Tag Archives: Illinois

Thorny Prairie Issues

“Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success.” –Pablo Picasso

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Although traditionally the New Year is when we set goals, October seems a good time to begin thinking about what’s next.

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This week finds me thinking about the management plan for the 100 acre prairie where I’m a steward supervisor. It’s a chance to work with the staff and consider what was accomplished or still needs finished as I wind things up in autumn.

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Much of the plan was made at the beginning of the year and concerns invasive plant removal—particularly, non-native plants. To name a few: sweet clover (Melilotus spp.), reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea), and garlic mustard (Alliara petiolata). There are others, of course.  But this trio comprises the chief invaders that threaten the diversity of this particular prairie.

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In the early years of stewarding, weeding out these three invaders pretty much comprised the whole of my management plan. But with the maturing of the prairie (55-plus years!) and the hard work over time by volunteers and staff, this season was different. No, we  didn’t conquer those three. But at last, they were knocked back enough that I could turn my eyes to some other problem plants that threatened the tallgrass.

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A “native plant” — one that evolved in Illinois—is usually thought of as a “good plant.” However, even good plants can go bad. Given our vigorous removal of non-natives over the years, a few native plants became bullies.  The extent of their rogue advancement across the prairie took me by surprise. It was so gradual, I hadn’t noticed.

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So. Out they came. Wild plum (Prunus americana).  Gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa). I discovered Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus Illinoensis) had conducted a stealth slide along the banks of Willoway Brook, then slithered across the stream. Once I noticed, I found a solid wave of ferny leaves. We attempted to slow this species down by defensive seed collection; stripping the plants so they couldn’t add to their numbers. We’ll find out next season just how successful our efforts were.

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Today, I’m wrestling with brambles. Wild raspberries and blackberries are native to this part of Illinois where I’m a prairie steward. Normally, they are not a big deal, just a prickly part of the prairie landscape. But in the past several years, they’ve sent cane tentacles across the tallgrass, spreading throughout an area previously full of diverse, high-quality plants and shading them out. In short, becoming undesirable.

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Removing native brambles is a difficult proposition. Because they are surrounded on this prairie by high-quality native prairie plants—butterflyweed, gentians, prairie sundrops— no collatoral damage is acceptable.

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So, our prairie volunteers cut each bramble cane by hand. An applicator then paints the raw cut on the cane with the minimum amount of herbicide to knock it back. Our goal is not to completely eliminate the brambles, rather, to halt their aggressive spread.

This opens up room for other prairie plants to grow.

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Work like this is always part of a bigger plan on a restored or reconstructed tallgrass prairie. Each season, stewards and staff evaluate the prairie community. Are we allowing a wide variety of plants to become established? How are our prescribed burns affecting the insect and bird community?

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Is there a particular invasive plant—native or non-native—on which we should focus our efforts? If so, can we accomplish its removal by hand weeding? Or do we need to consider other methods?

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These are the conundrums that will keep us flexible, constantly making adjustments in management as we care for a vanishing biological community. One that we hope to keep vigorous and healthy for future generations.

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Setting goals. Having a plan.

Reflecting on the past. Thinking about the future.

All good occupations for anyone in the month of October.

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Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), whose quote opens this blog essay,  was a writer and artist from Spain. One of his many notable works is The Old Guitarist from his Blue Period, owned by The Art Institute of Chicago:  “… the image reflects the struggling twenty-two-year-old Picasso’s sympathy for the plight of the downtrodden; he knew what it was like to be poor, having been nearly penniless during all of 1902. ”

This week’s photos copyright Cindy Crosby all taken on the Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL  (top to bottom): common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); carrion flower (Smilax spp.) fruit; October on the Schulenberg Prairie; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); October on the Schulenberg Prairie; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) seedhead;  black raspberry cane (Rubus occindentalis); gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata); compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); white wild indigo seedpods (Baptisia alba macrophylla); two jagged assassin bugs (Phymata spp.) eating an unknown fly on a pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans);  little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium). 

To Understand a Prairie

“The prairie, in all its expressions, is a massive, subtle place, with a long history of contradiction and misunderstanding. But it is worth the effort at comprehension. It is, after all, at the center of our national identity.” — Wayne Fields

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How do you begin to understand a prairie?  Start by walking the tallgrass trails on a breezy day in September. See the boneset flowers sway and bend in the wind?

