Tag Archives: Illinois

A Tallgrass Prairie Freeze

“Winter is an opportune season in which nature’s legions have time to ready themselves for a new debut come spring and beyond.“–Allen Young

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February can’t make up her mind. Freezing temps and blustery winds? Hot sunshine and snowmelt? Every morning is a weather package to unwrap, full of surprises.

Sunrise from Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

On a brutally cold afternoon with abundant sunshine this week, I trek through the snow on the Schulenberg Prairie. I’m a steward here so I’m excited to see the fence along the north edge of the prairie has been taken down. The new 18 acres purchased for natural areas is being cleared. It’s satisfying to see an overgrown area, full of buckthorn and honeysuckle, in the process of restoration.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. New acreage is at the far treeline, center.

Ten degrees. Five bluebirds hang around the edges of the prairie in the savanna, their sapphire plumage startling against the bright snow.

Eastern bluebird (Sialia silalis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2019)

It’s our deepest snow of the year. Three inches? Four?

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I’m glad for the fluffy stuff. Snow will help replenish the prairie’s groundwater.

Tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

As I hike toward the bridge, I hear a sound, like the sizzle of hot oil in a skillet. Water running! Willoway Brook isn’t completely frozen.

Bridge over Willoway Brook, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I hang over the bridge railing. Yes, there is open water. But look at that ice!

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

So many winter patterns…

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…flat discs…

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…and ice crystals.

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

How astonishing! I forget my frozen nose and fingers as I look for other marvels in the water. A fallen angel in the center of the stream, or a flying bird?

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Reed canary grass conjures ice sculptures by the stream’s edges.

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

In other areas along the shoreline, the ice lays on the water surface like plastic wrap on Jell-O.

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Wonder after wonder. I imagine the dragonfly and damselfly nymphs, waiting under the ice for spring. I think of them, and their bright colors aloft in only a few months.

Calico pennant dragonfly (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (undated).

Soon. Very soon.

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I feel joy thinking of the dragonflies to come. And delight in the ice and snow of the prairie today. One prairie. Many facets over the seasons. Always something interesting going on.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Just think. I almost stayed home by the fireplace today, with my stack of library books and warm afghan. I would have missed all this.

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

However, the fireplace sounds good now, as my toes are frozen and my face chapped from the Arctic breezes blowing through the tallgrass.

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I give the prairie a last look. Then shiver. Brrrr! Despite the sunshine, the wind is unstoppable. You can feel its bite and snap against exposed skin.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Time to head home.

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I hike through the savanna to the parking lot. Will my car start? Fingers crossed.

Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Thankfully, it does. The heater full blast feels good, and as I sip hot peppermint tea from my thermos I begin to thaw. But what a joy it has been, to hike the prairie in February.

Unknown asters and prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The prairie and its wonders are out there, waiting for you.

Why not go see?

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The opening quote is from Allen M. Young from Small Creatures and Ordinary Places. These are thoughtful essays, celebrating katydids, butterflies, bats, odonates, cicadas, mice, hornets and more. I particularly enjoyed his passages on winter. Young also revised the “Golden Guide to Insects” for today’s readers—remember those little Golden Nature Guides you had as a kid? I still have one or two on my shelf. Young is the curator of zoology and vice-president of collections, research and public programs at the Milwaukee Public Museum. Check out Small Creatures here.

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Winter Prairie Wonders — Tuesday, February 7, 10-11:30 a.m. Discover the wonders of the prairie in winter as you hear readings about the season. Enjoy stories of the animals who call the prairie home. Hosted by the Northbrook Garden Club in Northbrook, IL. Free to non-members, but you must register by contacting NBKgardenclub@gmail.com for more information.

Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Fliers –— Wednesday, February 8, noon-1:30 p.m. Hosted by Countryside Garden Club in Crystal Lake, IL. (Closed event for members)

The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Charm Shop— Thursday, February 9, 12:30-2 p.m. Hosted by Wheaton Garden Club in Wheaton, IL (closed event for members).

Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers— February 20, 7:15-8:45 p.m. Hosted by the Suburban Garden Club, Indian Head Park, IL. Free and open to non-members. For more information, contact Cindy through her website contact space at http://www.cindycrosby.com.

See Cindy’s website for March programs and classes.

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Bell Bowl Prairie in Rockford, IL, needs your help! Find out more on saving this threatened prairie remnant at SaveBellBowlPrairie.

A Tallgrass Prairie Snowfall

“…I have meandered, like the drifts of snow, across the wide prairies.” —Paul Gruchow

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It came.

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

It transformed the prairie.

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

Then, it melted.

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

But in the brief time it was here, it was magical.

Little bluestem (Schizochryium scoparium), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

On Sunday, the first significant snowfall in…well, a while here…cast its spell on the gray, gloomy January landscape. It turned wearisome weather into wonder.

Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The mallards sailed through slush, tracing their way through the prairie pond.

Mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

It’s been unusually warm for a snowfall. You can feel the unresolved tension between freeze and thaw.

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

After days of hiking muddy trails under platinum skies, the white stuff falling lifts my spirits. Snowflakes touch each wildflower’s winter remains with brightness.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Grasses tremble under their frosty loads.

Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Last summer’s leaves, freed from their job of churning chlorophyll, become works of art.

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Seed pods have jettisoned most of their loads.

Dogbane (or Indian Hemp) (Apocynum cannabinum), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Almost before we can finish our hike today, the snowfall is over.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

But the enchantment will stay with me.

Bird’s nest, Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Goodbye, snow.

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

I wish you would have stayed longer. But I’m grateful for your presence on the prairie today.

*****

The opening quote is from Paul Gruchow’s Journal of a Prairie Year (Milkweed Editions). There isn’t much written about the prairie in winter, and Gruchow (1947-2004) does a fine job describing his January hikes. He was one of the prairie’s best writers.

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Join Cindy for a class or program in February!

Nature Writing Workshop— Four Thursday evenings (February 2, 9, 16, and 23) from 6-8:30 p.m. Join a community of nature lovers as you develop and nurture your writing skills in person. Class size is limited. Hosted by The Morton Arboretum. Masks are optional. For more information and to register visit here.

Winter Prairie Wonders — Tuesday, February 7, 10-11:30 a.m. Discover the joys of the prairie in winter as you hear readings about the season. Enjoy stories of the animals who call the prairie home. Hosted by the Northbrook Garden Club in Northbrook, IL. Free to non-members, but you must register by contacting NBKgardenclub@gmail.com for more information.

Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Fliers –— Wednesday, February 8, noon-1:30 p.m. Hosted by Countryside Garden Club in Crystal Lake, IL. (Closed event for members)

The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Charm Shop— Thursday, February 9, 12:30-2 p.m. Hosted by Wheaton Garden Club in Wheaton, IL (closed event for members).

Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers— February 20, 7:15 p.m-8:45 p.m. Hosted by the Suburban Garden Club, Indian Head Park, IL. Free and open to non-members. For more information, contact Cindy through her website contact space at http://www.cindycrosby.com.

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Bell Bowl Prairie in Rockford, IL, needs your help! Find out more on saving this threatened remnant prairie at SaveBellBowlPrairie.

Winter Hiking on the Tallgrass Prairie

“How utterly astonishing our instant here (a time scented with dim remembering).”—Stephen Rowe

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It’s no coincidence that the weather has finally taken a turn and become, well, winter-like. In January, the prairie moves into its deep frosty mode. Hiking for the next eight weeks likely means cold hands, a less colorful landscape, more gray skies, and occasional brutal winds with few trees to block them.

Fermilab natural areas, Batavia, IL.

No wonder a lot of us opt for a book about prairie and a hot mug of tea, sitting by the fireplace and eschewing any physical effort! But the joys of the winter prairie are worth getting up off your duff and hoofing it out to the trails.

