Tag Archives: Illinois Nature Preserves

Three Reasons to Hike the January Prairie

“…I looked on the natural world, and I felt joy.” — Michael McCarthy

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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.

Thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

What’s the solution? I can’t solve Covid, but I can keep my worries from circling around and around in an endless loop.

Snow on Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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.

Prairie pond at Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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.

Unknown vine; East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

It backlights the tallgrass; silhouetting wildflowers and grasses.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Familiar plants cast blue-gray shadows, giving them a different dimension.

East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Even if you’ve seen a plant a hundred times before…

Common milkweed (Asclepia syriaca), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…it takes on a winter persona, and seems new.

Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

Snow shadows lend the prairie a sense of mystery.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The spark and glaze of ice turn your hike into something magical.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Breathe in. The cold air numbs the worry. Breathe out. Feel the terrors of the day fade away.

For now. A moment of peace.

Winter Traffic

During these pandemic times its comforting to know we live in community. Small prairie creatures—usually invisible— are made visible by their tracks.

Busy intersection, Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Tunnels are evidence of more life humming under the snow.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I leave my tracks alongside theirs. It’s a reminder that we all share the world, even when we don’t see each other.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Prairie Skies

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.

Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

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.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Skies might be soft with sheep shapes on one day…

Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

Or blindingly bright on the next stroll through.

East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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.

East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

As we hike, our sense of wonder is rekindled.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Our fear disappears. Or at least, it lessens.

East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Our mind rests. The well of contentment, seriously depleted, begins to fill. And then, we feel it again.

Joy.

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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.

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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 3Tallgrass 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.

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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 Prairie February 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.

Farewell, November Prairie

“In my end is my beginning.” —T.S. Eliot

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You can see it coming.

White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

It’s the last day of meteorological autumn.

Monday, I woke to scoured aluminum-colored skies. It was cold. So cold. This is the transition season, where I’m not quite adjusted to the shorter daylight hours, the dropping temperatures. I feel an urge to hibernate. To curl up with a good book and stay indoors.

But look what I’d miss!

Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

As John Updike wrote in his poem, November:And yet the world, nevertheless, displays a certain loveliness; the beauty of the bone…”.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

I go to the prairie, and I’m glad I did. Four deer greet me.

White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

They spook at first, then settle in to browse. I wonder what greens they might find on a landscape that’s the color of an old sepia photograph. Then, a buck pokes his head out of the tallgrass. Oh! Yummy.

White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus)), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

As a prairie steward, deer don’t always strike me as beautiful, or desirable. They browse some of the choicest wildflowers in the spring and summer.

White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

But I admire the deer this morning. I don’t usually see so many of them here. Deer hunting season is underway this month. This Illinois Nature Preserve is a safe haven for them.

The prairie is full of endings now. Battered plants. Tattered foliage.

Prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

Endings are evident in the spent flower heads, whether you view them from the side…

Pale purple coneflowers (Echinacea pallida), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

…or from the top.

Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

The compass plant’s dried, resinous sap, when scraped from the stem, still has that pine-fresh smell. The sap looks like snow crystals…

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) resin or sap, Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

The seed heads are as pretty as the flowers were this summer.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

I don’t usually think of an ending as particularly beautiful, unless it’s the ending of a powerful book. But the grand finale of a prairie autumn is worth the term.

Sunset over Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Tomorrow is the first day of meteorological winter. Farewell, November Prairie. Hello, December. A new beginning.

I’m ready.

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The opening quote is by poet T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) from his Four Quartets. Eliot won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948). You can read about Eliot here, and listen to him read from Four Quartets here.

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Join Cindy for a Program or Class!

Winter Prairie Wonders: Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass! Dec. 3 (Friday) 10-11:30 am (Central): Make yourself a cup of hot tea, snuggle under a warm afghan, and join prairie steward and writer Cindy Crosby virtually for this interactive online immersion into the tallgrass prairie in winter. See the aesthetic beauty of the snow-covered grasses and wildflowers in cold weather through colorful images of winter on the prairies. Follow animal tracks to see what creatures are out and about, and see how many you can identify. Learn how birds, pollinators, and mammals use winter prairie plants;  the seeds for nourishment and the grasses and spent wildflowers for overwintering, protection, and cover. Then, listen as Cindy shares brief readings about the prairie in winter that will engage your creativity and nourish your soul.  This is scheduled as a Zoom event through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.

