“What a large volume of adventures may be grasped within this little span of life, by him who interests his heart in everything.” — Laurence Sterne
Say “dry gravel prairie” and it doesn’t sound too exciting, does it? But a visit to the Sauer Family/Prairie Kame Forest Preserve in October is a reminder of just how beautiful these gravel prairies can be.
On arrival, I spend a few moments reading about the site.
The hill is about 30 feet high, and according to the forest preserve, is “situated on the leading edge of the great glaciers that moved through and retreated from this area” more than 10,000 years ago. It’s a stunning interruption of the flat prairies and cornfields all around.
Listen! Crickets sing. Big bluestem and Indian grass sieve the wind.
Planes from a nearby regional airport soar over too, their pilots looking for an afternoon’s adventure in the sky.
Other fliers hang out low in the tallgrass.
Showy goldenrod bumps blooms with Canada goldenrod.
The prairie brims with fresh flowers…
…and wildflowers going to seed.
And such seeds!
Watch out for rattlesnake master, with its bristling globes that prick inquisitive fingers.
Listen for white wild indigo, rattling its seedpods. What, no seeds inside? Tap a pod and watch the weevils spill out.
Crush the gray-headed coneflower seedheads. Inhale the lemony fragrance. Mmmm.
A broad-headed bug patrols the bush clover.
Leadplant’s leaves catch the light, showing off the silvery hairs that give this plant its name.
It’s my first prairie hike since I was unexpectedly sidelined six weeks ago. What a wonderful feeling, to be out on a tallgrass trail! What a gorgeous day to be outside.
What a beautiful day to be alive.
Laurence Stern (1713-1768), whose quote opens today’s post, was a novelist and cleric whose work was included in 18th Century anti-slavery literature. He struggled with tuberculosis or “consumption” most of his life.
Save Bell Bowl Prairie!
Gravel prairies are rare in Illinois. It’s not too late to Save Bell Bowl Prairie, an important gravel prairie remnant in Rockford slated for demolition by the Chicago Rockford International Airport. Click here for simple things you can do to help protect this prairie from demolition.
Upcoming Programs this Autumn
Tuesday, October 11, 2022 (7-8:30 p.m.)—The Tallgrass Prairie; An Introduction hosted by Twig & Bloom Garden Club, Glen Ellyn, IL. This is a closed event for members. For information on joining the club, visit their Facebook page here.
Friday, October 14, 2022 (10-11 a.m.)—-A Brief History of Trees in America. Discover the enchanting role trees have played in our nation’s history. Think about how trees are part of your personal history, and explore trees’ influence in American literature, music, and culture. Hosted by the Elgin Garden Club and the Gail Borden Public Library District, Main Branch, 270 North Grove Avenue, Meadows Community Rooms. In person. Free and open to the public, but you must register. Find more information here.
Thursday, October 20, 2022 (10:15-11:30a.m.)—The Garden’s Frequent Fliers: Dragonflies and Damselflies, Lincolnshire Garden Club, Vernon Hills, IL. This is a closed event for members only. For information on joining this club, please visit their website here.
Nature Writing II –Four Thursdays–October 27, November 3, 10, and 17, 2022, (9 to 11:30 a.m., in-person). Offered by The Morton Arboretum. Experiment with a variety of styles and techniques as you continue to develop your own voice. The same qualities of good writing apply to everything from blogs to books! No matter your background or interest, become the writer you always dreamt you could be. Register here.
Thanks to John Heneghan for the Northern Harrier identificationin this week’s post.
“Bees do have a smell, you know, and if they don’t they should, for their feet are dusted with spices from a million flowers.”—Ray Bradbury
August arrives on the tallgrass prairie.
Listen! Do you hear the buzz and zip of wings?
The patter of tiny insect feet?
Let’s hear it for the prairie pollinators!
Bees bumble across the wildflowers.
Ambling beetles browse the petals.
Enjoy the aimless ants. Marvel over the butterflies, looking like so many windsurfers…
Stay up late and enjoy the night fliers…
…with their beautiful markings.
Seek out the wandering wasps, inspiring awe and a little trepidation.
And these are just a few of our amazing pollinators!
Where would we be without these marvelous creatures?
Three cheers for the prairie pollinators!
Long may they thrive.
The opening quote for today’s post is by Illinois author Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) from his classic book, Dandelion Wine. This book was required reading in my Midwestern high school English classes back in the seventies, and a wonderful introduction to his more than 27 novels and story collections.
Join Cindy for a Program in August!