Not convinced? Here are a four ideas to get us outside to appreciate the winter tallgrass prairie.

Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

1. Think “subtle” rather than “eye-popping.” “There’s not much going on out at the prairie right now, right?” That was a question from a staff member where I volunteer as a prairie steward; asked when the wildflowers had long stopped blooming, and the prairie was settled in for the winter. Of course, I answered, “There’s always a lot going on out on the prairie!” Yet, to tune in to what’s happening in the winter is like fiddling with a fussy TV antenna. You do know what that is, right? Or maybe you have to be a certain age…. . The winter prairie takes patience, time, and the willingness to pay attention.

Tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

It’s long been said that the tallgrass prairie is a landscape that whispers rather than shouts. It doesn’t smack you in the face like the Rocky Mountains, or a Florida sunset. And yet. The tallgrass prairie is more than just a quick shot of postcard-type beauty. There is enchantment in the singular…

Round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

…and awe in the sweep of the prairie landscape.

Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL. Wilson Hall in the background.

The grace and loveliness of the prairie—-especially in winter–sneaks up on you as you walk the trails.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

Look closely. This is no monochrome landscape.

Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

Winter wildflower and grass structures have a charm that may be more compelling than their warm season forms.

Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

There is a simplicity and rhythm that threads through even the most common of prairie plants.

Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

A quick hike doesn’t always reveal these aspects of the winter prairie. It takes time.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

Slow down. Pay attention. Who knows what you’ll discover?

2. Read the stories the prairie is trying to tell you. The writing is everywhere. Look down, around your hiking boots. What do you see?

Coyote (Canis latrans) tracks, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

Scan the grasses. What narratives do you read there?

Tail feather, mourning dove (Zenaida macroura), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

Look up. There are chapters to be read in the tops of the trees along the prairie’s edges.

Juvenile red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

So many tales the tallgrass has to tell you! The prairie is waiting for you to read its stories. All you have to do is show up. Look. Listen. And let the stories unfold.

Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

3. Take your cell phone. What? Yes, you heard that right. Winter prairie wildflowers and grasses may look completely different than their summer personas.

Wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

Load the free app iNaturalist on your phone before you go, and you’ll increase your knowledge of prairie plants in their January mystery guises.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

If you hate the idea of a phone on your hike, take your camera. You can always snap a photo of mystery plants, load them on your laptop or desktop or tablet, and use iNaturalist to take a photo of your image when you are back home to ID them. I also made a resolution to do more eBirding in the new year, so I use my free mobile eBird app to tally the birds I see on my prairie hikes. Again, if you don’t want to take your phone for birding, you can note what you see on a piece of paper and log the data at home. Fun!

Prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

4. Prepare before you go. Dress for the weather. That means something to keep your head covered. Comfortable footwear. Warm socks to keep your feet warm. Mittens or gloves will keep your fingers toasty. I like fingerless gloves, as I’m tapping my phone app iNaturalist to check a plant ID, or (this year) keeping an eBird list of the feathered fliers I see as I hike. Sometimes, I tuck a “Hot Hands” pouch into my gloves, or a reusable heat cartridge in my pocket for extra warmth (there are many versions of these, I have the Zippo rechargeable hand warmers that were a wonderful gift from my family).

Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

It’s worth the prep. If you are cold, wet and miserable, you’ll rush through your walk, unable to concentrate on what you see. Bundle up!

Before you leave home, make a thermos of something hot and delicious to enjoy when you are back in the car. Coffee, tea, or hot chocolate taste amazing when you have just come off the trail, rather than waiting for that hot drink until you are back home. I like to sit in the car for a bit, drink my coffee, and reflect on my hike as I defrost. Maybe you do, too.

Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

What tips do you have for enjoying the winter prairie? I’d love to hear them in the comments section. Please share! The winter prairie is out there, waiting for you.

Ready to hike?

Let’s go.

