring prairies in this engaging online course. Come away with a better understanding of prairies and key insights into how to restore their beauty. You will have 60 days to access the materials. Register here.
“Life regularly persists through winter, the toughest, most demanding of seasons.” –Allen M. Young
It’s the Winter Solstice. Light-lovers, rejoice! Tomorrow, we begin the slow climb out of darkness.
There is still no significant snowfall here in the Chicago region. Jeff and I joke that we know the reason why. We’ve shoveled our driveway by hand the past 23 years, but after three back-to-back heavy snow events last winter we said, “No more!” This summer, we bought a small snowblower. We figured our purchase should guarantee a snow-free winter. (You’re welcome).
But…I miss the snow. Despite December 21st being the first official astronomical day of winter, the prairies and natural areas around me seem to say “autumn.” The upside? Without that blanket of white thrown over the prairies, there are so many visible wonders. Plant tendrils…
…and their swerves and curves.
Ice crystals captured in a shady river eddy.
The bridges we regularly hike across are geometry lessons in angles and lines.
There is life, even here. The lichens remind me of the tatted lace antimacassars so beloved by my great-grandmothers. It also reminds me I need to learn more lichen ID. Winter might be a good time to focus on that.
The soundtrack of the prairie in late December is the castanet rattle of White Wild Indigo pods…
…and the wind’s sizzle-hiss through the grasses. This December in the Midwest, wind has been a significant force. Harsh. Destructive. Here in the Chicago region, we’ve escaped most wind damage. Yet wind makes its presence known. When I’m hiking into it, my face goes numb. My eyes water. Brrrr. But I love the way it strokes and tunes the dry tallgrass, coaxing out a winter prairie tune.
I admire the seed-stripped sprays of crinkled switchgrass wands…
…the bright blue of a snow-less sky, feathered with clouds…
…the joy of spent winter wildflowers.
I spy the mallard and his mate.
Feel delight in the murmur of an ice-free stream.
The way December puts her mark on grasses, leaves and trees leaves me in awe… and happy.
All these wonders! All available for any hiker passing through the prairies or woodlands at this time of year—without a single snowflake in the repertoire.
Sure, I still check the forecast. Hoping to see snow on the radar. But who needs the white stuff when there are so many other surprises? What a treasure trove of delights December has on offer!
Need a New Year’s Resolution? Help Bell Bowl Prairie, one of Illinois’ last remaining native prairie remnants, which is about to be destroyed by the Chicago Rockford International Airport. Please go to www.savebellbowlprairie.org to discover easy ways your actions can make a difference.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to my readers! Thank you for (virtually) hiking with me in 2021.
“It’s always better to have too much to read than not enough.” —Ann Patchett
Happy December! The wind is howling, temperatures are plummeting, and meteorological winter is in full swing. All we need is a dusting of snow…
…or an ice storm to complete the kick-off to the holiday season.
In December, many of us are on hiatus from active prairie stewardship work. During the winter months, we recharge our batteries and curl up with a good book on the tallgrass so we’ll be a little smarter and more inspired for the growing season ahead.
With this in mind, it’s time for the “Tuesdays in the Tallgrass” annual book roundup. This year, I grouped a few recommended prairie books in a slightly different way for you. I hope that makes your holiday shopping (or library check-outs) a little easier! I also added a few of my favorite prairie gifts.
Ready? Let’s read!
For the thoughtful prairie reader:
I can’t resist the “through the year” types of books, organized by month and taking readers through the seasons. Paul Gruchow’s Journal of a Prairie Year(Milkweed Press) continues to be one of my favorites. Few books really dig into the marvels of the winter season on the prairie, and this is one of them.
FOR THE GARDENER WHO WANTS TO BE INSPIRED BY PRAIRIE:
I’m also looking forward to Vogt’s forthcoming book, Prairie Up: An Introduction to Natural Garden Design, coming from University of Illinois Press in the new year. Voigt also has an awesome collection of prairie T-shirts and other fun extras. I gifted myself with the “Prairie Hugger” t-shirt and a “Reprairie Suburbia” mug this season. Check out his website here.