West Cook Wild Ones presents:A Brief History of Trees in Americawith Cindy Crosby on Sunday, August 21, 2:30-4 p.m. Central Time on Zoom. From oaks to maples to elms: trees changed the course of American history. Native Americans knew trees provided the necessities of life, from food to transportation to shelter. Trees built America’s railroads, influenced our literature and poetry, and informed our music. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation—and their symbolism and influence on the way we think—as you reflect on the trees most meaningful to you. Free and open to the public—join from anywhere in the world—but you must preregister. Register here.
“Given the fragile nature of landscapes with high natural quality, there is no substitute for their preservation and proper management. No amount of de novo restoration can obviate concern over their passing.” —Gerould Wilhelm
“Save the Bell Bowl Prairie.” What? I was perplexed. “Bell Bowl Prairie?” Where was that? Suddenly, last week, there were news references everywhere to this prairie, about to be destroyed in an expansion project at the Chicago-Rockford International Airport. I’ve hiked many prairies in Illinois—but this was not one of them. So I began reading.
I learned that Bell Bowl Prairie is a remnant dry gravel hill prairie. Uh, oh. While I find this exciting, is there nothing less sexy than “dry gravel hill prairie” to those who don’t know and love prairies? I kept reading.
A remnant is simply a tract of original tallgrass prairie that has never been plowed or developed. At one time, Illinois had almost 22 million acres of original tallgrass prairie. The Illinois Natural History Survey estimates we have only about 2,300 high quality acres of original remnant prairie left in Illinois. Where did our original prairies go?
Much of the fertile tallgrass prairie was lost to agriculture after the invention and mass marketing of the John Deere plow in the mid-1800’s. At the same time, as early European settlers moved in, the fires that kept the tallgrass prairie healthy—fires set by lightning and Native Americans—were suppressed. Shrubs and trees quickly took over. Developments were built that included “prairie” in the names of streets, businesses, and apartment complexes, even as they erased the very prairie from which they took their name.
Are these developments bad things? Was John Deere a terrible man?” Of course not. We need places to live and to work. I love to eat, and I bet you do, too. And yet.
Even as we gained agriculture and homes and shops we lost something valuable. We didn’t realize how valuable it was, until the eleventh hour, when the original prairies were almost completely eradicated. As Joni Mitchell sings, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”
What was left were small patches of prairie. Remnants. And remnant prairies, as Gerould Wilhelm, co-author of Flora of the Chicago Region,tells us, are irreplaceable.
The Bell Bowl prairie may be destroyed by the Chicago-Rockford International Airport in Illinois in the airport’s November expansion. Why does it matter? With all of our advances in learning to plant and restore prairie, we haven’t learned how to replicate an original remnant. Remnant prairies are finite natural resources. You can’t plant another one. When we lose a prairie remnant, it is gone forever. And Bell Bowl Prairie, because it is a remnant prairie, cannot be replicated. We can’t replace this prairie.
Why can’t we dig up the soil and move the prairie remnant to another location? Would that work? Experts say no. Moving pieces of the Bell Bowl Prairie would destroy it. And many of the creatures there, including the federally endangered Rusty Patched Bumble Bees, would be in peril.
Balancing the needs of people and the natural world is fraught with tension. There’s nothing wrong with an airport expansion. Until it takes away one of the last pieces of the prairie we have in Illinois. Until it erases an important part of our heritage. Until “The Prairie State” no longer protects our landscape of home.
How can you help save the Bell Bowl Prairie? Check out the links included at the end of this post. And then close your computer, turn off your phone, and go for a hike on a prairie close to you. While you’re there, say a little prayer for the Bell Bowl Prairie. That this prairie will be here for our children. Our grandchildren. Our great-grandchildren. Whether or not they ever see the Bell Bowl Prairie, future generations will know that we cared enough to make a difference by speaking up.
They’ll know we said, “This matters.”
Writes Gerould Wilhelm in Flora of the Chicago Region:
“If we continue to preserve and manage remnant landscapes, one can hope that if nascent generations and generations yet unborn develop an abiding empathy for the free-living world of nature, perhaps there will be enough diversity to begin to knit together and reclaim lands around us with much of their comely diversity and complexity.Perhaps, one day, children could grow up, seeing themselves as part of nature, in an environment so beautiful and composed that it can inspire not only the healing of the landscape but the nourishing of the human soul as well… .”
I’ve never stepped foot on the Bell Bowl Prairie. And I never need to do so. It’s enough to know these precious remnants still exist in Illinois.
Bell Bowl Prairie is slated for destruction. There’s no time to waste. What are we waiting for?
Let’s save it.