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Just in time for the holidays! Northwestern University Press is offering The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction and Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History (with watercolor illustrations by Peggy MacNamara) for 40% off the retail price. Click here for details. Remember to use Code Holiday40 when you check out.

Please visit your local independent bookstore (Illinois’ friends: The Arboretum Store in Lisle and The Book Store in Glen Ellyn) to purchase or order Cindy’s books. This includes Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit, where you’ll discover full-color prairie photographs and essays from Cindy and co-author Thomas Dean.

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Save Bell Bowl Prairie! Visit the website to find out how you can help keep this critical remnant from being bulldozed in Illinois. One phone call, one letter, or sharing the information with five friends will help us save it.

Little Prairie in the Industrial Park

“Don’t it always seem to go—That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone…”–Joni Mitchell

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What a beautiful week in the Chicago Region.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

An excellent excuse to hike the West Chicago Prairie.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

It’s been a while since I’ve walked here. The 358-acre tallgrass preserve is off the beaten path, nestled into an industrial complex. Overhead, planes from the nearby DuPage Airport roar…

Small plane over West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

…while a long, low, whistle sounds from a train going by. The Prairie Path, a 61-mile hiking and biking trail that spans three counties, runs along one side of the prairie.

I look to the horizon. Development everywhere.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

It’s a reminder that this prairie is a part of the suburbs. People and prairie co-exist together.

Fall color has arrived. At last.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

My shoulders brush the tallgrass and spent wildflowers as I hike the challenging narrow grass trails.

Wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

The spent seeds of goldenrod and other decaying plant flotsam and jetsam cling to my flannel shirt.

West Chicago Prairie hiking trail, West Chicago, IL.

I stop and pop a withered green mountain mint leaf into my mouth.

Common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

Mmmm. It still packs a little tang. Not as intense as the flavor was this summer, but still tangible and tasty.

Wild bergamot, another tasty plant, rims the trail. A close examination shows insects have commandeered the tiny tubed seed heads. At least, I think something—or “somethings” are in there? A few of the “tubes” seem to be sealed closed. A mystery.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

Maybe seeing these seed heads is a memo from Mother Nature to me to not be overly diligent in my garden clean-up this fall. Insects are overwintering in my native plants. As a gardener, I always struggle with how much plant material to keep and how much to compost or haul away. I’m always learning. Although I just cleaned up one brush pile, and still do some garden clean-up—especially in my vegetable garden—I now leave my prairie plants standing until early spring. One reward: I enjoy my backyard bergamot’s whimsical silhouette against the background of the snow through the winter.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Crosby backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I pinch a bit of the spent flowerhead and get a whiff of thymol. Bergamot is in the mint family. See that square stem? Thymol is its signature essential oil. I think bergamot smells like Earl Grey tea. Confusing, since the bergamot found in my Lipton’s isn’t the same. (Read about the bergamot used in Earl Grey tea here.) Some people say wild bergamot smells like oregano.

It’s cold, but the sun is hot on my shoulders. Even the chilly wind doesn’t bother me much. I’m glad I left my coat in the car.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

If I look in three directions, I can almost believe all the world is prairie. Yet, in one direction I see large buildings and towers; a reminder this prairie co-exists with many of the systems we depend on for shipping, agriculture, and transportation.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

After the mind-numbing battle to save Bell Bowl Prairie in October (see link here), a trip to West Chicago Prairie is an excellent reminder that industry, development, and prairies can co-exist. Kudos to the DuPage County Forest Preserve, the West Chicago Park District, and the West Chicago Prairie volunteers who keep the prairie thriving, even while it occupies what must certainly be costly land that could easily be developed.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

We need these prairie places.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

And, these prairie preserves need us to care for them. To manage them with fire. To clear brush. To collect and plant prairie seeds. Hiking this preserve today reaffirms that we can have prairie—and development—together.

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

I hope future generations will look back and see we did all we could to protect our last remaining prairies for them.

Mullein foxglove (Dasistoma macrophylla), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

Here in the “Prairie State,” let’s continue to make our prairie preserves a priority. Our need for infrastructure and development go hand in hand with our need for these last prairie places.

Foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

Our minds, bodies, and spirits benefit from hikes in the tallgrass. I feel more relaxed and less stressed after my prairie hike today.