Already have a prairie in your yard? Meet kindred spirits in Fred Delcomyn and Jamie Ellis’ “A Backyard Prairie,” a beautiful book of essays and photographs (Southern Illinois University Press). I met Fred when he took my Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online class through The Morton Arboretum, and it is a delight to see his lovely book out in the world.
For the children in your lIFE:
Across the Prairie Coloring Book— Claudia McGehee. These sell out, so get yours quick on Etsy! Fun, relaxing, and pandemic-friendly solace for adults who like to color as well. I confess I have a copy for myself, as well as copies for several of my grandchildren. McGehee is also the author of The Tallgrass Prairie Alphabet children’s picture book from University of Iowa Publishers. She has some other great children’s picture books and artwork you can find on her website, Claudia McGehee Illustration.
Sarah, Plain and Tall–Patricia MacLachlan (HarperCollins) This Newbery Award-winning novel, first published in 1985, is great for elementary-aged kids, and available in a 30th anniversary edition. Sure, it’s not about the prairie plants here—it’s about the story! But what a great way to introduce kids to the tallgrass prairie region. The Hall of Fame movie (starring Glen Close as the mail-order bride) is a delight — rent it at the library, or watch for it on a streaming service near you.
For someone new to prairie, or just wanting to get better acquainted:
The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction–Cindy Crosby (Northwestern University Press) I wrote this book when I looked around for a short, simple read that I could give to my prairie volunteers who wanted to understand what a prairie was, and why we manage it the way we do–and couldn’t find one. Only 140 pages, all technical terms are defined, and there’s a chapter on planting a prairie in your yard.
When you want to dive Deep Into tallgrass prairie — the more pages, the better:
Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie—John Madson (Bur Oak Books) This is the book I used to recommend to my prairie volunteers, but several told me that 340 pages was 200 pages too much! For some of us, however, the more pages the better. If you want to dig deep into the history of the tallgrass prairie, this is a THE classic.
If you like pretty prairie pictures:
Visions of the Tallgrass–-Harvey Payne (Oklahoma University Press). One hundred seventeen beautiful photographs by Harvey Payne, featuring the Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in northeastern Oklahoma.
Tallgrass Prairie Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit(Ice Cube Press)— Cindy Crosby and Thomas Dean (Ice Cube Press) If you enjoy this blog, you’ll find similar type short essays and prairie photographs in this team effort from myself and Tom, alternating voices and spanning prairies from Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois.
Picturing the Prairie: A Vision of Restorationby Philip Juras (Little Bluestem Press). If you caught the Chicago Botanic exhibit of his work, you’ll want to own this book which includes 54 paintings of some of my favorite prairies (including Nachusa Grasslands) and an essay by Stephen Packard. It’s on my Christmas list!
I really enjoy browsing Karen’s Nature Art to find images of prairie on everything from mugs to cell phone cases to fabric. Karen is part of my Tuesdays in the Tallgrass volunteer group on the Schulenberg Prairie, and her work directly reflects the countless hours she spends immersed in caring for prairie.
The Tallgrass Prairie Readeredited by John T. Price. I believe this is one of the most important pieces of natural history literature in the past decade. Why? It preserves a wide variety of writings on the tallgrass prairie from 42 authors, grouped chronologically from the 1800’s to the 21st Century. (Full disclosure — an essay of mine is included). Price’s edited volume reminds us of the richness of prairie literature, and the need for more voices to speak for prairie.
For the prairie volunteer or steward who wants technical advice:
I enthusiastically recommend The Tallgrass Prairie Center Guide to Restoration in the Upper Midwest by Daryl Smith, Dave Williams, Greg Houseal, and Kirk Henderson for anyone looking for a comprehensive guide to planting, restoring, or caring for prairie on sites both big and small. If it’s not in this volume, you probably don’t need to know it. I own two copies, just in case I lose one!
I hope you found some new books that caught your interest, or saw a few old favorites that you want to re-read or gift to a prairie friend. Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive list. Rather, these are a few highlights. And please explore some of my past posts on prairie books—there are many wonderful prairie books out there not mentioned in this year’s essay.