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Count the number of bees you find nectaring in the flowers.  Then consider—this is only one small stand of blooms! Imagine what remains unseen. Suddenly, your eyes open to the buzzing and crawling; sipping and chewing insects all around you. You begin to understand. The prairie world is not static. It is a living, moving, humming community.

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From the blooms and bugs, you turn to the fall seed heads, in all their infinite variety. The spiky purple meadow rue.

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Soft Indian grass seed plumes, a few yellow petals decorating them like confetti.

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The parachute seeds of pale Indian plantain, ready for lift off.

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You marvel at the variety. A prairie, you think, is about diversity. And yes, you’re getting closer to knowing.

How do you begin to understand a prairie? You notice how the plants change with the September slant of sun; cool nights, shorter days. See the butterfly weed in its fall colors, just before the seed pod bursts open. This milkweed’s work nurturing monarch butterflies is finished for this year. Now it must send out  a new generation of plants to do the same next season.

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Those September colors! Flowering spurge foliage glows pink under the grasses.

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As you marvel at the pink, you catch your breath. Are those cream gentians you almost stepped on? Or wait—are they bottle gentians? The blooms seem to be both, yet neither. Perhaps this is the hybrid pale-blue gentian that you’ve heard about. You drop to your knees for a closer look.

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And what is this plant, waving over your head, and flowering so late in the season?

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You take photos, examine the leaves. It looks like one of the wild lettuces, but you can’t remember for sure.  And it seems…different, somehow. So you take another photo; carefully imprint the details of the plant on your mind. Vow to look it up later.

Understanding a prairie means knowing that the more you discover, the less you’ll realize you know. And the more you know, the more you’ll forget. (Sigh.) Even when you do remember, the taxonomists may rename the plants you once knew by heart.

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Perhaps this is what it means to understand a prairie. To look. To ask questions. To marvel. To imagine. To learn. To forget. To ask for help. To be humbled as you do, realizing there will always be more to comprehend. And to accept change.

Knowing you’ll never know or understand the prairie completely —isn’t that the best gift of all? Like a present you look forward to unwrapping… again and again.

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Wayne Fields, whose quote opens this post, is the Lynne Cooper Harvey Chair Emeritus in English at Washington University in St. Louis, MO. As a child, he grew up in Missouri and Iowa before his family settled in Rock Island, IL. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Augustana College, then a masters and PhD at University of Chicago. Fields has been with Washington University since 1968. He lives in Iowa.

All photos in this week’s blog are from the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum); pasture thistle with insects (Cirsium discolor); purple meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium);  butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata) foliage; possibly pale-blue gentian (Gentiana x pallidocyanea); rough white lettuce (Prenanthes aspera or Nabalus aspera)–a “10” in Gerould Wilhelm’s & Laura Rericha’s Flora of the Chicago Region— thanks Illinois Botany FB page for help on the ID! a new lettuce for me; New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) whose latest name from taxonomists is so difficult to remember and to say.

A Prairie Wildflower Solstice

“How we spend our days, is, of course, how we spend our lives.” — Annie Dillard

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Tonight at 11:24 p.m.—not to put too fine a point on it—is the summer solstice. Simply put, it is the official date summer begins in Illinois. The solstice also marks the longest day and shortest night of the year for the northern hemisphere.

On the tallgrass prairie, the summer solstice means it’s time for wildflowers. Lots of them.

White wild indigo reaches for the clouds.

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The indigo is alive with pollinators, going about their buzzy business.

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Seemingly overnight, pale purple coneflowers open across the tallgrass. People who don’t think about prairie much at other times of the year stop and stare. Linger. How could you not? Coneflowers are the great ambassadors of the tallgrass; the welcome mat that compels us to step in and take a closer look.

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And then, there are the oddly-named summer wildflowers you forget about until you come across them in bloom again. Scurfy pea. The name alone provokes smiles. It earns a 10—the highest possible score—in the Flora of the Chicago Region, but for most photographers and hikers in the tallgrass, its primary value is as a pretty backdrop for the coneflowers.

