Daylight savings time kicked in Sunday in the Midwest. An extra hour before sunset! I head to the prairie for a late hike in last light.
It’s the last days. Each member of the prairie community seems set apart tonight. Who knows when a prescribed burn will wipe the tallgrass slate clean for another season? The fires may arrive at any time. Until then, I want to appreciate everything I see.
I pick up my pace on the muddy two-track.
It will be dark soon.
Goodnight to the grasses.
Goodnight to the prairie dock.
Goodnight, carrion flower seeds.
Goodnight mosses and lichens.
Goodnight, lingering ice in Willoway Brook.
Goodnight bur oak.
Goodnight to the brambles.
Goodnight to the bridges.
Goodnight to the vines.
Goodnight to the midges.
Goodnight, mountain mint.
Goodnight, houses on the edge of the prairie.
Goodnight to the redwing, singing sounds of spring.
Goodnight to the other redwing, singing back to him.
Goodnight to the brook, running cold and clean.
Goodnight to the bundleflower, reflected in the stream.
Goodnight sparrows everywhere.
See you in my dreams.
The opening quote is by John Burroughs (1837-1921),an American writer and naturalist. Almost every year, a book of natural history wins the John Burroughs Medal, an award given in his honor. For a complete list, look here. This post was inspired by many readings of Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown to my children and now, my six grandchildren.
“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
We haven’t seen the last of winter. Snow is in the forecast this week in the Chicago region. But this weekend, spring seemed a little closer. Why? Thaw. Can you smell it in the air? Can you hear the trickle of snow melt, percolating through the frozen earth?
Sunday, Jeff and I hiked Springbrook Prairie, an 1,829 acre nature preserve in Naperville, IL, drawn outside by the rising mercury in the thermometer, the sunshine, and—yes—the thaw.
We’re getting closer to the vernal equinox on Sunday, March 20. Soon, the hours of light and dark will balance on the seasonal scale.
We’re not quite there yet. In the bright sunlight, we can almost imagine it is late March. But February is still winter, by both meteorological and astronomical calendars.
Despite the ice and snow that claim the tallgrass, the signs of spring on the horizon are evident. Red-winged blackbirds sing on the edges of the wetlands at Springbrook Prairie. Soon they will be dive-bombing us in defense of their nests.
From its perch, the red-wing has a prime view of the prairie. I’d love to have that vantage point! I’d watch the pond with its icy den. Who is home? Muskrats? Beavers? I’m not sure. I bet the red-wing knows.
I wish I could sail high and spy on the ubiquitous white-tailed deer.
Or cruise the prairie, watching the bicycles and joggers thread their way through the tallgrass on the sloppy-wet trails. What I wouldn’t give for a birds-eye view from the sky today!
Instead, we’re deep in the thaw. A fine limestone slurry coats our boots.
Dog walkers trot past, their pooches splattered and patched with gray. I wonder what clean-up will be done before the ride home.
Thimbleweed lifts its seed puffs trailside.
The sun tracks low, illuminating the native grasses.
Wildflowers turn bright against the backlight.
Suddenly, two sundogs appear! It’s my first glimpse of this phenomenon this year. Sundogs are difficult to photograph. But how wonderful to stand on the trails and admire those two outrider prisms, equal distances from the sun in the sky. Can you spot them, just over the horizon line?
What a joy to experience sundogs and thaw; redwings and snowmelt. As we head for the parking lot, a hawk—maybe a juvenile redtail?—monitors our progress.
She–or he—flies off into the sunset at our approach, finished with the day’s business.
Jeff and I are finished with our hike. Ready for dinner. And home.
By Monday, our backyard prairie is lank and wet, all soggy grasses with pools of snowmelt. The sun works diligently all morning to erase any traces of winter. As I soak up the light pouring through the kitchen window, thinking about spring burns (and how much my backyard needs one), there’s a flurry of wings. Redpolls!
So many common redpolls. Just in time to close out the Great Backyard Bird Count. This is the first winter we’ve seen these feisty birds in our backyard, thanks to a tutorial by our birding friends on what field marks to look for and what seeds redpolls love.
Redpolls swarm the sock feeders, mob the seed tubes, line the tray feeder and gobble the nyjer thistle tossed on the porch. I call Jeff to the window. Together, we attempt to count them. Ten. Thirty. Fifty. Seventy—and so many others in the trees! A group of redpolls, I’ve learned, is called “a gallop of redpolls.” We certainly have a herd of them!
We estimate almost a hundred, perched in trees, loitering at the feeders, hopping around on the roof. Where did they come from? Are they on their way…where? Back to their Arctic habitat, perhaps? It’s difficult to know. I hope this isn’t goodbye for the season. But if it is goodbye, that’s okay. What a dramatic finale it would be.
Nature has a way of surprising us with wonders.