Thanks, West Chicago Prairie.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

You’re a good reminder that prairies and people need each other.

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The opening lines of today’s blog are from the song “Big Yellow Taxi” by Canadian singer Joni Mitchell (1943-). Listen to her sing the full song here, then read more about her life and music here.

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Join Cindy for a class or program!

Winter Prairie Wonders: Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass! Dec. 3 (Friday) 10-11:30 am (CST): Make yourself a cup of hot tea, snuggle under a warm afghan, and join prairie steward and writer Cindy Crosby virtually for this interactive online immersion into the tallgrass prairie in winter. See the aesthetic beauty of the snow-covered grasses and wildflowers in cold weather through colorful images of winter on the prairies. Follow animal tracks to see what creatures are out and about, and see how many you can identify. Learn how birds, pollinators, and mammals use winter prairie plants;  the seeds for nourishment and the grasses and spent wildflowers for overwintering, protection, and cover. Then, listen as Cindy shares brief readings about the prairie in winter that will engage your creativity and nourish your soul.  This is scheduled as a Zoom event through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.

A Very Prairie Cemetery

“The prairie landscape insists on patience and commitment. It does not give up its secrets and wonders easily.” — James P. Ronda

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It’s the end of the work day at home, and I’m scrolling through Twitter. Then I see it —a tweet by tallgrass artist Liz Anna Kozik about a local prairie awash in shooting star blooms. A prairie I’ve never seen before! It’s only 30 minutes from my home. Jeff looks over my shoulder and sees the photo Liz has posted. Wow! We look at each other.

Let’s go!

The 37-acre Vermont Cemetery Prairie is part of the Forest Preserve District of Will County. One acre of the pioneer cemetery is designated as an Illinois Nature Preserve. This acre, untouched by agricultural plows which destroyed most of Illinois’ original 22 million acres of tallgrass prairie, is a rare piece of our history.

signVermontPrairieIllinoisNaturePreserve51220WM

The cemetery is home to the federally endangered  and state threatened Mead’s milkweed. Illinois has about two dozen native milkweeds, all of them host to the monarch butterfly caterpillar. I’ve seen many of these native milkweeds. But the Mead’s has been elusive. Maybe later this summer, I’ll see it here.

Sign-VermontPrairieCemetery51220WM

As we get out of the car, I’m disappointed. Prairie plants? Sure. The immediate area around the parking lot seems to be prairie wetland, and we spot some familiar species.

VermontWM Cemetery Prairie PReserveWMWM looking west 51220

Birds are moving through. A killdeer. A mallard. Another mallard. And—what’s that?

Vermont Cemetery Prairie Preserve 51220 copy

Lesser yellowlegs? I think so. Tringa flavipes. For fun, I look up the meaning of its scientific name. I discover “Tringa” is “a genus of waders, containing the shanks and tattlers.”  Hilarious! The Latin name flavipes is pretty straightforward: flavus is “yellow” and pes means “foot.” I love the scientific names; they always have a story to tell about a member of the natural world. I check the lesser yellowlegs’ range in Cornell’s All About Birds; it seems they are stopping here on their way to their breeding grounds up north.

We watch the lesser yellowlegs move through the wetlands for a while, then continue looking for the cemetery.   Jeff spies it first—-the black fencing in the distance is a tip-off. The Tall Grass Greenway Trail runs parallel to the prairie, between the fence and railroad tracks, flanked by towering power lines.

VermontCemeteryPrairiedistant51220WM

A mammoth subdivision borders the other side of the preserve. House after house after house. But few people are at the prairie.

VermontCemeteryPrairieSubdivisionWM51220

The fence, which keeps us out, is necessary, as the prairie would easily be damaged by vandalism or poaching. Remnants like this have almost vanished in Illinois; only about 2,300 high quality original prairie acres remain. Remaining prairie remnants tend to be along old railroad tracks, on rocky knobs unsuitable for farming (such as you find at Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL), or in cemeteries, such as these.

Jeff and I walk the perimeter. Outside the cemetery fence, even the ditch and buffer zones are a treasure trove of prairie plants. Golden Alexanders.

GoldenAlexandersVermontCemeteryWM51220WMTWO

And its cousin, heart-leaved golden Alexanders.