What books on tallgrass prairie do you recommend? Please share your favorites in the comments below and keep the literary conversation going. And as always, if you purchase a book, support your local independent bookstores and small publishers. They need you!
The opening quote is from Ann Patchett (1963), finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for The Dutch House the author of my personal favorite of hers, Bel Canto. Patchett is the owner of Parnassus Bookstore in Nashville, TN.
I’ve read that the great crested flycatcher weaves unusual items into its nest: snakeskin, cellophane, plastic wrappers. Wouldn’t I love to spot one of those nests! This is the first great crested flycatcher I’ve ever seen. How did I miss it all these years? Likely I was busy looking down, not up: at the wildflowers.
Seeing the flycatcher is one of the wonderful benefits of hiking with knowledgeable birding friends. If I had been hiking alone, I would have been looking at wildflowers, and likely missed it.
In his poem The May Magnificant, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote: “Question: What is Spring–Growth in everything–Flesh and fleece; fur and feather; Grass and green world altogether… .” As we hike through the green, green, green woods, we discover a single, random feather. Our birding friends tell us it may be a young owlet’s. I would love to know how it came to be here along the trail.
Most of the “blues” I see in the bird world belong to the blue jays that stop by my feeder. This past week, there’s been the color orange as well—the Baltimore orioles who love the grape jelly and orange halves we put out for them.
This weekend, while I listened to the birds at the feeders, I dug newly-purchased prairie seedlings into my prairie patch. White wild indigo.
Prairie coreopsis. Great angelica. Prairie smoke. Anise hyssop. So many plants! When I ordered earlier this season, where did I imagine I could put them all? At the end of the day—a lonnnnng planting day—every plant had a seat in the prairie. Now it’s up to them and the weather.
As I turned on the hose to wash the dirt from my hands, I heard the first American toad of the year in our little pond. I turned the water back off to listen. Have you ever heard the American toad? No? You can hear it here. At night, when we crack open our bedroom window for the breeze, the sound can be deafening. In the forest preserve wetlands, lakes, and ponds, the American toad trillllllllll is a warm weather soundtrack for our hikes.
Birds! Toads. Plants. Wildflowers. The writer Ellis Peters wrote, “Every spring is a perpetual astonishment.” It’s difficult to know where to look. So much is happening on the prairies and in the woodlands. How can I choose where to hike? And so much is happening, right under my nose, here in my yard!
Near my prairie patch, the pawpaw tree is in bloom. Such an unusual flower color! That brownish-maroon reminds me of wild ginger blooms. For fun, I try to match the flower color to a lipstick shade. The closest I find is “Cherry Cocoa” or maybe, “Love in Maroon.” What do you think?
Butterflies pass me as I examine the pawpaw flowers. Cabbage white butterflies showed up early this spring, stopping to lay a few eggs on my overwintered kale and kohlrabi. I don’t grudge them a few leaves. Especially since this year’s overwintered crop is a bonus. A gift to share.
I saw my first tiger swallowtail last week, and a few friends have reported monarchs. Pearl crescent butterflies pass through the prairies and savannas, taking a moment to pause and let me admire their bright colors. They’re a common sight, and will continue to be throughout the summer. But no less delightful, for being so ubiquitous.
The pearl crescent butterflies enjoy a wide variety of flowers. There are plenty of blooms to choose from in the middle of May. Wild geraniums are still going strong on the prairies and in the woodlands. Is it my imagination, or are they lingering longer this year? Maybe it’s the cool weather?
I’m grateful, whatever the reason.
Prairie, woodland, and savanna spring wildflowers are best seen up close.
Then, when something unusual comes along, you’ll have a ringside seat.
And—you’ll thank your lucky stars—so grateful and glad that you went for a hike in the middle of May.
The opening quote is by Francis Quarles (1592-1644), an English poet. One of his descendants was the poet Langston Hughes (1901-1967), a celebrated poet and author.
Join Cindy for a program or class!