All we have to do is show up and pay attention.
The opening quote is one of my all-time favorites by the writer Annie Dillard (1945-). I read her Pulitzer Prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creekevery year. Wrote Eudora Welty in the New York Times Book Review, “The book is a form of meditation, written with headlong urgency, about seeing.” It’s a good one.
Join Cindy for a class or program in February!
February 26 — Plant a Little Prairie in Your Yard for Citizens for Conservation. Barrington, IL. (10 am-11:30 am.) Open to the public with registration. Contact them here.
February 26 ––Conservation: The Power of Story for the “2022 Community Habitat Symposium: Creating a Future for Native Ecosystems” at Joliet Junior College. Tickets available at (https://illinoisplants.org/). (Cindy’s afternoon program is part of the all-day events)
Grateful thanks to John Heneghan and Tricia Lowery, who gave us the redpolls tutorialand are always ready to help with bird ID.
“…I looked on the natural world, and I felt joy.” — Michael McCarthy
This is the season of hot chocolate and electric blankets; library books and naps. And yet. When I spend too much time insulated at home, I find myself fretting over the latest newspaper headlines, or worrying about getting sick. Covid has left few of our families untouched.
What’s the solution? I can’t solve Covid, but I can keep my worries from circling around and around in an endless loop.
A hike outdoors goes a long way to restoring my spirits. Cold has settled into the Chicago region. A fine layer of snow has covered the grime along the roads and left everything shimmering white. The air smells like clean laundry. The ice has become manageable under a few days of concentrated sunlight.
It’s beautiful outside! Despite the chill. Consider these three reasons to brave the cold and go for a prairie hike this week.
Shadows and Shapes
Snow backdrops prairie plants and transforms them.
It backlights the tallgrass; silhouetting wildflowers and grasses.
Familiar plants cast blue-gray shadows, giving them a different dimension.
Even if you’ve seen a plant a hundred times before…
…it takes on a winter persona, and seems new.
Snow shadows lend the prairie a sense of mystery.
The spark and glaze of ice turn your hike into something magical.
Breathe in. The cold air numbs the worry. Breathe out. Feel the terrors of the day fade away.
For now. A moment of peace.
During these pandemic times its comforting to know we live in community. Small prairie creatures—usually invisible— are made visible by their tracks.
Tunnels are evidence of more life humming under the snow.
I leave my tracks alongside theirs. It’s a reminder that we all share the world, even when we don’t see each other.
Winter has a way of changing the prairie sky from moment to moment. It might be brilliant blue one day, or crowded with puffy cumulus clouds the next.
Wild geese fly by, their bowling pin silhouettes humorous when directly overhead; the clamor raucous even in the distance as they fly from prairie to soccer field to golf course.
Skies might be soft with sheep shapes on one day…
Or blindingly bright on the next stroll through.
The prairie gives us the advantage of a 360-degree view of the sky. Its immensity reminds us of how very small….so small…. our worries are in the great span of time and space.
As we hike, our sense of wonder is rekindled.
Our fear disappears. Or at least, it lessens.
Our mind rests. The well of contentment, seriously depleted, begins to fill. And then, we feel it again.
The opening quote is from the book The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy (1947-), a long-time British environmental editor for The Independent and writer for The Times. You can listen to his interview with Krista Tippett for “On Being” 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.
Also — check out this free program offered by Wild Ones! (Not one of Cindy’s but she’s attending!)
The Flora and Fauna of Bell Bowl PrairieFebruary 17, 7-8:30 p.m. Join other prairie lovers to learn about the flora and fauna of Bell Bowl Prairie, slated for destruction by the Chicago-Rockford International Airport this spring. It’s free, but you must register. More information here. Scroll down to “Upcoming Events” and you’ll see the February 17 Webinar with the always-awesome Rock Valley Wild Ones native plants group. Watch for the Zoom link coming soon on their site! Or contact Wild Ones Rock River Valley Chapter here. Be sure and visit http://www.savebellbowlprairie.org to see how you can help.
“If the world seems cold to you, kindle fires to warm it.” —Lucy Larcom
I’ve been looking up words in the thesaurus to describe the Chicago region’s prairie temperatures this week.
Here’s what I’ve found so far: Chilly. Freezing. Icy.
Piercing. Numbing. Sharp.
Glacial. Wintry. Raw.
Penetrating. Hypothermic. And did I say…. cold?
And….refreshing. These temperatures are a wake-up blast that jolts you clear down to your toes. Until you can’t feel your toes anymore.
What do you think? How would you describe the cold this week?
After I hiked the prairie this weekend in the snow, rising temperatures and a misty rain laid an icy glaze across the sidewalks and driveways; shellacked the front steps to our house. It looked as if Mother Nature got down on her hands and knees and buffed the snow to a high gloss.
