Tag Archives: IL

Showers of Prairie Flowers

 

Rain is grace; rain is the sky condescending to the earth; without rain, there would be no life.– John Updike

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So much rain. Will it ever end?

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Rain or shine, it’s migration week on the prairie. New birds arriving daily.

Egrets stalk the prairie streams, or perch high on dead snags.

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Red-tailed hawks keep their own vigils, alert for unwary prey.

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Resident bluebirds intensify their coloration to deepest sapphire and rust,  busy about the business of home building and finding mates. No holding still. See ya later.

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In the savanna, the early spring ephemerals are beginning to wane, but there are plenty of exciting flowers if you know where to look. Wild ginger holds its maroon flowers close under its leaves, a secret to all but those in the know. And now that’s you.

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The Virginia bluebells cover the woods and savannas in sheets of pinky-purple-periwinkle. This plant has a tiny pollinator.

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Not to be outdone, the wild blue phlox pinwheels bloom under rain-washed skies. Wow. That fragrance! Sweet, without cloying.

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On the prairie, more blues: Jacob’s ladder, just coming into full flower. Like chips from a pale sky.

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Two partially-parasitic prairie wildflowers, bastard toadflax…

bastardtoadflaxWM5619.jpg …and wood betony (pictured below) are just beginning to flower. The “parasitic” part sounds forbidding in name, but is actually a plus. As a prairie steward, I value these two plants as they create openings for wildflowers and damp down the grasses a bit when the grasses threaten to monopolize the prairie. Read more here for additional info.

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On a less scientific note, some Native Americans carried the root of wood betony as a love charm, or used it in various ways to bring feuding couples together. No word on how well it worked for those purposes. But I love the idea that a prairie plant could be so powerful, don’t you?

The new kid blooming on the block this week is hoary puccoon. So unexpected…that orange! A punch of color in the middle of all this rain-inspired green.

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And look—common valerian, Valeriana edulis ciliata. A very high quality plant on the spring prairie–Wilhelm’s Flora gives it a “10” out of a possible “10.” Love seeing it throw its “stinky socks” scent into the prairie air. The leaves are edged with thick white hairs, giving them a distinctive silver edge. Valerian’s thick stalks and bunchy flowers remind me a bit of sprigs of cauliflower.

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These blooms, these birds, those skies —- alternating between thunder and sunshine, rain and rainbows, cumulus and cirrus—announce that the fast-paced spring life of the prairie is underway. It’s nonstop now. From the tiniest crayfish in its burrow, living their lives mostly unnoticed…

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…to the powerful bison, a charismatic megafauna that rules the prairie in all seasons…

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…to the familiar field sparrows, now in steep conservation decline—trilling from prairie shrubs, trees, and utility wires….

 

…the days begin to fill with birdsong, wildflowers, grasses, sedges, new life.

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Get ready, the prairie seems to whisper. Fasten your seatbelt. I’ve got so many surprises in store for you.

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So much to see now.

So much to anticipate.

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The opening quote is by John Updike (1932-2009),  an American writer. Most readers think of him as a novelist (Rabbit, Run; The Witches of Eastwick), but I prefer his poetry. If you haven’t read Seagulls or November, click through and see what you think.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): rain over Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; great egret (Ardea alba), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, the Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild ginger (Asarum canadense reflexum) Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata), Schulenberg Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans);  bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata); wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens); common valerian (Valeriana edulis ciliata), DuPage County, IL; devil crayfish (Cambarus diogenes), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; field sparrow (Spizella pusilla)— a species in steep decline–Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; discovering the spring prairie, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Prairie Violet Variables

“Oh, violets, you did signify, and what shall take your place?” — Mary Oliver

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It’s an exciting time in the Chicago region to be outdoors. From the hefty bald eagles, weighing up to 14 pounds, nesting and raising their young….

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…to the tiniest blue-gray gnatcatchers, weighing in at a quarter of an ounce, hunting for nesting spots, the life of the skies is packed with surprises no matter where you look.

This past week, however, I’m mostly looking down at the prairie’s newly sprouting surface, trying to find violets. They were a favorite of my maternal grandmother, who left me her fine china, covered with the deep purple flowers. I walk the prairies daily through rain, snow, and heat—-a bizarre spring, even by Illinois standards—to see if I might find some. And I think of her as I walk.

On last Tuesday, I hiked with some of my prairie volunteers up to the savanna, where we looked closely at the savanna floor to find “harbinger of spring” in full bloom. Such a infinitesimal little wildflower! We eyeballed one up close for our educational and plant inventory needs, and left the rest of the 20 foot square large population remaining in peace.