USE THIS ONE WM Heart-leaved Golden Alexanders Vermont Cemetery 51220

Compass plants.

compassplant51220VermontCemeteryWM

Wild strawberries.

wildstrawberryVermontPrairie51220WM

Tall coreopsis.

TallcoreopsisVermontCemetery51220WM

Prairie dropseed.

prairiedropseed51220WMVermontPrairie

All this on the outside of the fence! Magical. Could it really be any better inside?

VermontPrairieCemeteryFence51220WM

We look in.

VermontCemeteryPrairieWM51220CLOSER

Wow.

VermontCemeteryPrairie51220shootingstarsandpowerlinesWM

So much shooting star. We see bumblebees among the graves, working the flowers in the early evening light.

shootingstargraves51220WM

Among the shooting star is wood betony…

Wood Betony Vermont Cemetery PrairieWM 51220

..and so much hoary puccoon! These pops of orange are startling among the yellow of wood betony and the pink of shooting star. A few bastard toadflax throw white stars in the grasses.  Sedges are in bloom too! But what species?HoaryPuccoonVermontPrairieCemetery51220WM

I have no idea.

The health of this prairie is a tribute to long-time dedicated stewards Don and Espie Nelson. (Watch a video about their work on this prairie here.) Without the efforts of this dynamic duo, this prairie would not be the vibrant, diverse place we see today. It also owes its existence to Dr. Robert Betz, a professor at Northeastern Illinois University, who worked to restore this remnant in the 1960s through cutting brush and using prescribed fire. He’s one of our Illinois prairie heroes.

vermontprairiecemetery51220WMtombstones

I wonder what those who were buried here would have thought about the importance we put on the prairie flora found here today. Curious, I look up Wilhelmine Grabe, whose name appears on a gravestone with her husband, John Grabe.  She was born in Germany, immigrated here, and died in 1895, at the same age as I am today. What did she think, when she came from the forests of Germany and first walked through a tallgrass prairie? Was she enchanted? Or was she afraid of the vast, empty spaces that became her new home? Did she and her husband, John, work hard to break the prairie sod so they could farm and grow food for their family? Would it puzzle her to see how much we value the last vestiges of prairie here?

I look up other names I see on the markers, but find nothing. There are many other gravestones worn beyond deciphering. All of these markers ask us to remember people who called the prairie state home for a portion of their lives. All of them are now at rest in one of the most beautiful cemeteries I’ve ever seen.

shootingstargraves51220WM copy

This prairie…these beautiful prairie wildflowers. This unexpected evening. This visit is a surprise that lifts my spirits and revives my sense of wonder.

The surprises have not all been good ones this week. My ginkgo tree, resilient and indestructible—-I thought — had leafed out. Then—wham! All of its leaves died this week.

Ginkgo dying 1 51720WM

Will it survive? I email the Morton Arboretum’s plant clinic, a free service the Morton Arboretum offers to anyone, anywhere. Sharon, a repository of expert plant knowledge,  diagnoses freeze damage. She says it’s possible my little tree will summon enough energy to put out a new set of leaves.

Or not.

All I can do, she said, is watch…and wait.

compassplants51220WM

I’ve gotten more practiced at watching and waiting the past two months. No problem.

Another surprise:  Sunday evening, three and a half inches of rain fell in a few hours. The Arboretum is still closed because of the pandemic, so we drive to Leask Lane which borders the west side of the Schulenberg Prairie to see how the prairie has fared. There, we pull off the road to peer through the fence. Willoway Brook rampages wide and wild. As a steward, I know the seeds of invasive plants are coming in with this deluge, and will require attention as the waters subside.

Willoway Brook MA flooding 51720WM

It’s a challenge I anticipate. But it will be a few more weeks before the Morton Arboretum is open. Although my steward work won’t resume for a bit longer, I’ll be able to hike the Schulenberg Prairie again in less than two weeks.  At last. At last.

I’m anxious to see what the past two months have brought to the prairie. I look over the fence and wonder. Are the small white lady’s slipper orchids in bloom? This should be their week. I remember the delight of discovering them nestled deep in the new grasses.

Orchids-SPMA2016 copy

It’s a discovery that has never lost its charm, year after year.