The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden Online: June 2, 7-8:30 p.m. Illinois’ nickname is “The Prairie State.” Listen to stories of the history of the tallgrass prairie and its amazing plants and creatures –-from blooms to butterflies to bison. Discover plants that work well in the home garden as you enjoy learning about Illinois’ “landscape of home.” Presented by Sag Moraine Native Plant Community. More information here.
Literary Gardens Online: June 8, 6:30-7:30 p.m. Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby for a fun look at gardens in literature and poetry. From Agatha Christie’s mystery series, to Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Mary Oliver, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, Lewis Carroll–and many more! See your garden with new eyes—and come away with a list of books you can’t wait to explore. Registration through the Downers Grove Public Library coming soon here.
Plant A Backyard Prairie:Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.
Thanks to Tricia Lowery and John Heneghan for the afternoon hike, the gift of the prairie plants, and help with spotting wonderful flying critters this week.
“To the mouse, snow means freedom from want and fear…. To a rough-legged hawk, a thaw means freedom from want and fear.” —Aldo Leopold
Drip. Drip. Drip.
I’m raking snow off our roof when I hear it. The sun broke through the gray haze like a white hot dime an hour ago, and I’m grateful for its feeble warmth. The gutters groan and bend under their weight of ice. I’ve knocked most of the icicles down, pretty though they are—-lining the roof’s edge like a winter holiday postcard.
We have a foot and a half of snow on our roof. Uh, oh! For the first time in our 23 years of living in the Chicago Region, we’re concerned enough to borrow a friend’s roof rake and try to do something about it. As I rake, the snow avalanches down the shingles and I’m sprayed with white stuff. It’s like being in a snowball fight with yourself. The squirrels wait in the trees nearby, ready to return to their assault on the birdfeeders when I finish. I try to imagine what they’re thinking.
Then I hear it again. Drip. Drip. Drip.
The sound of thaw.
The prairie, slumbering under her weight of white, hears the sound. There’s a faint stirring in the ice, especially where the sun strikes in full.
Winter is far from over; its icy clasp on the prairie will linger for many more weeks. And yet. There’s something in the air this week, despite the cold haze that hangs over the tallgrass.
Certain sounds—that “drip!” Water trickling in a prairie stream under the ice. Snow melt. The smell of something fresh.
A male cardinal sings his courting call. I stop in my tracks. He doesn’t seem to be daunted by the snow flurries, seemingly stuck on “repeat” this week. He knows what’s coming.
Above the ground, the prairie grasses and wildflowers are smothered in snow drifts. They look bowed and broken by the wild weather thrown at them over the past few months.
A few stalwart plants stubbornly defy the storms and stand tall.
Their long roots—-15 feet deep or more—begin to stir. You can almost hear a whisper in the dry, brittle leaves. Soon. Soon.
It’s been a beautiful winter.
But a long one, as winters tend to seem when you’re half past February and not quite close enough to March.
Even as the snow is grimed with soot by car exhaust along the streets, there’s beauty. All around, the particular delights of February. The stark silhouettes of grass stems…
…the prairie’s geometric lines and angles; devoid of frills and flounces.
The gray-blues and rusts of the prairie landscape, seem intensified at this time of year. Everything is clarified. Distilled.
Perhaps because of the long grind of the pandemic, this winter has seemed longer and gloomier than usual. Colder. More difficult.
But when I open the newspaper over breakfast, the headlines seem less grim. A faint whiff of optimism tinges conversations with friends. I feel hope in the air; hope that we are nearing the end of our long haul through this dark night.
My spirits lift when I see the signs, scent the smells, hear the sounds of a new season on the way.
Spring is coming. Do you sense the thaw? Can you feel it?
Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), whose quote opens this blog post, is best known for his book of collected essays, A Sand County Almanac, published a year after his death. Today, it is considered a critical foundation for conservation and wilderness thinking. Leopold’s book has sold more than two million copies and influences many who work in wildlife and prairie conservation today. Another favorite quote: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Read more about him here.
Last Chance to Register for February 24 Program! Join me online from anywhere in the world via Zoom.