*****

The opening quote is from Stephen Rowe (1945-), co-author with David Lubbers of Abiding: Landscape of the Soul. Rowe is a contemporary philosopher and educator.

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Join Cindy for a Class or Program this Winter

Just a few tickets left! The Tallgrass Prairie in Popular Culture—Library Lecture, Friday, January 20, from 10-11:30 a.m. Explore the role the tallgrass prairie plays in literature, art, music—and more! Enjoy a hot beverage as you discover how Illinois’ “landscape of home” has shaped our culture, both in the past and today. This is an in-person program in the beautiful Sterling Morton Library; masks are optional but recommended. Offered by The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL; register here.

Nature Writing Workshop— Four Thursdays (February 2, 9, 16, and 23) from 6-8:30 p.m. Join a community of nature lovers as you develop and nurture your writing skills in person. Class size is limited. Masks are optional. For more information and to register visit here.

Looking for a speaker for your next event? Visit www.cindycrosby.com for more information.

The Prairie in Color

We come and go but the land will always be here.” —Willa Cather

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Just when I made a New Year’s resolution to learn the names of cloud types, a sheet of gray stratus clouds moved in last week. Gray. Gray. Gray. That was the story here. There’s something to be said for consistency, I suppose. On a walk with friends along the Fox River this weekend, I looked for color. A few mossy greens. Some russet leaves.

Creek through Bennett Park, Fox River, Geneva, IL.

The creek that ran to the river reflected that metallic, stratus-filled sky.

As we watched the Fox River slip by, even the birds seemed to lack color. The Canada geese were spiffed up in their yin-yang tuxedoes.

Canada geese (Branta canadensis), Fox River, Geneva, IL.

Common mergansers floated by, intent upon their errands, barely within the reach of my camera.

Common mergansers (Mergus merganser), Fox River, Geneva, IL.

In the distance, a few common goldeneyes floated just out of reach of my zoom lens. But wait—what’s this?

Tundra swan (Cygnus columbianus), Fox River, Geneva, IL.

A tundra swan! A bird I’ve never seen, and one of the more infrequent ones for Illinois. Our friends, who brought us here specifically for this reason, pointed out the ID markers which differentiate it from other swans, including a small amount of yellow on the bill.

Nearby, two other tundra swans floated under the flat, silvered sky.

Tundra swans (Cygnus columbianus), Fox River, Geneva, IL.

I knew that later, hours of my afternoon would be spent reading more about these unusual birds, and trying to understand more about what we had seen.

The last bird of the morning turned out to be one of the metallica species.

Fox River, Geneva, IL.

Ha! Almost fooled me.

Along the shoreline, I spotted a few prairie plant favorites. Familiar, but still welcome. Wild bergamot mingled with evening primrose.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) and evening primrose (Oenothera biennis), Fox River, Geneva, IL.

Blue vervain’s silhouette was set off by the river’s reflection of that silvered sky.

Blue vervain (Verbena hastata), Fox River, Geneva, IL.

And—is that a mallow? I love the cracked-open seed pods of mallow…perhaps it’s the native swamp rose mallow? iNaturalist thinks so, but I’m not completely sure.

Swamp rose mallow (Hibiscus grandiflorus), Fox River, Geneva, IL.

Plant identification in winter is always a challenge. If this is swamp rose mallow, it is a far cry from those beautiful pink blooms in the summer. (You can see them here.)

Thinking about swamp rose mallow reminds me of Pantone’s recent pick for “Color of the Year” — “Viva Magenta.”

Courtesy Pantone.

You can see why the swamp rose mallow would approve! Thinking about the mallow and its magenta leads me down the rabbit trail of other prairie magentas. After I posted the “Viva Magenta” color of the year announcement this week on Facebook, many folks chimed in with their favorite magentas in nature.

Prairie smoke.

Prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum, Madison, WI. (2019)

Prairie sunrises and sunsets…

College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL (2018).

The deep, rich magenta of dogwood stems in winter.

Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL (2021).

The rich magenta of sumac-washed leaves in autumn.

Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL. (2020)

The bramble sharp branches of iced wild blackberry, which winds its way through the prairie, ripping and tripping.

Common blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2021)

I think of the dragonflies I chase across the prairies in the summer’s heat. None of the Illinois’ species bring the color magenta to mind. But! I remember other dragonflies in other places, like this roseate skimmer in Tucson, Arizona.

Roseate skimmer dragonfly (Orthemis ferruginea), Sabino Canyon, Tucson, AZ. (2021)

Today, here on the Fox River, magenta isn’t much in evidence. But there’s joy in every bit of color along this river, no matter how subtle.

Fox River, Geneva, IL.

There is delight in remembering the times nature has exploded with “viva magenta” both in flight…

Roseate spoonbill (Platalea ajaja), J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, FL. (2020)

…and in bloom.

Hibiscus (Hibiscus sp.), Captiva Island, Florida (2019).

And there is happiness in seeing some rarities that while, perhaps lacking in color, don’t lack for excitement and awe.

Tundra swan (Cygnus columbianus) feather, Fox River, Geneva, IL.

Who knows what else January may bring? The new year is off to a great start.

Why not go see?

*****

The opening quote is from writer Willa Cather (1873-1947) from O Pioneers! Cather spent part of her childhood in Nebraska, and graduated from University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She wrote compellingly about life on the prairies.

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Join Cindy for a Class or Program this Winter

The Tallgrass Prairie in Popular Culture—Friday, January 20, from 10-11:30 a.m. Explore the role the tallgrass prairie plays in literature, art, music—and more! Enjoy a hot beverage as you discover how Illinois’ “landscape of home” has shaped our culture, both in the past and today. Class size is limited. Offered by The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL; register here.

Nature Writing Workshop— Four Thursdays (February 2, 9, 16, and 23) from 6-8:30 p.m. Join a community of nature lovers as you develop and nurture your writing skills in person. Class size is limited. For more information and to register visit here.

Looking for a speaker for your next event? Visit www.cindycrosby.com for more information.

*****

Illinois Prairie needs you! Visit Save Bell Bowl Prairie to learn about this special place—one of the last remaining gravel prairies in our state —and to find out what you can do to help.

Special thanks to John and Tricia this week for showing us the tundra swans!

New Year’s Prairie Resolutions

“He who tells the prairie mystery must wear the prairie in his heart.”—William Quayle

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It’s that time of year; the time we put away the old and look forward to something new. Have you made a few New Year’s resolutions? As a prairie steward, gardener, and nature lover, many of my resolutions involve the natural world. Here are half a dozen New Year’s resolutions from my list.

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1. I will visit more cemeteries…cemeteries with remnant prairies, that is.

Every time I stumble across a cemetery with remnant prairie, I’m deeply moved. The diversity of flora. The sense of history.

Vermont Cemetery Prairie, Naperville, IL (2020).

It’s a reminder that people and prairie are deeply intertwined. And yet, I haven’t been as intentional about seeking these prairies out as I’d like to be.

Beach Cemetery Prairie, Ogle County, IL (2022).

Cemetery prairies evoke a sense of loss and antiquity that is a different feeling I find at other remnant prairies. Because many of these cemeteries were planted into original prairie, then uncared for, the prairie community is still relatively intact.

St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL (2019)

We can learn a lot from these botanical treasures. In 2023, I hope to hike more of the small cemetery prairies in all four seasons. If you have a favorite cemetery prairie, please tell me about it in the comments.

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2. I will conduct backyard trials of cultivars with natives, side by side.

One of the most-requested programs I give to organizations is “Add a Little Prairie to Your Yard.” Inevitably, program attendees ask about “cultivars” or “nativars.” Plants like double echinaceas. Unusual colored butterfly milkweeds with pretty names. These plants look like native prairie plants….but are they?

Native butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) with Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL (2017).