Monday’s sunshine helped melt it a bit. Now everything is slick with ice. It’s treacherous out there.
I can see my backyard prairie patch from the kitchen window. What solace! The prairie dock leaves are brittle and brown; the compass plants curl like bass clefs. Wild bergamot satisfies my need for aesthetics as much in winter as it does in full bloom during the summer. Rattlesnake master’s spare silhouette is more striking now than it was in the warmer seasons.
Along the side of the house, prairie dropseed pleases in its mound-drape of leaves. What a pleasure this plant is. Every home owner should have it. So well-behaved.
But it’s the rough and tumble of joe pye, goldenrod, asters, swamp milkweed, cup plant, culver’s root, mountain mint and other prairie community members as a whole that I appreciate as much as parsing out a single species.
I’m reminded that underneath the snow is a world of color and motion and growth, just waiting to happen at the turn of the temperatures toward warmth. These bitter temperatures are a necessary pause in the life of the prairie.
Meanwhile, I’ll wait for the ice to melt…
… and remind myself that one of the reasons I planted prairie in my yard is for days just like this one. Is my backyard prairie good for the environment? Absolutely. Essential for pollinators? You bet. And…
…it’s a winter pleasure that warms my spirits, as I look through the window on a brutally-cold, iced-in day.
Lucy Larcom (1824-1893) was a writer, abolitionist, and teacher. As one of nine children, whose father (a sea captain) died when she was eight, Larcom worked with her mother to run a boardinghouse to keep the family afloat in Lowell, Massachusetts. She worked in Lowell’s mills at eleven years old, where the “mill girls” established a literary circle and she became a friend of the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, who was a support and encouragement. At twenty, she moved with an older sister to the Illinois prairies, where she taught school. She later moved back East and wrote for such magazines as the Atlantic. Her poetry collections include Similitudes, from the Ocean and Prairie (1853). She is best known for her autobiography, A New England Girlhood, Outlined from Memory which the Poetry Foundation calls “a richly detailed account of gender, and class in mid-nineteenth century New England.”
Join Cindy for a program in January!
“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 in person, or tune in via Zoom from the comfort of your home. (Please note changes in venue may be made, pending COVID. Check the day before to ensure you know the most current details of this event). 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.
“I wish you peace, when the cold winds blow….”— Patti Davis and Bernie Leadon
Strange weather. Crazy headlines. The holidays. I’ve been caught up in a baking frenzy, turning out cinnamon rolls, Italian Christmas cookies, and bread. Lots of bread. All good—but if I’m going to bake—I need to hike. And nowhere is hiking better than the tallgrass prairie.
What about you? Why not come along? Enjoy a stress-free hour. Blow those stressful headlines out of your mind. On the prairie, your biggest decision is not what size/what color/how much and “will it arrive in time?” Rather, it’s…
Which trail should I take?
Or, Which aster is that?
Take a deep breath. Listen. What’s that sound? Perhaps it’s the ice cracking under your boots.
The hushed whisper of wind stirring the tallgrass.
Or the chick-a-dee-dee-dee song rising from a tiny fluff-ball in the prairie shrubs.
So many wonders are all around, changing from moment to moment. Simple things, like a jet etch-a-sketching its way across the prairie sky, leaving contrails in its wake.
The accordion shape of a December prairie dock leaf.
Look for its soul-sister, compass plant,aging gracefully nearby.
Go ahead. Look. Really look. Let it soak in.
Admire the prairie in its December garb, from a single leaf…
…to its chorus of spent wildflowers…
…to the reflections in a prairie stream.
Then, find some milkweed floss.
Thank the plant for its service to monarchs this year. Pluck a single seed, make a wish, and send that seed on its way.
As it travels on the wind, let your worries and stresses go with it.
Then, pause. Tuck away this memory for later, when you need a good one.
Here’s wishing for a peaceful week ahead for you. Enjoy the hike.
The opening quote is from Patti Davis’ and Bernie Leadon’s song, “I Wish You Peace,” sung by the Eagles on their album, One of These Nights. Disagreement over including the song on that album is said to be one of the last straws that led to Bernie leaving the group; he was replaced by Joe Walsh. Oddly enough, Patti Davis is the daughter of former President Ronald Reagan, which was said to be another part of the dispute. An interesting story about how she came to write a song for the Eagles can be found here. “I Wish You Peace” is often dismissed as a “trite and smarmy” song, but Jeff and I had it sung at our wedding, almost 40 years ago. Still love it.
Seven years ago, I penned “Tuesdays in the Tallgrass” for the first time and invited you to come along for a hike each week. Where did the time go? Thanks for reading, and thanks for your love of the natural world. And thank you for sharing prairie, and keeping the tallgrass alive in people’s hearts and minds. I’m grateful.
Join me in 2022 for a prairie program! Visit www.cindycrosby.com for current class and program listings. Need a speaker for your event, class, or program? See the website for more information.