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The unpredictable juxtapositions of plants are a never-ending source of enjoyment on the prairie in June.  Like this daisy fleabane with lime-green carrion flower.

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As June progresses, the black-eyed Susans, white and purple prairie clover, lead plant, and flowering spurge open alongside the indigo and coneflowers. Such an outpouring of color! The prairie holds nothing back. What in the world will the tallgrass do for an encore?

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And then you glance up.

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Although the wildflowers take center stage in June—as do the skies—grasses bide their time. Soon they’ll be the stars of the tallgrass prairie. The grasses and sedges at this fen are already lush and hypnotic in the wind.

 

They are also alive with insects. Dragonflies pull themselves from the streams and ponds, clamber up grass blades; pump flight into their newly unfurled wings.  Like this Halloween pennant, cooling off on a hot day.

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Or this little damselfly, neon blue in the grasses. The name “bluet” is perfect, isn’t it?

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This day calls for reflection. How have I spent my time this week; this month; this year? Have I paid attention? Where have I focused my energy? What will I change about how I’m spending my days, if anything, in the upcoming weeks?

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The prairie is just beginning to work its magic.

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Will you be there to see what happens next?

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The opening quote from Annie Dillard (1945-) is from her Pulitzer Prize-winning book,  Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974). I read it every year; there’s always something new to think about.

All photos and the video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bumblebee (unknown species) on white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) duo, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; scurfy pea (Psoralidium tenuiflorum) with a single pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) and prairie dock leaf (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; carrion flower  (probably Smilax herbacea) and daisy fleabane (probably Erigeron philadelphicus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  mixed Schulenberg Prairie wildflowers at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; rainbow and storm clouds over the author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; grasses and sedges at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Halloween pennant (Celithemis eponina), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; familiar bluet (Enallagma civile) damselfly, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflowers (Echinacea pallida) under storm clouds, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; gravel two-track with great angelica (Angelica atropurpurea) at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

The Perils of Prairie ID

“I’d like to be sure of something—even if it is just going to sleep.” — Theodore Roethke

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What’s in a name? Lately, I’ve been stressing the importance of learning scientific names  for plants, animals, and insects in my prairie classes and with my prairie workday volunteers. In doing so, I’ve found renewed appreciation for the simple ones.

The best: Bison bison.

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Easy, right? If only the rest of them were!

I mostly love the scientific names. They keep everyone on the same page about what is being discussed regardless of region, and they often tell me something about a prairie plant, animal, or insect. Like the pale purple coneflower, Echinacea pallida, whose genus Echinacea means—from the ancient Greek—“hedgehog.”

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Quite the resemblance!

But as steward and prairie instructor, staying a step ahead of my students and smart workday volunteers is tough. I was trained in art and journalism, not botany. Species identification makes me painfully aware of my botanical inadequacies.

At Nachusa Grasslands, with more than 700 plant species, the likelihood of stumbling over something I don’t know is certain. On the Schulenberg Prairie, we have 500 kinds of plants on 100 acres. And that’s just the plants! There are myriad opportunities to dub plants, birds, insects, and other members of the prairie community with the wrong name.

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I’m also a dragonfly monitor at both prairies, and I like to think I know most of what’s flying on my sites. Ha! As I waded a stream at the Schulenberg Prairie last week, these two elegant damselflies, finding romance alongside Willoway Brook, were a cinch to name.

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Ebony jewelwings! No trouble there. I dutifully noted them on my data sheet. But  I also found this pretty little damselfly.

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Hmmmm. I was certain it was something I hadn’t seen before. My field guides were in the car and I was thigh-deep in the stream.  I scribbled some guesses on my clipboard data sheet. “Rainbow bluet?” “Variable dancer?” Later, flipping through the field guide, it turned out this was one of the most common damselflies of all; an eastern forktail that had a different variation of coloring—nothing earth shattering, just not a variation I’d  previously seen.

Well then. Another reason to use pencil on the data sheet.

Makes me grateful for the simple damselflies, like the American rubyspot—nothing else in my region looks like them. And isn’t it nice when the common name speaks to the actual appearance of the species? Ruby…

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Check. Spot?

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Double check.