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I enjoyed the stroll on the savanna and prairie in the sunshine while it lasted. On Saturday, my marsh marigolds, ringing the tiny backyard prairie pond with gold, were shell-shocked by a sudden winter storm that dropped five inches of white stuff on us in 12 hours. The gold was beautiful in a whole new way for being under heavy snowfall. Just a different way of seeing them.

No word on how the chorus frogs felt about it.

 

By Sunday afternoon, the snowmelt had painted my backyard and the local prairies a bold, crisp green. It’s astonishing to see snow disappear so fast on the burned areas, and linger in the mowed or unburned sections. I went to shoot a photo of the contrast between burned and unburned prairie a few hours later. The snow was completely gone. So much changes from moment to moment, hour to hour, day to day, in April on the prairie. You have to be there, it seems, 24/7, to capture everything the tallgrass has to tell you.

The snow had fled by Monday, but bastard toadflax, which I adore,  was coming into full bloom.

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It was the first prairie wildflower name I ever learned.  Twenty years ago or so, an older woman, Marge, was weeding sweet clover next to me as we volunteered on the prairie. “What’s this?” I asked her. “Oh that—bastard toadflax!” she told me. I was enchanted. Marge has since passed away, but I’ll never forget her taking time to help “the new kid” learn the name of a common prairie wildflower. I think of her whenever I see it.

Other bloomers I find on my hike are less common. As I walk the western suburban prairies in my area, a friend points out the prairie buttercup, a threatened species sparking its waxy gold in the sunshine. It’s a first for me!

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This week, a more common flower—the wild strawberry—-is up, salting the emerald grasses with white. The strawberry blooms poke through the crevices of the paver path, rubbing shoulders with…the violets. Can you ID this violet? (Hint: It’s not the common violet!) If you aren’t sure, read on….

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Of course there are the common violets. The blue violet, Viola sororia, is our state flower. Often, when I teach prairie wildflowers, a student will see violets and say—Hey, I’m trying to weed those out of my yard! Common violets can be a nuisance to some. But to me, they are beautiful, if only for the association with my grandmother. The common violets have lovely heart-shaped leaves and add a welcome splotch of purple to the prairie when not much else is in bloom. The leaves and flowers are edible. High in Vitamin C!

violetseedlingsMAEW41218WM.jpgI love seeing the variations in color—from white to yellow to blue to purple— but  distinguishing between the violets is difficult for this naturalist. Lumpers and splitters, those taxonomists who decide what we call each species, further muddle the issue for me. Supposedly, there are eight kinds of blue violets in our state, depending on who you read. And it doesn’t help that the violets love a good party, and many hybridize without any compunctions about taxonomy.

The two I can ID with certainty are special. It’s the prairie violets (Viola pedatifida) that I see in profusion  on the Schulenberg Prairie where I’m a steward, and on the Belmont Prairie remnant not far away. I tip each flower face up and look for the hairy white interior that says: prairie violet. This is also the one on the paver path shown above, with the wild strawberries. Bet you guessed it right.

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Occasionally, I see the brilliant golden orange anthers of birdfoot violet (Viola pedata), which I encounter at Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL, about 90 miles west. I look at the leaves to help make the ID. Deeply lobed; birdfoot violet. Less lobed, prairie violet. The birdfoot violet leaves do look like little bird’s feet, don’t they? This bloom has a tiny pollinator.

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We’ve lost the birdfoot violets over the past few years on the Schulenberg Prairie. I’ve spent part of my April trying to find a local seed source within 30 miles to jump start a new population. (Any help appreciated! Leave me a comment.) Every missing species is a piece of the prairie puzzle. Lose one species, and the picture seems incomplete.

And who would want to lose one of the violets? My grandmother has been gone now for more than a decade.  I think of her when I show my six grandchildren a violet, or help them ID a bird, or we catch a dragonfly together. It’s her work I’m passing on—her love for the outdoors, which she handed on to my mother, who ensured it was instilled in me. When I drink from one of grandma’s violet patterned teacups, I think of the strong women in my family and their legacy of learning to pay attention to the natural world. It’s their gift to me.

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Now, it’s my turn to share.

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The opening lines are from the lovely poem, Violets, by Mary Oliver (1935-2019) in her poetry collection, Evidence (Beacon Press, 2009).  She passed away in January. If you haven’t read Mary Oliver, consider beginning with New and Selected Poems Volume 1. 

