Cindy Crosby is the author, compiler, or contributor to more than 20 books. Her most recent is "Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit" with Thomas Dean (2019, Ice Cube Press). She is also the author of "The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction," (Northwestern University Press, 2017). Her writing is also included in "The Tallgrass Prairie Reader" (2014, University of Iowa Press). She teaches prairie ecology, prairie literature, nature writing, and prairie ethnobotany in the Chicago area, and is a prairie steward who has volunteered countless hours in prairie restoration. See Cindy's upcoming speaking and teaching events at www.cindycrosby.com.
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Tag Archives: ice
“How important it is to walk along, not in haste but slowly, looking at everything and calling out Yes!”– Mary Oliver
Ask for their top 10 list of February destinations, and most of my friends would tell you “anywhere warm.” I agree. Toward the end of a Chicago region winter, I’m ready to shed the shivery cold for a few days and escape to some far-flung beach down south.
But the beach in February is not my number one destination. I include walking trails through prairie remnants in winter a little higher on my list.
Tonight, Jeff and I are walking the Belmont Prairie in Downer’s Grove, Illinois. It’s small, as prairies go, but as a remnant—part of the original Illinois tallgrass prairie which escaped development and the plow—it’s special. Writer John Madson wrote in Where the Sky Began that his “feeling for tallgrass prairie is like that of a modern man who has fallen in love with the face in a faded tintype. Only the frame is still real; the rest is illusion and dream.” Remnants remind me of those “faded tintypes.” Ghosts.
Very little of our original prairies have survived; about 2,300 high quality acres are left in Illinois. Another reason to be grateful for Belmont Prairie’s 10-acre remnant.
The grasses are weather-bleached and flattened now. You can imagine how references to the prairie as a sea came to be. Walking the trails here, amid the waves of winter tallgrass, can leave you unsteady on your feet, a little like wading through the surf and sand.
A creek glistens. Puddles of snowmelt glow. I’ve been re-reading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series this winter, and the creek puts me in mind of Galadriel’s silver elvish rope that helped Frodo and Sam continue their quest to darkest Mordor. Magical. A tiny sliver of creek is also iced in on the right—can you see it in the grasses? Barely visible, but the setting sun sets it alight.
As we hike, Canada geese begin to settle in, pulling their V-string necklaces across the twilight overhead.
Geese have a bad rap here in the Chicago suburbs, but I admire their sense of direction, their seamless ability to work as an aerial team, their perfectly spaced flight pattern. Their confidence in knowing the way home.
Honk-honk! The soundtrack of dusk.
A crescent moon scythes its way across the burgeoning gloom.
Still enough light to see. The reflections of ice spark the last light.
Poke around. In the mud and snow pockets, trapped in north-facing crevices, there are signs of spring to come. A few spears of green. Water running under the ice.
Look closely, and you may find a few tracks. Mammals are out and about in the cold. Birds. In my backyard, close to the prairie patch, we’ve been feeding the birds extra food during the bitter temperatures, and they, in turn, have graced us with color, motion, and beauty. As I scrubbed potatoes before having some friends over for dinner this weekend, my mundane task was made enjoyable by watching the interplay at the feeders outside my kitchen window. Scrubbing potatoes became meditation of sorts. Outside were squabbling sparrows. The occasional red-bellied woodpecker. Juncos–one of my favorites–nun-like in their black and white feathered habits. The occasional burst of cardinal color. Darting chickadees. Nuthatches, hanging upside down, zipping in for a peanut or two. Downy woodpeckers, like this one.
The seeds on the ground attract more than birds. There are gangs of squirrels, well-fed and prosperous. If I wake early, I might spot a large eastern cottontail scavenging seeds, or even a red fox, whose antics with her kits have delighted us in the neighborhood over the years (and kept the resident chipmunk herds in check). Once in a while, over the years, we’ll surprise her on our back porch.
Another backyard visitor through the year is the opossum, who finds the seeds under the bird feeders a nice change of diet.
The opossum’s face looks a bit like a heart, doesn’t it? It reminded me that Valentine’s Day is Thursday. Time to find or make a card, and perhaps shop for a book or two for my best hiking partner. Speaking of him….