February 24, 7-8:30 p.m. CST: The Prairie in Art and Literature– Online. The tallgrass prairie is usually thought of for its diverse community of plants, animals, and insects. Yet, it is also an inspiration for a creative community! In this interactive online talk, natural history author and prairie steward Cindy Crosby will explore historical and contemporary writers and artists, musicians, and other creatives working in the prairie genre: from Neil Young to Willa Cather to graphic comic artists, quilters, and jewelers expressing the prairie through their work. See the prairie in a new light! Come away inspired to appreciate and express your love of the tallgrass as you enjoy learning about this prairie “community.” Offered by The Morton Arboretum: Register here.
Need a extra push, during these polar vortex days? Consider these five reasons to get outside for a prairie hike this week.
Bundle up in February and marvel at the way snow highlights each tree, shrub and wildflower.
Enjoy how the snow drifts into blue shadows on the prairie, punctured by blackberry canes. A contrast of soft and sharp; staccato and legato; light and dark.
Notice: Rather than being muzzled and smothered by snow, the prairie embraces it, then shapes it to its February tallgrass specifications.
Snow in February creates something wonder-worthy.
2. The restrained palette of February demands our attention. Ash and violet. Black and blue. A little red-gold. A bit of dark evergreen.
You’d think it would be monotonous. And yet. Each scene has its own particular loveliness.
We begin to question our previous need for bright colors…
…as we embrace the simplicity of the season.
As we hike, there’s a yearning for something we can’t define. More daylight? Warmth? Or maybe, normalcy? Our personal routines and rhythms of the past 12 months have been completely reset. There’s a sense of resignation. It’s been a long winter. February reminds us we still have a ways to go. Keeping faith with our prairie hikes is one practice that grounds us and doesn’t have to change. It’s reassuring.
3. In February, we admire the elusiveness of water. It’s a changeling. One minute, liquid. The next—who knows?
Winter plays with water like a jigsaw puzzle.
February’s streams look glacial.
Snuggle into your parka and be glad you’re hiking, not swimming.
4. If you are a minimalist, February is your season.
Everything is pared to essentials.
Many of the seeds are gone; stripped by mice, extracted by birds.
Everywhere around you are the remains of a prairie year that will soon end in flames.
What you see before you is the last whisper of what is, and was, and what will be remembered.
Look closely. Don’t forget.
5. In February, turn your eyes to the skies. What will you see? The marvel of a single red-tailed hawk, cruising over the tallgrass in the distance?
A sundog—that crazy play of sunlight with cirrus that happens best in the winter? Or a sun halo, blinding, dazzling?
Maybe it will be a full Snow Moon at the end of this month, setting sail across the sub-zero sky. Or a daylight crescent moon, scything the chill.
What will you see? You won’t know unless you go. Sure, it’s bitter cold. But soon, February will only be a memory. What memories are you making now?
The prairie is waiting.
N. Scott Momaday (1934-) is the author of Earth Keeper (2020), House Made of Dawn (1968, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Literature in 1969) and my favorite, The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969), a blend of folklore and memoir. Momaday is a member of the Kiowa tribe, a group of indigenous people of the Great Plains. Writer Terry Tempest Williams calls Earth Keeper “a prayer for continuity in these days of uncertainty.”
Join Cindy in 2021 for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a complete list of virtual offerings. Need a speaker? Email me through my website. All classes and programs with Cindy this winter and spring are offered online only. Join me from your computer anywhere in the world.
Begins Monday, February 8 (SOLD OUT) OR just added —February 15 (Two options): Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online (Section A or B)--Digitally explore the intricacies of the tallgrass prairie landscape and learn how to restore these signature American ecosystems as you work through online curriculum. Look at the history of this unique type of grassland from the descent of glaciers over the Midwest millions of years ago, to the introduction of John Deere’s famous plow, to where we are today. We will examine different types of prairie, explore the plant and animal communities of the prairie and discuss strategies specific to restoring prairies in this engaging online course. Come away with a better understanding of the tallgrass prairies, and key insights into how to restore their beauty. All curriculum is online, with an hour-long in-person group Zoom during the course. You have 60 days to complete the curriculum! Join me–Registration information here.