Want to learn more about Bell Bowl Prairie and what you can do to ensure it survives for future generations? Explore the links below:
Join an online meeting tonight, Tuesday October 12, from 6-7:30 p.m. Click here.
Read this piece about the Bell Bowl Prairie from WTTV.
Tell others about Bell Bowl Prairie, so they can help too!
Gerould Wilhelm is co-author with Laura Rericha of Flora of the Chicago Region: A Floristic and Ecological Synthesis, an indispensible guide to floristic quality and plant and insect associations for any steward in the Chicago Region. The quotes from Flora of the Chicago Region here are used with his permission.
Join Cindy for a program or class!
Tomorrow—Wednesday, October 13, 10-11:30 a.m. (CT): “A Cultural History of Trees in America” ONLINE! Offered through The Morton Arboretum. Join Cindy from the comfort of your couch and discover the way trees have influenced our history, our music and literature, and the way we think about the world. Register here.
Friday,December 3: WINTER PRAIRIE WONDERS–ONLINE, 10-11:30 a.m. (CT): Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass! Make yourself a cup of hot tea, snuggle under a warm afghan, and join prairie steward and writer Cindy Crosby virtually for this interactive online immersion into the tallgrass prairie in winter. See the aesthetic beauty of the snow-covered grasses and wildflowers in cold weather through colorful images of winter on the prairies. Follow animal tracks to see what creatures are out and about, and see how many you can identify. Learn how birds, pollinators, and mammals use winter prairie plants; the seeds for nourishment and the grasses and spent wildflowers for overwintering, protection, and cover. Then, listen as Cindy shares brief readings about the prairie in winter that will engage your creativity and nourish your soul. Registration information here.
“Thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented culture, and doing nothing is hard to do. It’s best done by disguising it as doing something, and the something closest to doing nothing is walking.”–Rebecca Solnit
High winds. Soaring temperatures. Sunshine and storms in the forecast. Let’s go for a hike and see what’s happening on the tallgrass prairie at the end of April.
Small clumps of sand phlox spangle the green.
The pasque flowers, transplanted from the greenhouse only a few weeks ago, made it through the mid-April freeze. One plant puts out a tentative bloom.
Look at all that growth, after the prescribed fire! The newly-minted wildflower leaves are up, as are the tiny spears of prairie grasses.
Listen! Can you hear that buzzy rattle? Insects are out and about, dusted with pollen. I wonder what flowers they raided for all that gold plunder?
A miner’s bee hangs out on Indian plantain leaves.
Shooting star, deep pink at the base, prepares to launch its orgy of flowers. The prairies are full of these charmers, which mostly go unnoticed until they bloom. Soon! Soon.
Violets are everywhere in various color combinations: blue, purple, yellow, and white with purple centers.
Many homeowners and visitors to the prairie dismiss this humble but weedy plant, but I’m in awe of its delights—from giving us the makings of perfume, the joy of a candied flower on a cake, the treatment for a headache, or the edible, nutritious leaves, high in vitamin C. The violet can explosively shoot its seeds away from the mother plant, dispersing the seeds in a new location. It also relies on ants to move its seeds around (a process known as myrmecochory).
If you look closely—and with a bit of luck—you might find the native prairie violet (Viola pedatifida), a highly-prized member of the prairie community.
Look at that fan of distinctive leaves. So unusual.
In late April, the wood betony leaves provide more color than some of the plant blooms.
The trout lilies—with their trout-like speckled leaves–invite pollinators to check them out. What a banner year this prairie and woodland wildflower is having! I think the trout lilies look like sea stars—or perhaps, each one a parachuter about to land. What do you think?
A clump of wild coffee leaves (sometimes called “late horse gentian”) reminds me I’ve not yet had my cup of java this morning.
Time to head home and pour a mug.
A whole prairie season lies ahead. I’ll be back.
The opening quote is from Rebecca Solnit (1961-), who has written more than 20 books on topics ranging from writing and wandering, the environment, western history, to feminism. If you haven’t read Solnit, try Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2001).
Join Cindy for a program or class this spring!
A Brief History of Trees in America: Online,Wednesday,April 28, 7-8 pm CST Sponsored by Friends of the Green Bay Trail and the Glencoe Public Library. From oaks to sugar maples to the American chestnut: trees changed the course of American history. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation as you remember and celebrate the trees influential in your personal history and your garden. Register here.
Spring Wildflowers of Prairies and Woodlands Online: Thursday, May 6, 6:30-8 p.m. Join Cindy for a virtual hike through the wildflowers of late spring! Hear how wildflowers inspire literature and folklore. Discover how people throughout history have used wildflowers as medicine, groceries, and love charms. Registerhere.
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. Register here.
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.