As Jeff and I head for the parking lot at Belmont Prairie, the great-horned owl calls from the treeline that hems the tallgrass. I hear the soft murmur. Who-Who- Hoooo.
Jeff and I once found a great horned owl here—perhaps this very one— in daylight, high in a tree on the edge of the grasses. I owl-prowl sometimes through the woods, hunting for bone and fur-filled scat pellets under trees. Find a pellet under a tree, look up, and you’ll occasionally get lucky and see an owl.
I think about Mary Oliver’s poem, “Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard,” which begins….”His beak could open a bottle… .” As someone who teaches nature writing in the Chicago region, I love to read this poem to my students. The sounds of Oliver’s word choices (“black, smocked crickets”), her contrasts of terror and sweet, and her descriptions (“when I see his wings open, like two black ferns”) remind me of the joy of words, images, and our experiences outdoors.
Oliver’s poem about the owl ends; “The hooked head stares from its house of dark, feathery lace. It could be a valentine.”
The owl calls again. I think of the people and prairie I love. And, the joy that sharing a love of wild things with others can bring.
It’s a happiness not quite like any other. Try it yourself. And see.
Mary Oliver (1936-2019), whose words from Owls and Other Fantasies opens this blogpost, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet (1984, American Primitive) and winner of the National Book Award (1992, New and Selected Poems). Her admonition, “Pay attention. Be astonished! Tell about it.,” is some of the best advice I know. She died in January.
All photographs copyright Cindy Crosby, from Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL, unless noted (top to bottom): beach umbrellas, Sanibel Island, Florida; sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus); Canada rye (Elymus canadensis); parking lot at sunset; grasses on the prairie; creek through the prairie; Canada geese (Branta canadensis) heading home; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) at sunset; crescent moon over the tallgrass; ice in the grasses; creek ice with new growth; downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; red fox (Vulpes vulpes), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; sunset over the prairie; Belmont Prairie treeline; treeline at the edges of the prairie; Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) with common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pappus.
“Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.” — John Milton
Did you make a New Year’s resolution? One of mine is to visit nearby prairies and natural areas I’ve overlooked. Today, it’s Ferson Creek Fen Nature Preserve, in the western Chicago suburb of St. Charles.
I have a soft spot for preserves with a mosaic of different habitats. Ferson Creek Fen ticks off a lot of boxes. Restored prairie.
The Fox River.
A boardwalk stretches through part of the preserve, protecting the sensitive wetlands. You can see the Fox River as a sliver of light in the distance.
It’s quiet in the 50-degree weather of this early January day. Our winter coats feel unnecessary.
A gull flies upstream.
Ice drifts in the current, not yet melted in the bright sun.
Downstream, a few kayakers brave the frigid water. The wetlands are painted with freeze and frost in the shadows. Cold is relative, when the sun is shining unexpectedly and the air teasingly whispers “spring.”
The warm planks of the boardwalk offer secure footing in the sunlight.
A steady hum of traffic to the west, punctuated by the squeaky calls of a white-breasted nuthatch nearby, compose the soundtrack for our hike. In the distance, Jeff and I see half a dozen unknown birds roosting in a tree. We step off the boardwalk to investigate. Hoping for something unusual, we plunge ahead on the grassy trail and discover…
…a tree full of….
…common mourning doves.
They fly up at our approach, and despite myself, I marvel at the gradation of pastel colors in their feathers, dotted with inky black. The pink feet. Their eyes like polished jet-black beads. I remember my grandmother, a science teacher, teaching me the call of the mourning dove. It was the first bird call I ever learned.
It’s a good reminder for me. There is beauty in the ordinary.
Complexity in everyday things.
All we have to do to is look. Take a moment to reflect. Remember.
And be grateful.