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All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) nesting, Chicago region; a prairie steward examines harbinger of spring (Erigenia bulbosa), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  video clip of marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) in the snow, author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie buttercup (Ranunculus rhomboideus) , DuPage County, IL; wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana) and prairie violets (Viola pedatifida) in the paver path, Belmont Prairie Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; common violet (Viola sororia), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  prairie violet (Viola pedatifida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, birdfoot violet (Viola pedata), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL, nest (possibly a robin’s? ID help welcome!), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Thank you to Paul Marcum of Illinois Botany for help on the prairie buttercup ID.

Cindy’s Classes and Speaking (see more at http://www.cindycrosby.com)

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online continues (through the Morton Arboretum) this week. Registration for the June 26 class is here.

Saturday, May 4– Spring Woodland and Early Prairie Wildflower Walk, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (Sold Out)

Thursday, May 9–Dragonflies and Damselflies: Frequent Flyers of the Garden, Hilltop Garden Club, 10-11 a.m., Oswego Public Library, 32 West Jefferson Street, Oswego, IL. Free and Open to the Public.

An Extravagance of Wildflowers

“There is something classic about the study of the little world that is made up by our first spring flowers—all those which bloom not later than April.”– Donald Culross Peattie

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The “little world” of spring wildlowers is in full swing in the prairie savanna and neighboring woodlands. Let’s go take a hike and look.

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The palm warblers flit through the trees, a prelude to the waves of warblers to come.

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By an old log, hepatica is blooming in whites and purples. The fuzzy new leaves, which replace the winter-weary ones, are emerging below. Oh, hepatica! You always say “spring” to me.

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I love the range of color, from deep purple to  lavender to snow white.

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Close by, the yellow trout lilies are just beginning to bloom. Tiny pollinators are finding them, like this little one.

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You may have grown up calling the yellow and white trout lilies “dogtooth violets.” By any name they are marvelous. The yellow seem all the more special for their scarcity here in the savanna where I walk, although they are prolific in other parts of the Midwest.

The mayapples are up in full force, unfurling their umbrellas.

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Rue anemone, trembling on its ethereal stems, is even less prolific than the yellow trout lilies in the prairie savanna. I look for the small stand of it each year, and feel a sense that all is right with the world when I find it.

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Jacob’s ladder leaves lace the landscape, while Virginia bluebells look as if they will explode any moment.

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Bloodroot is in full swing, and the bee flies are delighted.

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The blood root flowers last about three days, then the petals shatter. I’m enjoying them while they last.

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Most of the Arboretum’s visitors this week are strolling through the hundreds of thousands of daffodil blooms on display, a golden sea under the oaks. I can’t blame them much; the daffodils are spectacular this spring. But my heart is with these spring ephemerals, like the wild blue phlox with its candle flame of a bud, poised to emerge.

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In 1935, Donald Culross Peattie wrote in his Almanac for Moderns of spring wildflower time: “Happy are those who this year, for the first time, go wood wandering to find them, who first crack open the new manual, smelling of fresh ink, and rejoice in the little new pocket lens.”

Beautiful.

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True happiness, indeed. Happy hiking this week!

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Chicago-born Donald Culross Peattie (1898-1964) was an influential nature writer who inspired generations of naturalists. An Almanac for Moderns is his daily guide to observing the natural world through 365 days of the year. He advocated for the protection of Indiana Dunes, which recently became a National Park.

All photos this week are from The Morton Arboretum prairie savanna and woodlands, copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, palm warbler (Setophaga palmarum), hepatica (hepatica nobilis acuta), hepatica (hepatica nobilis acuta), yellow trout lily (Erythronium americanum), mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides), Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), bloodroot  (Sanguinaria canadensis), wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata), spring beauty (Claytonia virginica).

 

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Cindy’s classes and speaking events this week:

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online continues–offered through The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Register for the June online class here.

Tuesday, April 23, 7:30  p.m.–Prairie Plants at Home, Villa Park Garden Club. Free and open to the public! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for specific location.

Friday, April 26--Spring Wildflower Walk, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (Sold out)

Saturday, April 27–Dragonflies and Damselflies–Blue Line Financial luncheon (Private Event)

Spring Prairie Moon

“Barn’s burnt down. Now, I can see the moon.” — Mazuta Masahide

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Sunset. A pearl button moon rises due east as the sun flames into the western horizon. Not quite the “Supermoon”  or full “Worm Moon” we’ll have on March 20, in conjunction this year with the vernal equinox.  This evening, we get an almost-there version over the prairie. A sneak preview.