February 24, 7-8:30 p.m. CST: The Prairie in Art and Literature Online. The tallgrass prairie is usually thought of for its diverse community of plants, animals, and insects. Yet, it is also an inspiration for a creative community! In this interactive online talk, natural history author and prairie steward Cindy Crosby will explore historical and contemporary writers and artists, musicians, and other creatives working in the prairie genre: from Neil Young to Willa Cather to graphic comic artists, quilters, and jewelers expressing the prairie through their work. See the prairie in a new light! Come away inspired to appreciate and express your love of the tallgrass as you enjoy learning about this prairie “community.” Offered by The Morton Arboretum: Register here.
“Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.” -Gilda Radner
The smell of smoke drifts through our open windows. A few miles away, a white plume rises.
Fire! Prescribed fire.
At the forest preserves, the Arboretum, and conservation sites, flames creep along the woodland floor. Embers smolder. A tree chain smokes.
It’s prescribed burn season in the woodlands, and even on a few prairies and wetlands. In the Chicago region, a stream of blessedly warm, dry days have made conditions right for fire.
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.
Fall burns are a management tool stewards and site staff use to encourage healthy natural areas. Spring burns will follow in 2021. In late winter or early spring, we burn the tallgrass prairies.
Because of COVID in 2020, many prairie stewards and staff were unable to gather in large groups to use prescribed fire. For those of us used to seeing this predictable cycle of the prairie season, the unburned prairies—now tangled and tall—were one more curveball in an unpredictable year.
I missed the usual spring dance of fire and flammable grasses; the swept-clean slate of a newly-burned prairie this March. Early wildflowers were difficult to find, buried under the thatch of last-year’s Indian grass and big bluestem. The prairies, untouched by flame, seemed out of kilter all summer. Alien.
This spring, prairie willows flowered. For the first time in remembrance on one prairie where I volunteer, prairie roses put on second year growth. Now, in November, the willows are thick and tall. Bright rose hips are sprinkled through the brittle grasses.
Although I’m not working on the fire crews this season, I feel a rush of adrenaline when I see the tell-tale towers of smoke in the distance. They tell me life is back on track again. That there is some semblance of normality. Welcome back, prescribed fire.
Out with the old, in with the new. Sweep away this year. Let’s start over.
Fire can be a destructive force. But these fires are healing.
They bring the promise of rejuvenation. I know next spring and summer, the prairies, savannas, and woodlands will brim with color. Motion. New life.
As I hike the trails and drive through areas being burned, I watch the flames lick the ground clean of the remains of 2020. Hikers stop and gawk. Through the haze, cars move slowly. Driver’s rubberneck. A yellow-slickered volunteer talks to two walkers, waving her hands as she explains why they are torching the woodlands.
It’s a seeming grand finale for the plants on the woodland floor. But under the ashed soil, the roots of wildflowers and grasses wait for their encore. Spring.
Change is on the way.
Last week, as Jeff and I hiked the prairie trails, we saw them. Woolly bear caterpillars! These forerunners of the Isabella tiger moths were a delightful appearance in the midst of a chaotic week; a sign that the regular rhythm of the seasons was in play. Their appearance was calming. I knew these woolly bears—or “woolly worms” as some southerners call them—were looking for an overwintering spot.The woolly bear’s stripes, according to folklore, predict the coming winter weather.
The small cinnamon stripe I saw on this one points to a severe winter. Hmmm.
Way to predict the weather, woolly bear! Although science doesn’t put a lot of stock in these caterpillar forecasts, it’s a fun idea. It will be interesting to see how the 2020-2021 winter season shakes out, stripe-wise.
We like to know what’s coming. We want to know the future. Yet the past eight months, we’ve learned to live with ambiguity. Each day has brought its particular uncertainty—perhaps more than many of us have ever had—in one big gulp.
Life is full of ambiguity, even in the best of times. This year—when even simple rituals like meeting a friend for a morning at the coffee shop have been upended—it’s been draining. Fear and anxiety are constant companions for many of us. Some have lost loved ones. Others have grappled with an illness our medical professionals are still trying to get a handle on. And yes, even the comforting work we do on prairies and natural areas came to a stop for a while.