John Milton (1608-1674) was a British poet and writer, best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost. He also wrote the speech, Areopagitica, in a time of political and religious unrest (1644), an argument for freedom of speech, of the press, and of expression. He eventually went blind (probably from untreated glaucoma) in his late forties, then was imprisoned by a hostile regime and forced to leave his home. His poetry and works on religion and politics continue to be read long after his death.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby at Ferson Creek Fen Nature Preserve, St. Charles, IL (top to bottom) common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) with unknown aster seedheads; remains of an unknown sunflower; ice on duckweed (probably common duckweed Lemna minor, but could be greater duckweed Spirodela polyrhiza or star duckweed (Lemna trisulca) and cattail base (Typha, either common latifolia, narrow-leaved angustifolia or hybrid xglauca); floodplain forest; the Fox River in January; view from the boardwalk; boardwalk through the nature preserve; Fox River reflections in January; unidentified gull flying downstream on the Fox River; ice floes on the Fox River; view from the boardwalk; probably a red oak (Quercus rubra) leaf on the boardwalk; grassy trail; mourning doves (Zenaida macroura) roosting in a tree; willow pinecone gall made by the gall midge (Rabdophaga strobiloides); cattails (Typha latifolia, angustifolia, or xglauca) backlit by the sunlight.
Thanks to John Heneghan and Tricia Lowery for telling us about the preserve!
“Curiosity, imagination, inventiveness expand with use, like muscles, and atrophy with neglect.” —Paul Gruchow
December mornings dawn bright and clear. Venus dazzles in the southeast, just before first light.
Step outside. Brrrrr! Hello, December, with your mercurial weather and often-frigid temps.
It may seem like a daunting month to hike the prairie. After all, there’s not much going on, right?
Wrong. For those who venture out to the tallgrass, there are wonders to be had. Here are five reasons to bundle up, get outside, and go take a look.
Love ’em or can’t stand ’em, you can’t get away from squirrels in December. Despite their inroads on my backyard bird feeders, I’m a bit of a fan. Walk through any prairie savanna or check the trees scattered across the prairie, and you won’t have to look too hard.
Check out this tree on the edge of the prairie. How many squirrels can you see?
I counted at least a dozen, possibly more. A group of squirrels like this one is called a scurry. Perfection, right? Those leafy nests high up in the trees are the squirrel condos. You can see one in the above photo, on the left. Squirrel homes, and sometimes a squirrel family group, are called a drey or sometimes, dray.
Most squirrels were enjoying a snack. The scritch scritch scritch scritch of so many furballs gnawing on black walnuts was the soundtrack to our prairie hike.
Not a squirrel fan? Walk on… .
2. Ice Capades
Temperature ups and downs on the prairie leave ponds and streams a virtual canvas for weather to paint its delights upon. Crystals, ice shelves, frozen droplets…the scene changes from moment to moment with the rays of the sun.
Unless you visit the prairie in December, you’ll miss the magic.
Isn’t it important for us to witness the beauty in the world?
As Annie Dillard writes, “Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”
3. Shifts of Weather
Woolly bear, woolly bear, what do you see? Traditionally, the banded woolly bear caterpillar is the foreteller of winter weather. The longer the black stripes, the longer the winter. This little bear looks as if it’s predicting a mild winter, doesn’t it? But it was out in 17 degree weather! And, we’ve already had one blizzard in the Chicago region. Hmmm.
4. The Splendors of Grass
We think of grass as juicy, green, and supple. But one of the many delights of prairie grass is its winter wardrobe. Nuanced, ranging through metallic tones of bronze, silver, and gold, the tallgrass changes colors with the slant of the sun.
Sure, the recent snows flattened the tallgrass. Take a look, and see how your perspective on the prairie changes when the grasses and forbs, towering over your head just a month or two ago, no longer obstruct the view. New vistas open up. Grass takes on different role in December.
5. Mindful Hiking
What does the prairie have in store for you in December? Smell the tang of cold air. Feel the hot sun on your face on a frigid day. Listen to the sounds of the winter residents of the prairie and the prairie savanna; woodpeckers drumming along the edges, the rustle of squirrels dashing from tree to tree on the prairie edges. Taste the last dollop of snow. Check out the coyote scat on the trail to see what “trickster” has been sampling. Persimmons? Meadow vole? The fur and seeds tell the story for those who take time to look. Check the ponds and streams and see who is hanging out there.
It’s easy to get caught up in the baking, shopping, socializing, and other activities of the holiday season. Need a break? A walk on the prairie may be just the thing to clear your head. What are your motivations to hike the December prairie? Please share them in the comment section below.
Because we all need a little extra push to get outside this month.