What about the shooting star? Will they be visible, even with the old growth, unburned, still in place? Try as I might, I can’t see them. But I remember them, from previous years.

shootingstarSPMA51918wm

I think of these years, and how beautiful the wildflowers were. I imagine the queen bumblebees, alighting on one bloom after another,  using their strong thoracic muscles—-performing “buzz pollination”—to loosen the pollen. Like salt sprinkled from a salt shaker.  One thought led to another. Had the federally endangered rusty patched bumblebee emerged? Was it out and about in the wildflowers?

ShootingStar51220VermontCemeteryPrairieWM

I wonder if the first eastern forktail damselflies are emerging along Willoway Brook, and what effects the water’s rise and fall are having on the dragonfly and damselfly populations.

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So much is happening! So much to anticipate. June 1, I’ll be back on the prairie I’ve grown to love for the past 22 years where I’ve been steward for almost a decade. Less than two weeks to go now. Until then, I peer through the fence.

It will be worth the wait.

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James P. Ronda, whose quote kicks off the blog today, is the author of Visions of the Tallgrass from University of Oklahoma Press. If you haven’t seen this book of lovely essays with gorgeous photographs by Harvey Payne, check it out here.

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All photographs taken at Vermont Cemetery Prairie, Forest Preserve District of Will County, Naperville, IL unless otherwise noted; copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sign; view of the wetlands; lesser yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes); approach to cemetery remnant; approach to cemetery remnant; golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea); heart-leaved golden Alexanders (Zizia aptera); compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis); cemetery fence; shooting star and gravestone (Dodecatheon meadia); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) and gravestone; wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens) and bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata); prairie and power lines; ginkgo tree (Ginkgo biloba), author’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; small white lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL–photo from previous years; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL–photo from previous years; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia); eastern forktail (Ishnura verticalis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Tremendous thanks to Liz Anna Kozik  for the heads up about Vermont Cemetery Prairie. Check out her tallgrass prairie graphic comics and other art here.

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Join Cindy for a class online!

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology” class online in May through The Morton Arboretum is SOLD OUT.   Sign up now to ensure a spot in our June 7 class here.

Nature Journaling is online Monday, June 1 — 11am-12:30pm through The Morton Arboretum:
Explore how writing can lead you to gratitude and reflection and deepen connections to yourself and the natural world. In this workshop, you will discover the benefits of writing in a daily journal, get tips for developing the habit of writing, and try out simple prompts to get you on your way. (WELL095) — Register here.

Want more prairie while you are sheltering in place? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.

A New Year in the Tallgrass

“Joy as I see it involves embracing life. … Joy isn’t the opposite of sorrow, but encompasses and transcends sorrow. You know you’re truly connected with yourself when you’re experiencing joy.” — Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge

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Where did 2019 go? The time passed so quickly.

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This year we saw changes on the prairies we love. After the prescribed burns that torched the tallgrass…

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… we marveled at the new growth soon after.

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Watched the early pasque flowers bloom….

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and then, set seeds for the future.

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We stood amazed at the constellations of shooting star, bent and humming with bumble bees.

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Then, were astonished at the July wildflowers. Sure, we seem them each summer. But each year seems like a miracle.

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Now, at the end of December, the prairie has its own sort of loveliness. The beauty of sky and clouds…

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…the delights of a single seedhead.

Pasture thistle.

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Bee balm.

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Blazing star.

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Each prairie plant has a different method of making seeds and ensuring its future. Each has  a story to tell.

Remembering the familiar cycle of prescribed fire, new growth, flushes of color, and fruition of seed are all comforting at the close of the year.

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It comforts us as we remember how, in 2019, we wrote our own stories. Some of us lost people we loved. Had surgery. Battled cancer. Made new friends. Laughed a lot. Cried a lot, too. Weeded, seeded. Planned and worked to make those plans—both on the prairie and off—a reality. Celebrated the successes. Resolved to learn from the failures.

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In 2019, there were the surprises and vagaries of weather. Remember the big snow in April? Then, the cold and wet through the middle of June. Blazing hot in July. Snow on Halloween. Sixty degree days in December. Through it all, the prairie sailed on. The tallgrass  prairie was built for these extremes.

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Woven through 2019 was joy. True joy. The kind that is hard-won. The prairie, with its glories and challenges, defeats and delights, reminds us of this. Fire brings growth. Deep roots hold firm, drawing from long-held reserves when unexpected events throw the season out of kilter. The prairie survives.