I’m grateful for the woolly bears, and the normal rhythm of life they represent. I’m also grateful for the fires I see, although for the 100-acre Schulenberg Prairie—like many other prairies—the prescribed burn will be set in the spring. But the mowed firebreaks are a foreshadowing of what’s to come.
New beginnings are ahead.
I feel my spirits lift, thinking about a fresh start. A new season.
All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby and are taken at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, unless otherwise indicated (top to bottom): smoke plume from prescribed burn, East Woods; video of prescribed burn, East Woods; tree on fire, East Woods; smoke in the East woods; ashes after prescribed burn, East Woods; Schulenberg Prairie prescribed burn (2013); Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie; New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Schulenberg Prairie; rose hips (Rosa carolina), Schulenberg Prairie; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Schulenberg Prairie; burned over prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) on the Schulenberg Prairie parking lot strip; Schulenberg Prairie Savanna in summer; prescribed burn in the East Woods; woolly bear (Pyrrharctia isabella), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; woolly bear (Pyrrharctia isabella) on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Schulenberg Prairie (2019); prescribed burn sign; mowed firebreak on the Schulenberg Prairie; bridge at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; possibly a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), West Side prairie planting.
Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization–now booking talks for 2021.Email Cindy through http://www.cindycrosby.com.
Register for Cindy’s Literary Gardens Online: Friday, Dec.4, 1-2:30 p.m.CST– Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby from wherever you live in the world for a fun look at great (and not-so-great) gardens in literature and poetry. From Agatha Christie’s mystery series, to Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Goudge, Rumer Godden, May Sarton, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Gilbert, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, and Lewis Carroll–and many more! This class is online. Register here through The Morton Arboretum.
“Paying attention: This is our endless and proper work.” — Mary Oliver
The sun rises through the fog on the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna.
Everywhere, spiders hang misted veils. The spiders are present every day on the prairie—no doubt—but usually, spider webs are invisible. Until, as the writer Richard Powers writes in The Overstory —they are “dew-betrayed.”
The spiders’ silk draperies, paired with the prairie’s autumn seed heads and dying leaves, coerced my attention for far longer on Monday morning than planned. My hike–which was supposed to be a doctor-mandated 30 minutes—was extended as I lingered. (Just five more minutes!) But how can you tear yourself away from a morning full of magic? One crystal web chandelier led to another….then another… .
After the hike, as I enjoyed my morning cup of Joe, I stumbled on a wonderful article from BrainPickings about the art of paying attention. It’s framed around Marla Popova’s review of “On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes” by Alexandra Horowitz. The gist of the book’s message is this: we can re-frame the ordinary by using different lenses to see what we usually miss. In the review, Popova recounts how Horowitz accomplishes “seeing” with new eyes by strolling through her city neighborhood with a visually impaired person, a geologist, and her dog (to name just three lenses). Intrigued? Me too. Papova calls the book “breathlessly wonderful.” (It’s now on hold for me at the library.)
I’ve been thinking more these days about the art of paying attention, and what it means to see with new eyes. One lens I use is books. Others writers prod me to understand and view my familiar places through different lenses. I learn from their words. Then, I “see” more completely.
After surgery seven weeks ago, the simple act of walking my favorite prairie paths is no longer something I take for granted. What follows are a few images from a morning walk in the fog this week. They are paired with favorite quotes I think about often, and a few new quotes I gleaned from Popova’s review.
Read the quotes slowly. Reflect on what they say. Then, tuck these thoughts into your days ahead. I hope they speak to you as they have to me.