The opening quote is from Boundary Waters: Grace of the Wild by Minnesotan Paul Gruchow (1947-2004). Gruchow writes compellingly about the rural life and the natural world in his books. If you haven’t read him before, try Grass Roots: The Universe of Home, or A Prairie Journal.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Venus in the dawn sky, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL: little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; eastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) on the edge of the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; three eastern fox squirrels (Sciurus niger) on the edge of the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ice on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: ice crystals on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ice on author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; ice on the author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; woolly bear (Pyrrharctia isabella) caterpillar on the prairie trail, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; snow patches on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: bridge in December on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blue heron (Ardea herodias) with a few mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), East Branch of the DuPage River Restoration, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.
“The world of dew is the world of dew. And yet, and yet…” — Kobayashi Issa
It’s cold. I’m tired. But I push myself out the door.
The sun is just beginning to flood the world with light.
The burned prairie is flocked with white. An intersection between fire and ice.
As the cold earth warms under the rising sun, fog settles…
The Japanese poet, Kobayashi Issa, wrote: “Dew evaporates…
…and all our world is dew…
…so dear, so fresh, so fleeting.”
This moment will quickly vanish. And no other morning will be quite like this one.
A good reason to keep showing up.
Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828), whose haiku opens this post, was a Japanese poet who is regarded as one of the great Japanese haiku masters. His life was marked by various tragedies: the loss of his first wife and children, a later, unhappy marriage; a house that burned to the ground. Another one of my favorite poems of his: “Reflected in the dragonfly’s eye—mountains.” And, “Don’t worry spiders, I keep house casually.”
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby at Prairiewoods tallgrass prairie and savanna, Hiawatha, Iowa: common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum) unknown prairie plant covered with ice crystals; burned prairie covered with ice; fog over burned prairie; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) covered with ice in the fog; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) covered with ice, big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) covered with ice, switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) with fog droplets; unknown oak leaf on burned prairie with ice crystals; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) with fog droplets; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) on frosted prairie.
“Everything is always becoming something else.” — Gretel Ehrlich
January’s vivid prairie sunsets remind me of the black light posters I had in the early ’70s. Pow! Unbelievable colors. You wouldn’t expect this in a landscape you thought had gone all taupe grasses and gray skies.
What amazements winter keeps pulling out of her bag of tricks! The whims and vagaries of weather brought about both ice and thaw this week. My backyard prairie pond glassed in plants and leaves.
Down in the still-frozen shallows of Willoway Brook on the Schulenberg Prairie, the broken stalks of white wild indigo lay tangled up in blue snow shadows.
Along the shoreline, milkweed pods stand ready to serve as makeshift boats. Spilled of their floss, they could float downstream in a thaw; sailing a million miles away. My mind seems to drift off that far in January sometimes as well. Anything seems possible.
Along the brook where the current runs deep, there’s thaw. So much tension! The muscle of ice against water, the push and pull of solid to liquid.
I always find transitions difficult. But they often signal some sort of breakthrough. January is a good moment to pause and reflect on this. Be encouraged, instead of discouraged by these passages, these changes.
Meanwhile, Willoway Brook wrestles with its own transitions. Ice splinters and fractures. Shards tumble downstream. The water sings of spring on the way. Soon. Soon.
The ice, cold and slick, is a foil for the other sensory pleasures of the prairie this month. Today, it’s bright sun. Tomorrow, it might be a shroud of fog across the grasses. Breathe in, and you inhale the taste of evaporating snow in the air.
Lean down, and touch a rasp of sandpapery compass plant leaf…
…or listen to the castanet rattle of milkvetch pods, holed by insects, each with its cache of dry seeds beating time in the breeze. In the clear air of January, sound seems to travel a little farther than other months.
The brittle and the rough stand in sharp contrast to the last soft brushes of little bluestem, still holding rich color in the otherwise bleached-out grasses.
All of these pleasures add their joy to these January days. The ever-present geese honk their lane changes, flying across the jet contrails which criss-cross the sky.
And each day—as the sun burns its way up through the east and then falls in flames to the west—you know the January cycle of freeze-thaw, freeze-thaw, is bringing spring a little bit closer.
But for now…
…enjoy every moment of the magic of ice and snow.