It survives, also in part, because of people with vision.  Each prairie is a story of sweat and joy; patience and persistence. Of survival. Like a Polaroid snapshot, stewards and volunteers bring struggling remnants back into sharp focus.

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Many saved at the eleventh hour.GensburgMarkhambigbluestemWM122719.jpg

2019 was the continuing story of people who care enough to preserve places that aren’t always easy—at first glance–to understand. When I drive by the roughly 105-acre Gensburg-Markham prairie on congested I-294, set aside in 1971, I wonder what most commuters whizzing by this precious remnant think about it. Do they know what was saved, and why it matters? Do they wonder why it was never developed? Or is it just a blur in their rear view mirrors as they speed to their destinations?

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Do the people who drive by the 91-acre Sundrop Prairie, dedicated in 2000 and part of the Indian Boundary Prairies in Markham, IL, know what a treasure these acres contain?

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The tallgrass grows and changes. Our understanding of their importance evolves. And yet, the prairies continue on, as they have for hundreds of thousands of years. There’s a comfort in knowing that when we’re gone, the prairies will continue to survive and thrive under the care of future generations.

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I think of these things as I hike a prairie trail at Fermilab in the last days of the year. According to the Chicago Tribune, “In 1975 when he heard that Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, near Batavia, was looking for suggestions on what to do with the thousands of acres it owned, Bob Betz sat down with then-director Robert Wilson and went over his vision of having a restored prairie on the property. ‘And when Dr. Wilson asked how long it was going to take, Dr. Betz said, ‘Ten, 20 or maybe 30 years,’ then Dr. Wilson said, ‘Well, we better get started this afternoon.’ ” From these beginnings, beautiful prairies were planted and now thrive at Fermilab.

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Prairie remnants like the Indian Boundary Prairies—Sundrop and Gensburg-Markham— require people to discover them, bring them to the attention of the rest of us, and then, care for them with prescribed fire and stewardship. They require organizations like the Nature Conservancy and Northeastern Illinois University and others, and the generous donations of individuals, to ensure their protection. They require vision. And action. I think of Bob Betz, and his work with the Indian Boundary Prairies, as well as with Fermilab’s natural areas.  I think of the volunteers who undertake a hundred different tasks to maintain prairies today.

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Other preserves, like Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL–which has both remnant and planted prairies—shows the rewards of focused funding and care since 1986 by the Nature Conservancy Illinois and later, joined in that care by Friends of Nachusa Grasslands. I think also of the 100-acre Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum just outside of Chicago, and the volunteers, including myself, who dedicate time each season to cut brush, plant new natives, and collect seeds. Such different prairies! Each one irreplaceable.

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Now, it’s time to close another chapter in the life of the prairies. 2019 is a wrap.

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2020 is waiting. So much possibility!

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So much good work to do. So much joy to look forward to.

*****

The opening quote is included in the book, Poemcrazy: Freeing Your Life with Words by Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge. It’s one of my favorite books on writing; I re-read it at least once a year.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Sundrop Prairie, Midlothian, IL: prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; greening up after the prescribed burn, top of Dot’s Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL: pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens) in bloom, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatiilla patens) in seed, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; July at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; the end of December at Fermilab Natural Areas, interpretive trail, Batavia, IL; pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; blazing star (probably Liastris aspera), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Sundrop Prairie, Midlothian, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Sundrop Prairie, Midlothian, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Sundrop Prairie, Midlothian, IL; backlit prairie plants (unknown), Sundrop Prairie, Midlothian, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; Illinois nature preserve sign, Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; Sundrop Prairie in December, Midlothian, IL; Gensburg-Markham Prairie with bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), grasses, and wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; Fermilab interpretive trail edges at the end of December, Batavia, IL; Carolina horsenettle (Solanum carolinense), Fermilab interpretive prairie trail, Batavia, IL: prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; Wilson Hall from the interpretive trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL;  interpretive trail at Fermilab Natural Areas at the end of December, Batavia, IL.

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Please join Cindy at one of her upcoming classes or talks in the new year!

Nature Writing and Art Retreat, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, February 22 (Saturday) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Cindy will be facilitating the writing portion. Register here.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26.  Details and registration here.

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum. For details and registration, click here. 

Happy New Year! Thank you for reading. See you in 2020.