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The prairie is partly burnt. The crew came out today and torched the first sections, leaving a yin and yang of startling contrast.

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Robins flitter and hop over the white ash, scrounging for worms on the scorched surface. March is a critical month for prescribed burns on the prairie. Each morning, natural areas managers check the signs. Wind speed? Check. Wind direction? Check. Humidity? Check.

Most of the prairies Jeff and I hiked this week were still untouched by fire.

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Look deep into the grasses, and you’ll see snowmelt is still pooled around the remains of  Indian grass and big bluestem. Tough to burn.

Tonight, the prairie stream reflects a still-bare tree and sunset glow of cumulus clouds above.

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My old touchstone, the praying mantis egg case I’ve watched through the winter, faces the dying light. It is unmarked by the flames, but empty of life.

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On one side of the trail, ashes.

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On the other, brittle grass stalks and old wildflower stems are prime kindling. Waiting for the burning to resume. The flattened tallgrass glimmers gold. Will the fire be tomorrow? A week from now?

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On most prairies, the answer will be this: Soon.

Our old apple tree on the prairie has weathered many fires. We keep it, as it tells the story of its ancestor, an apple tree planted by the early settlers who first turned the tallgrass under the sharp knife of the plow. Trees like these once provided apples for making  “Apple Jack,” an alcoholic beverage. The drink offered temporary solace and medicine for those pioneers’ hardscrabble days.

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In the receding light, I wonder. Could this be the battered tree’s last spring? Every year, it surprises me by putting out green leaves and flowers.Who knows? It’s resilient. It may be here long after I’m gone.

Tonight, walking this half-burned, ghost of last year’s tallgrass, I feel a rush of joy. Out with the old. I’m ready for something new. Let’s get it finished. Bring on the burn.

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The air smells like a campfire. The memory of the taste of s’mores comes unbidden to my mouth and I realize it is long past dinnertime. Cooling temperatures and the dwindling light are clues the prairie and savanna are settling in for the night. Time to go home.

The red-winged blackbirds keep up their calling contest as I hike back to the car.

 

American robins flutter in and out of the trees, scouting for their bedtime snacks.

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It’s almost dark. A blue bird appears. His vivid sapphire is bright in last light. He bounces for a few seconds on a burned -over bit of scrub that barely holds his weight. At about an ounce, I could mail him with a postage stamp.

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I watch him sway a little longer over the ashes, then fly away. I feel a little bounce in my step as well.

Happiness! Spring.

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Mazuta Masahide (1657-1723) was a Japanese poet and samurai who was mentored by poetry master Matsuo Basho in the 17th Century in the art of haiku. Read more on haiku here.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): almost full moon over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bridge to Schulenberg Prairie at sunset, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; March on Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; reflections of sunset in Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Chinese praying mantis egg case ((Tenodera sinensis) ravaged by a bird, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ashes from prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; flattened tallgrass at sunset, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; old apple tree (Malus pumila), Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station, Lisle, IL; clouds over Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; video clip of dusk on the prairie and prairie savanna, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;

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Cindy’s March classes, announcements, and events this week:Tallgrass Conversations cover Cindy Pick9a.jpg

Now Available! Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit (with co-author Thomas Dean) is shipping from Ice Cube Press. $24.95, hardcover, full-color. Find it at fine places like The Arboretum Store in Lisle, IL: 630-719-2454; and Books on First in Dixon, IL: (815)285-2665 or at other bookstores across the Midwest.

Nature Writing: Blended Online and In-Person: Tuesday, March 18– continues at The Morton Arboretum through April 2.

March 22: Frequent Flyers of the Garden and Prairie: Dragonflies and Damselflies, Lombard Garden Club, Lombard, IL (Closed Event).

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 27 through The Morton Arboretum. All classwork done remotely. Register here.

Life in the Prairie Cold

“There was nothing so real on the prairie as winter, nothing so memorable.” — Martha Ostenso

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Seven degrees.

It’s that time of year on the prairie. You know. That time.  Frigid temps. Icy trails that make it an effort to get from point “A” to point “Z.”  Add a brutal wind, and it lessens any desire on my part to emerge from piles of blankets on the couch, or to leave my stack of library books and mug of hot chocolate.

There are reasons to go outside, however. Especially for those of us who love snow.