One of the joys of looking for dragonflies is stumbling across another insect, animal, or plant species I wasn’t expecting to see. While looking for midland clubtail dragonflies at Nachusa Grasslands, I found this pretty little plant.

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“Sedge” was not on the tip of my tongue. But a sedge it was, and after asking a friend who is a whiz at plant ID for input; poring over my new copy of Flora of the Chicago Region;  and crowdsourcing a confirmation from the good folks at Facebook’s “Illinois Botany” page, it was determined to be narrow-leaved cottongrass. Yes, cottongrass! You heard that name right.  And it’s a sedge, not a grass, despite the name.

And people wonder why identifying plants is confusing!

Try explaining blue-eyed grass. Neither blue-eyed. Nor a grass.

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Or late horse gentian, which is not—you guessed it —a gentian nor anything remotely equestrian. Maybe that’s why I prefer the common name, “wild coffee.”

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My most recent ID discussion was over this pretty little wildflower below. Native? Or non-native? Cinquefoil for sure. But which one?

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And what species of bee is nectaring here? At Nachusa Grasslands, we have at least 75 different bee species. Good luck to me keying that bee out. I had more success with the cinquefoil (see ID at the end).

At some point, taxonomists begin to tinker and soon, you discover the names you put so much sweat equity into learning have been changed. And that’s more of a problem if you don’t get the name right in the first place.

This little grass that I thought was white-haired panic grass…

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…turned out to be the woolly panic grass. So my initial ID was incorrect. Then, I learned the panic grasses—a favorite!—have been reclassified and renamed. The new scientific name Dichanthelium acuminatum  has the common name: “tapered rosette grass.” Definitely does not have the charm of “woolly panic grass,” which conjures up delightful images of sheep bouncing around a field. “Tapered rosette” seems quite buttoned up.  

Darn taxonomists.

Meanwhile, I console myself by noting my ID percentages are still better than the Chicago Cubs’ win-loss percentage this season (.500 at this writing). I continue to work on identification in consultation with smarter friends, pore over excellent books, and plug along the best I can. Knowing that my skills will improve. Prodding myself to be willing to be wrong in pursuit of learning new things. Reminding myself how much I’ve learned since I saw my first tallgrass prairie almost 20 years ago.

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Isn’t that the way of the natural world? The more you know, the more you discover you don’t know. The more you see, the more you realize you aren’t seeing.

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And yet. I might get all the scientific names correct—learn grasses and sedges; figure out the different colors of the eastern forktail at its various life stages—and still not “know” a species. “Knowing” comes through building a relationship with a place, and the community that inhabits it.  Seeing it in all weather, at many times of the day, in all four seasons. Getting hot, sweaty, dirty, buggy, and wet. Watching the damselflies form their heart-shaped wheel. Listening to the dickcissel sing. Touching the prickly center of a pale purple coneflower. Then, the identifications–those crazy names– become a part of my story and the story of that place.

And if I get a plant name wrong or forget which dragonfly is which?

Tomorrow’s another day.

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The opening quote in this post is from Straw for the Fire, an edited collection from the poet Theodore Roethke’s (1908-1963) notebooks by another amazing poet, David Wagoner (read Wagoner’s poem Lost.) Roethke’s father ran a 25-acre greenhouse in Saginaw, MI, where he grew up. A difficult childhood (his father died when he was 14; an uncle committed suicide); a battle with manic depression, numerous breakdowns, his mysticism, and a feeling of alienation were foils for some tremendous poetry about the natural world and the inner self. Roethke won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (1954) and the National Book Award for Poetry twice (1959 and 1965, posthumously). He was also a revered professor at Michigan State University.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby except for the hedgehog: (top to bottom) bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Franklin Grove, IL; hedgehog (Atelerix albiventris); summer at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; ebony jewelwing damselflies (Calopteryx maculata) mating, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; immature eastern forktail (Ischnura verticalis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American rubyspot (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Franklin Grove, IL; American rubyspot (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Franklin Grove, IL; narrow-leaved cottongrass (Eriophorum angustifolium) , Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; late horse gentian, wild coffee, or tinker’s weed (Triosteum perfoliatum) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; rough-fruited cinquefoil (Potentilla recta) with unknown bee, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; tapered rosette grass (Dichanthelium acuminatum)  formerly woolly panic grass, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower  (Echinacea pallida) opening, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; dickcissel (Spiza americana), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Hedgehog (“Butterfinger”) photo courtesy of Kim Engels White. Thanks Kim!