“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.
Those of us in the tallgrass prairie region know that with March, anything is possible.
Willful, changeable, whimsical March.
March is thaw season. Mud season. Melt season. Even as the ice vanishes by inches in prairie ponds and streams…
…we know the white stuff hasn’t surrendered. Not really.
March is the opening dance between freeze and thaw.
Snow and rain. Fire and ice.
It’s a teasing time, when one day the snow sparkles with sunlight, spotlighting the desiccated wildflowers…
…the next, howling winds shatter the wildflowers’ brittle remains.
March is shadow season. Light and dark. Sun and clouds.
It’s been so long. So long since last spring. So many full moons have come and gone.
We remember last March, a month of unexpected fear. Shock. Grief. Anxiety for what we thought were the weeks ahead…
…which turned into—little did we know—months. A year. Hope has been a long time coming.
But now, sunshine lights the still snow-covered prairie.
Deep in the prairie soil, roots stretch and yawn.
Seeds crack open.
A new season is on the way.
In March, anything seems possible.
Hope seems possible.
The nursery rhyme “March winds and April showers, bring forth May flowers” is likely adapted from the prologue to Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.There, it reads a bit inscrutably for modern readers: “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote, The droghte of March hath perced to the roote… . ” Chaucer, who was born sometime between 1340-45, is called “the first English author” by the Poetry Foundation. Troubled by finances, he left The Canterbury Tales mostly unfinished when he died in 1400, possibly because “the enormousness of the task overwhelmed him.” Chaucer is buried in Westminster Abbey; the space around his tomb is dubbed the “Poet’s Corner.”
Sunday, March 7, 4-5:30pm CST: Katy Prairie Wildflowers, offered through Katy Prairie Conservancy, Houston, Texas. Discover a few of the unusual prairie wildflowers of this southern coastal tallgrass prairie. Register here
Thursday, March 11, 10am-noon CST: Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History is a book discussion, offered by Leafing through the Pages Book Club at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (Morton Arboretum members only) Registration information here.
Friday, April 9, 11:30a.m-1pm CST: Virtual Spring Wildflower Walk —discover the early blooming woodland and prairie plants of the Midwest region and hear their stories. Through the Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. 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.
“…How swiftly time passes in the out-of-doors where there is never a moment without something new.”– Sigurd Olson
It starts with graupel. Icy pellets of rimed snow. Soft hail. The graupel rattles the windows. Pelts the patio. Bounces like tiny ping-pong balls across my backyard and into the prairie patch. The winter storm is here.
Four mourning doves swoop onto the porch. They peck-peck-peck the scattered millet seed around the bird feeders, then shelter under the eaves. Darkness falls. The wind rattles the windows. And at last, it begins to snow.
A light snow cover has blanketed the prairies this week. Critters leave clues to their identities.
The prairie grasses, overshadowed by wildflowers most of the year, find snow is the perfect backdrop to showcase their charms.
Snow is a stage for tallgrass shadows and silhouettes to play upon.
Turkey tail fungi sift snow, letting it powder each arc of nuanced color.
From a distance, Indian hemp seems stripped of all but pod and stem.
Come closer. A few seeds still cling to the scoured pods, ready to set sail in the high winds.
Everywhere is something to spark wonder. “Even an adult can grow in perception if he refuses to close the doors to learning,” wrote Sigurd Olson in Reflections from the North Country.There are stories to be listened to…
…messages to be read in the midst of the snow, if only we can decipher them. If we keep the doors to learning open.
When the doors to learning stand open, what is there to discover?
Perhaps, diversity is beautiful.
Or, Think of future generations, not just of the needs or desires of the moment.
Remember the past, but don’t get stuck there.
Embrace change, even when it’s difficult. It usually is.
Appreciate what you have today…
…it may not be here tomorrow.
The choices we make aren’t always clear or easy.
There are a lot of gray areas.
But it’s never too late to reflect. To listen. To learn.
And then, to move forward.
There is so much to see and think about on the prairie.
So much to pay attention to.
So much to consider, on a prairie hike in the snow.
Sigurd Olson (1899-1982), whose quote opens this post, was born in Chicago and grew up in northern Wisconsin. He is considered one of the most important environmental advocates of the 20th Century. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area—over one million acres in size—owes its preservation to the work of Olson and many others. Olson worked as a wilderness guide in the Quetico-Superior area of Minnesota and Canada, and his nine books explore the meaning of wilderness and the outdoors. He is a recipient of the John Burroughs Medal, the highest honor in nature writing, for Wilderness Days. If you haven’t read Olson, I’d suggest beginning with The Singing Wilderness. A very good read.
Join Cindy in 2021 for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a complete list of virtual offerings. 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 6 OR just added —February 15 (Two options): Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online--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.
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.