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Or wonders in the sky. The lunar eclipse, or what was popularly called the “super wolf blood moon eclipse,” lured me out to my back porch after dark this week. In the western suburbs of Chicago, we had a savagely cold night for viewing, but oh! What a view! The moon seemed to chase Orion across the night sky as it progressed through its different darkened stages. Crisp stars sparkled as a backdrop for the eclipse. I returned inside long past my bedtime.

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It was a good reminder: When you forgo being outside in January, the life of the natural world goes on as usual. It doesn’t miss your presence. But you are the poorer for missing the moment.

One particular afternoon this week, despite the breathtaking cold, Jeff and I hike the Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve,  an 1,800 acre-plus natural area that is, one of three regionally significant grassland bird communities in the state.

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Springbrook Prairie is home to short-eared owls, and is a confirmed site for nesting turkey vultures. Bobolinks and dickcissels can be heard singing in the spring. Springbrook also hosts the state-endangered northern harrier.

Today, however, nothing much moves in the wind except the brittle grasses and spent wildflowers.

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Until…

A hawk flies up out of the tallgrass in the distance. Could it be the northern harrier? We hike faster, crossing our fingers.

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It settles into a tree. We move in for a closer look.

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Red-tailed hawk.  Common? Sure. Still magnificent. Although not the northern harrier we’d hoped for.

The rest of the bird life of Springbrook is noticeably silent. The Arctic winds that cause us to wrap our scarves more tightly around our heads are most likely the reason. But there is life here besides the red-tailed hawk. A ball gall next to the trail reminds us. Somewhere inside the gall, a tiny insect larvae is waiting to emerge. Pretty smart, I think, to spend days like today encapsulated in a warm sphere.

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The sharp wind seems to be in my face, no matter which way I hike.

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It sculpts blue shadows in the snow, carves ripples into the white stuff; scoops out gullies.

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Tiny prints necklace the prairie, made by a tiny mammal. Brave—or hungry—to be out in this bitter cold. I remind myself I need to re-learn mammal tracks.

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There are cars in the parking lot of the preserve, but we don’t see a soul on the trails. Springbrook Prairie is so vast! Few prairies in Illinois today offer these sweeping vistas in every direction. As we hike up a rise, we see clouds piled up in the east, more than 20 miles away over Lake Michigan. Part of the lake effect.  

Looking north, the preserve’s wetlands are partially frozen and and quiet.

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In the west, the prairie could be a landscape painting. Or an old sepia photograph, perhaps.

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A living painting or photograph, that is. The ball gall, the hawk, and the mammal tracks remind me of this. Under the ground, the deep roots of prairie plants wait. In only months, they’ll push green spears through the soil and completely change this icy world of the prairie I see today.

I realize I can no longer feel my fingers. Wind-burnt, frozen, we begin the hike back to the car and turn up the heater as high as it will go. Grateful for the warmth. But still…glad to have been a part of the life of the prairie for a moment. Content to have been present to our “landscape of home.”

And… ready for that hot chocolate and those library books.

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Novelist and poet Martha Ostenso (1900-1963) immigrated with  her family from Norway to Manitoba, then Minnesota. After living in New York City, she moved to Los Angeles and became a screenwriter. She died of complications from alcoholism.  The Wild Geese (1924) is her best-known novel, and, as her publisher writes, “Set on the windswept prairies, it is…a poignant evocation of loneliness… .”

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby, and taken this week at Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve, Naperville, IL, except where noted (top to bottom): snowfall at the intersection of the collections and wetland prairie plantings on the West Side of The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL; super wolf blood moon eclipse over author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), trail through the tallgrass; red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis); red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis); ball gall on goldenrod (probably either Solidago canadensis or Solidago altisissima) made by the goldenrod gall fly (Eurosta solidaginis); bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) in the tallgrass;  blue shadows and spent wildflowers and prairie grasses; possibly mouse or  vole tracks in the snow; prairie wetlands; looking west on the prairie.

Thanks to Jennifer Crosby Buono, who explained the lake effect snow cloud formations to me that we saw to the east, and provided me with the link in the post.

For more information on galls, check out this interesting article from Entomology Today.

 

2018 Holiday Prairie Reading List

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

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

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

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

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Light dustings of snow follow, turning the Midwest magical.

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

Best way to cope with all this weather indecision?

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

2018 Tallgrass Prairie Holiday Reading List

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making Sense of November’s Prairie

“Don’t you know, some people say, the winter is the best time of them all…”–Neil Young

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I like a good challenge, don’t you? So this mid-November, I’m challenging myself to discover what’s lovable about my least favorite month of the year on the prairie.