Thanks to Susan Kleiman, Bernie Buchholz, and the good folks on the Illinois Botany and Odonata of the Eastern United States Facebook pages for their ID help.

A Prairie Kaleidoscope

“Life would be dull if we had to look up at cloudless monotony day after day.” –-Gavin Pretor-Pinney
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If April showers bring May flowers, my little corner of Illinois is going to be a blaze of blooms next month. So much rain! The skies have been gray more than blue.

The western chorus frogs at Nachusa Grasslands are one of my favorite soundtracks to gray, drizzly days like these. Can you see the bison in the distance in the video  above? They don’t mind the rain much. And look! Scattered among the bison dung are…

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…pasque flowers! Wildflowers are beginning to pop up on the prairie, creating pastel spots of color.

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When you think of a prairie, you may imagine colorful flowers like these, tallgrass, and perhaps a herd of bison grazing.

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Bison and wildflowers are two prairie showstoppers. But what you may not think about is this. Look at the photo above again. One of the joys of a prairie is the seemingly unlimited view overhead. The prairie sky! It’s a kaleidoscope; a constant amazement of color, motion, sound, and of course—clouds.

Sometimes the sky seems dabbed with cotton batting.

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Contrails made by jets are teased out into thumbprinted fuzzy ribbons.

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Other afternoons, the sky is scoured clean of clouds and contrails and burnished to an achingly bright blue.

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You can’t help but think of the color of old pots and pans when the clouds boil over in a summer storm.

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Look up! The prairie sky is full of wonders. Scrawls of sandhill cranes by day…

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… the moon by turns a silver scimitar or golden globe at night.

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You may catch amazing light shows like sun haloes…

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Or sun dogs…

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The changeable prairie sky offers something new to view each moment.

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Will you be there to see what happens next?

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Gavin Pretor-Pinney, whose quote opens this blog post, is the  author of The Cloudspotter’s Guide and The Cloud Collector’s Handbook. He writes with wry British humor and a love for all things cloud-like.  In 2004, Pretor-Pinney founded “The Cloud Appreciation Society” (https://cloudappreciationsociety.org/) to “fight the banality of blue sky thinking.”

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): western chorus frogs singing (Pseudacris triseriata) with bison (Bison bison) in the distance, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens) and bison (Bison bison) dung, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; cloudy with a chance of bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Fermilab prairie, Batavia, IL; summer storm, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) over author’s backyard prairie; full moon over author’s backyard prairie; sun halo and sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) over author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL;  sundog over Lake Michigan, Benton Harbor, MI; Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.  

A March Prairie Tempest

“In the spring, I have counted 136 different kinds of weather inside of 24 hours.” — Mark Twain

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Tempest  ‘tem~pest’ (noun):  a violent windstorm, especially one with rain, hail, or snow.

Temperamental March comes in like a lion in Illinois, all twisters and high winds. Perhaps not a true tempest in the purest sense, but certainly leaning toward tempestuous.

The tallgrass ripples and blurs  in 50-mph gusts.

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Prairie managers consult weather forecasts. What is the wind speed? Wind direction? Humidity? March in Illinois is a season of prescribed fire.  In prairies and woodlands; savannas and wetlands, invasive plants are knocked back as the flames blacken the ground. Warming it for new life to come.

 

Up, up, up goes the smoke. Particles practice hangtime long after the burn is over. The smoke particles filter out the wavelengths of certain colors, but reds, oranges, and pinks come through. The  result? Vivid sunsets. As if the flames have leapt into space. Motorists slow, marveling at the skies.

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Just when spring-like weather seems here to stay, March hits the rewind button. Snow fills the  forecasts. Flakes fall overnight, covering prairies like sifted sugar. Or…

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… slathered on like heavy frosting.

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Deer move through the savannas, looking for browse.

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In the icy air, sundogs–bright patches of iridescence–tint the clouds just after sunrise and right before sunset.