Gretel Ehrlich’s quote, which opens this essay, is from her book, The Future of Ice, written about her love for winter and the perils of climate change. My favorite of her books is The Solace of Open Spaces. If you haven’t read her writing, it’s good company for a cold January evening.
All photos/video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sunset on the Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; authors backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; Willoway brook thaw video, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada milkvetch (Astragalus canadensis) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada geese (Branta canadensis) and contrails, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset, edge of the Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; ice on the author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL.
“This world is but a canvas to our imagination.” — Henry David Thoreau
Winter is wonderful. Usually.
But this past week has been a rollercoaster ride of temperature swings from high 50s plunging to near zero; sunshine and gloom, snow and rain. In other words, typical. Fog blew in and settled on the prairies, coloring everything gray. A drag on the spirits.
One of my go-to cures for the January blues—or should I say grays—is The Art Institute of Chicago.
I wander in. Immediately there is a blast of color and light in the Impressionist Gallery. Ironically, even the canvas,”Paris Street: Rainy Day,” seems bright and cheerful.
The Monet waterlilies…
…bring back memories of summer in the prairie wetlands.
I soak up the primary hues of paintings in the Modern Wing.
Thinking of hikes through the snow this month…
In unlikely stairwells, I stumble across reminders of blue skies, obscured by clouds this week.
I imagine the prairie skies, hidden for so long behind shrouds of fog and curtains of snow and rain.
As I stroll the halls and gaze at the creations showcased in this iconic place, it’s a good reminder of the courage of those who strove, against all odds, to create something beautiful out of nothing. These painters, sculptors, and other artists who had a vision.
Like some other folks I know.
Prairie restorationists and artists have a lot in common. We think of restoration as a science. But it’s also about creativity.
Prairie restoration begins with a vision.
The dream of how the land might be healed, imagined in the mind of a steward or site manager.
There’s a lot of trial and error. Preliminary sketching, if you will; a few rough drafts. Sometimes, you scrap everything and start over.
There may be misunderstandings along the way. People who don’t get it. They look at your “project” and shake their head. They wonder out loud if you have wasted your time.
“Weeds. It’s just a bunch of weeds.”
Bet you’ve heard that one before, haven’t you?
But you keep on moving forward. You believe in what you are doing. You look for the breakthroughs.
Without imagination—without creativity—without courage—the best prairie restorations don’t happen.
The rewards don’t always come in your lifetime. But the work you do isn’t for yourself, although the tallgrass is gratifying in a thousand different ways. You work, knowing you leave a legacy for those who will come after you. You think of them, as you drip with sweat, freeze, or pull weeds; plant seeds.
You can see the future in your mind. Envision it. That end result. And as artists and restorationists know, it’s worth the work. It’s worth the wait.
Think about it.
The writer Henry David Thoreau, whose quote opens this essay, was a naturalist, philosopher, writer, transcendentalist, and social reformer. A favorite quote from Thoreau, “We can never have enough of nature.” His 1849 essay, “Civil Disobedience,” continues to stimulate thinking about human rights. His most famous book is “Walden.”
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): prairie plants in the fog at Saul Lake Bog Nature Preserve, Land Conservancy of West Michigan, Rockford, MI; “Paris Street: Rainy Day,” 1877, Gustave Caillebotte, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; “Waterlily Pond,” 1917-19, Claude Monet, European Painting and Sculpture, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; prairie pond, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Clear Creek, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; “Yellow Hickory Leaves with Daisy,” 1928, Georgia O’Keeffe, American Art Gallery, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; beech (Fagus sylvatica) leaves on snow, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; “Sky Above Clouds IV,” 1965, Georgia O’Keeffe, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; sky over Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, United States National Park Service, The Nature Conservancy, Strong City, KS; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) and volunteer weeding, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; volunteers collecting seed, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) seedpod, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; “A and the Carpenter “I”, Sam Gilliam, 1973, Modern and Contemporary Art, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; barb wire and Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; “Grayed Rainbow,” 1953, Jackson Pollock, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; ice and grasses, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; snowy trail through Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove, IL; pasque flowers (Anemone patens, sometimes Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; late summer on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; “The Thinker,” Auguste Rodin, Rodin Exhibition, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL (add to the conversation here).