Can there really be anything good about November? Every where I see signs of loss. Leaves dropping. Days shortening. Temperatures plunging. I’m not going to lie—I’ve been pretty grumpy about the whole change of seasons so far.

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But what I found as I hiked reminded me of why this season has its own charms, its own distinctiveness. Need convincing? Read on….

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The sounds of the November prairieare so different than the sounds of late summer and early autumn. Sound travels farther and more clearly in cold weather if conditions are right; check out this interesting article here. Next time you’re hiking through the prairie on a frosty morning, listen. See if you agree.

 

SPMAbench111218WM.jpg The wildlife noises are also different than the summer orchestra of insect songs and bee-buzz. Woodpeckers suddenly become the stars of the savanna show after hovering in the background most of the summer. They hang out on the edge of the prairie; their sharp calls pierce the cold air and their drumming adds a staccato beat to the gray days. Nuthatches chatter companionably to each other. Their calls remind me of clown bicycle horns (listen here).

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This week in the Chicago region, the sandhill cranes are scrawling their calligraphy across the skies, migrating south. Their appearance signals a seasonal transition.  What are they saying to each other? Arguing over directions, maybe? If you have never heard sandhill cranes bugle from high overhead, it’s an other-worldly sound that speaks of movement and change. Intrigued?  Listen to them here. 

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A touch-y, feel-y kind of season… November is a wonderful time to engage that tactile side of your personality. Consider a compass plant leaf. Rub your fingers across the rough surface.  Notice the texture. The leaf gracefully arcs, bowing to the inevitable, concentrating its energy in the plant’s deep roots for winter.

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Slide your fingers along the big bluestem “stem.” Feel that polished smoothness? It’s said that early settlers found these stems made a great substitute for lost knitting needles. No word on what gauge size.

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Mmmm… those smells!… Go on, inhale. Wakes you up, doesn’t it? These damp, gray days of mid-November have their own particular scent. Earthy. The sharpness of cold. A whisper of plant decay. A tang of the last wild bergamot, which smells of a cross between Earl Grey tea and thyme. When I sniff the gray-headed coneflower seeds, it brings lemons to mind; maybe even a bit of licorice. The hot buttered popcorn scent of prairie dropseed is long gone; the sweet floral smell of the common milkweed is memory.

But November has its own perfumery.

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Tasty!  Ah, the last leaves of mountain mint. You can still find a few green-ish ones, if you look. They aren’t as pliable as they were back in July, but they retain a little minty zing.  The crumbly rosin of compass plant is still pleasant in the mouth; a bit piney and not as problematically sticky.

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And of course, there is plenty to seefor those who look closely.  The first serious snowfall—you know, where there’s actual white stuff on the tallgrass and not just flakes in the air—can’t help but spark delight. Sure, you’ll hear people  moan, “I’m not ready for this,” but seeing the first real snow on the ground is comforting. Despite politics, shootings, wildfires, and global tragedies, the seasons keep rolling along.

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The often-gray skies of November are a foil for the metallic colors of the grasses, which are a backdrop for the silhouettes of spent seedheads

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It’s a different way of seeing at this time of the year. More difficult to find the beauty. But it’s there.

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Don’t forget…as you use your five senses to explore the November prairie, there is “the sixth sense.” Making the connection of the heart to what we experience. November reminds us of our own mortality—of the cycle of great abundance and heartbreaking loss; growth and rest—that we experience during our short time on this planet.  November on the prairie is homely, humble, and quiet. It reminds us, as that great prairie writer Paul Gruchow wrote in Grass Roots: The Universe of Home,the work that matters doesn’t always show.”

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Like all months, November has its own experiences to offer. New things to teach me. A time for reflection.

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If I have the courage to look November squarely in its seasonal face, instead of avoiding it, maybe I’ll learn something.

So. Bring it on, November. I’m really to learn from you, and experience all you have to offer.

What about you?

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The opening epigram is from Neil Young’s song “Little Wing,” from his much-maligned album, Hawks and Doves. Despite mockery from my friends, this is one of my favorite Young albums. It will grow on you. Promise.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) mixed November leaves, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; trail with light snow, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove Park District and The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove, IL; bench overlooking Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis), Schulenberg prairie edge, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  sandhill cranes  (Antigone canadensis) over author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant leaf (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; November grasses and forbs, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) rosin, Schulenberg Prairie,  The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, United States Department of Agriculture/Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Wilmington, IL; prairie cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL;  bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.