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March is mercurial. A month of hellos and goodbyes. Farewell to the last thimbleweed seeds…

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…goodbye to the Indian hemp seeds.

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March is also a month of hellos. Mosses stand out in the savanna, bright green and scarlet. Chlorophyll is in the air. If you listen closely, you’ll hear a whisper: Grow! Grow!

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Small leaves spear through old grass and leaf litter. Such welcome color! We greet each new prairie plant shoot like an old friend we haven’t seen in a while.

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Try to describe the month of March on the prairie, and you may find the exact terms elude you; move in and out of focus.

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Why? The March prairie is a changeling child–the offspring of wind, fire, snow, hail, rain, and sun. Of opposites. Hot and cold; push and pull; destroy and grow.

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A prairie tempest. Within that tempest brews a new season.

Something to anticipate.

***

The opening quote  is from Mark Twain (1835-1910), whose real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens. He was born and raised in Missouri, then later lived in New York and Connecticut. Twain’s writing was noted for its satire and humor. Among his greatest works are  The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: high winds, Nachusa Grasslands, Thelma Carpenter Unit, The Nature Conservancy,  Franklin Grove, IL; prescribed fire, wetlands around Klein Creek, Carol Stream, IL;  rush hour after a day of local prescribed burns, Glen Ellyn, IL; tallgrass with snow, Saul Lake Bog, Land Conservancy of West Michigan, Rockford, MI; snow on bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; young white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) in the savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: sundog, Lake Michigan; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Great Western Prairie, Shooting Star Trail, Elmhurst, IL; dogbane/Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), Great Western Prairie, Shooting Star Trail, Elmhurst, IL; moss in the savanna, Nachusa Grasslands, Tellabs Unit, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; spiderwort (Tradescantia bracteata), Great Western Prairie, Shooting Star Trail, Elmhurst, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Great Western Prairie, Shooting Star Trail, Elmhurst, IL; goldenrod (Solidago, species unknown), Great Western Prairie, Shooting Star Trail, Elmhurst, IL.

 

A Season on the Brink

“No winter lasts forever, no spring skips its turn.” — Hal Borland

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February’s weather roller coaster continues its wild ride into the end of the month. The weather cools. Warms. Cools again.  Mornings are unexpectedly shrouded by fog.

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Milkweed bugs emerge early. Too early? Confused, they look for their signature plant and find only the last bleached-out stands of grasses and crumbling wildflowers.

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The brittle grasses, defeated by winter, wait.

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There’s a lick of flame. The tallgrass is intentionally torched…

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The flames consume the last elegant silver and gold seed heads; currency of the rich prairie landscape.

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In a flash, the muscled stems and starred coneflower seed heads…

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…and diverse species of grasses…

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…of the past season disappear.

The landscape changes to one of smoke and ash.

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A day or two passes. The prairie, sleek in the aftermath of fire, is a just-cleaned blackboard.

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What new memories will we chalk  upon it?

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Slowly, the signs of spring appear.  On the edge of the burned prairie, St. John’s wort leaves tentatively unfurl.

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Overhead, sandhill cranes scrawl their graceful cursive flight patterns as they head north.

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There’s a fresh smell in the air. A difference in the slant of the sun. It’s as if a window is opening to something new.

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We feel it. Spring.  The heat of the prescribed fire. The emerging insects. The green of new leaves. The arrival of the sandhills.

On the last day of February, we wait for it.

A season on the brink.

***

Hal Borland (1900-1978) was an American nature writer and journalist. Born in Nebraska, he went on to school in Colorado, then to New York city as a writer for The New York Times. In 1968, he won the John Burroughs medal for distinguished nature writing for Hill Country Harvest.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom):  Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; milkweed bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tallgrass in February, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  prairie burn, Glen Ellyn, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Canada wild rye (Elmyus canadensis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: after the burn, Burlington Prairie Preserve, Kane County Forest Preserve and Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Burlington, IL; after the burn, Burlington Prairie Preserve, Kane County Forest Preserve and Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Burlington, IL; Kalm’s St. John’s wort (Hypericum kalmianum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) over author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL: railroad at Burlington Prairie Preserve, Kane County Forest Preserve and Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Burlington, IL.