“Attention without feeling is only a report.”–Mary Oliver
“Choice of attention—to pay attention to this and ignore that—is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer.” –W.H. Auden
“These days cry out, as never before, for us to pay attention.” — Anne Lamott
“How we spend our days, is of course, how we spend our lives.” — Annie Dillard
“…we humans generally do not bother paying attention to much other than the visual.” –Alexandra Horowitz
“For observing nature, the best pace is a snail’s pace.” — Edwin Way Teale
“To learn something new, take the path that you took yesterday.” — John Burroughs
“The art of seeing has to be learned.” — Marguerite Duras
“Half of tracking is knowing where to look; the other half is looking.” — Susan Morse
“Joys come from simple and natural things; mist over meadows, sunlight on leaves, the path of the moon over water. Even rain and wind and stormy clouds bring joy.” — Sigurd F. Olson
“As we work to heal the land, the land heals us.”–Robin Wall Kimmerer
“The art of seeing might have to be learned, but it can never be unlearned, just as the seen itself can never be unseen—a realization at once immensely demanding in its immutability and endlessly liberating in the possibilities it invites.”– Maria Popova
“Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” — Annie Dillard
“Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” –Simone Weil
“Only those items I notice shape my mind.” — William James
“The thing you are doing now affects the thing you do next.” — Alexandra Horowitz
“For the mind disturbed, the still beauty of dawn is nature’s greatest balm.” — Edwin Way Teale
It’s an imperfect world.
Life can be complicated.
But often, when I hike the prairie, I feel the magic happening. A sense of wonder. The world feels like a beautiful place again. A place where hope is—perhaps—not out of the question. A place where life is always in process.
Worth paying attention to.
Mary Oliver (1939-2019) was, as the poet Maxine Kumin wrote, “an indefatigable guide to the natural world.” Among her numerous awards were the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. Thanks to my wonderful husband Jeff, I was fortunate to hear her read and speak at Sanibel Island, Florida, for the Rachel Carson Lecture in 2014. Oliver died early this year at the age of 83.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby, taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL unless noted otherwise: (Top to bottom) fog over Willoway Brook; spiderwebs on asters (Symphyotrichum spp.), West Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris) with spiderwebs, West Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris) with spiderwebs, West Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) with spiderwebs; Willoway Brook in the fog; bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae); switchgrass (Panicum virgatum); unknown spider’s web; braided ladies tresses (Spiranthes cerneua); unknown spider building its web over Willoway Brook; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum); big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); spiderwebs on tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); Hidden Lake Forest Preserve as fog is lifting, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County; Downer’s Grove, IL; unknown spider’s web; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); Schulenberg Prairie covered with dew; dawn over West Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; broken spiderweb; spiderwebs on bur marigolds (Biden spp.), West Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown spider’s webs.
Cindy’s forthcoming book is Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History with Northwestern University Press (Summer, 2020), illustrated by Peggy Macnamara, artist-in-residence at The Field Museum in Chicago.
Join Cindy for “Nature Writing”, a blended online and in-person class, beginning online Wednesday, October 15! Details here.
“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
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.
When the sun came out, things really sparkled, suspended in time and place.
The snow was mirrored in the sky. Clouds trailed white scarves across the blue.
Switchgrass, shorn of much of its beauty since autumn, suddenly attained new glamour.
Plants turned alien under the ice.
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.
Squirrels, suspended in space, paused in their wild scrambles on impossibly-thin branches to consider the mercurial goings on of February.
Bur oaks? The stuff of fantasy.
Each prairie plant, dipped in ice, bowed under the drippy weight.
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!
Even the praying mantis egg case in its frozen luster merited a second look.
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.
Each change of weather causes me to reconsider the familiar.
I live, slightly on the edge of expectation, wondering what Mother Nature will throw at us next.
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.
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.
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.
“Adapt or perish, now as is ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.”–H. G. Wells
How do you cope with wild swings of weather? How do you make it through a tempestuous, fickle Midwestern winter?
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:
Compare it to this same view when I hiked the prairie two days later, on Monday, February 4:
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.”
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.
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.
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.
The February prairie may look desolate, in its transitions between freeze and thaw; frigid and mild.
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.
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.
These adaptations are mostly about what’s invisible to us, under the ground. But what about the visible?
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!
But wait! What about those broad-leaved prairie plants? How do they cope? Which brings us to…
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…
…or the prairie dock leaves are battered and torn.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Cindy Crosby is the author, compiler, or contributor to more than 20 books. Her most recent is "Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History" (Northwestern University Press, 2020). She teaches prairie ecology, nature writing, and natural history classes, and is a prairie steward who has volunteered countless hours in prairie restoration. See Cindy's upcoming online speaking events and classes at www.cindycrosby.com.