Well yes…and no. My take-away on these “nativars” has been to stay away from them, especially the floral doubles, as I wrote in my blog post “The Trouble with Milkweed” in April 2022. But I’ve not actually tested them in my garden against their wild cousins. In 2023, my hope is to plant at least two different native cultivars side by side with their truly native relatives. Then, I’ll collect some observational data throughout the growing season.

Native pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) and a striped sweat bee(Agapostem sp.), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL. (2018)

What pollinators visit the cultivars and true natives—or don’t visit? Do birds seem to use the cultivars as much as the natives? All the anecdotal evidence says the natives will out-perform the cultivars in pollinator-attraction and wildlife use. I’m excited to find out for myself.

Stay tuned.

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3. I will learn more names for cloud types in the prairie skies.

One of the most underrated joys of hiking the tallgrass prairie is the big-sky views.

Wolf Road Prairie, Westchester, IL (2019)

The clouds are an ever-changing extravaganza of shape, motion, style, and light.

Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. (2017)

I know a few of the basic terms for clouds—cumulous, stratus, cirrus—and their kin, the contrails, condensed water from aircraft, but there is so much more to learn.

Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

With cloud-naming in mind, I plan to revisit one of my favorite books, The Cloudspotters Guide to increase my vocabulary and cloud know-how. Fun!

Orland Grasslands, Orland Park, Il. (2017)

Nimbostratus? Stratocumulus? Mackerel sky? Here I come.

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4. I will plant an oak.

When Jeff and I moved to our home in the Chicago suburbs more than two decades ago, the only tall trees in the small backyard were arborvitae. Almost 25 years later, there are still not many other trees in our yard. Early on, I planted a ginkgo (a sentimental favorite I wouldn’t plant today, as its value to wildlife is fairly nil). I also replaced our lost green ash with an Accolade elm, an approved street tree in our township that looks good and is well-behaved, as street trees need to be. As I became a little wiser about trees and pollinators, I put in a pawpaw tree, host to the zebra swallowtail butterfly caterpillar and the pawpaw sphinx moth.

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

All told, for someone who teaches at The Morton Arboretum, I sure haven’t paid enough attention to trees in my yard. When I paged through Doug Tallamy’s books Nature’s Best Hope and The Nature of Oaks, it nudged me to invest in oaks in 2023. Sure, I have concerns—-oaks, like many other trees, are under threat from disease and from climate change.

Bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL. (2020)

But I’m ready to risk. I plan to purchase my oak from Possibility Place in Monee, IL, where I’ve had good luck with native shrubs. (See resolution #6). At 60-plus years old, I realize this slow-growing oak isn’t going to be instant gratification for me. Rather, this will be a tree planted for future generations to enjoy, and hopefully, an instant host for the many insects oaks host, which will nurture the birds living in and passing through our area.

Where will I put an oak in our small yard? Hmmm.

Mixed oak leaves (Quercus spp.), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

A challenging problem to think about and puzzle over this winter.

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5. I will keep a regular eBird list.

Is there anything so joyful during the long Midwestern winter months as watching birds? Several of my friends are active eBird listers, and I’ve always admired their knowledge of what species are showing up where in Illinois. (Shout out John and Tricia!). If you’re not familiar with eBird, it’s a free data base hosted by Cornell University where you can list your bird sightings and photos from your backyard, or on a prairie hike. It then combines your data with other sightings so ornithologists can gain a greater understanding of what birds are where, and how species are thriving or declining.

Baltimore oriole (Icterus galbula), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL (2020).

Last winter, more than 200 common redpolls landed at once at our backyard feeders in what was an unusual irruption for this species in Illinois.

Common redpolls (Acanthis flammea), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL (February, 2020).

This daily show outside our kitchen window during some of the longest, coldest days of winter was quite a spirit lifter! It renewed my interest in sharing my sightings with others through eBird. When I report my “backyard birds,” I know my common sparrows, starlings, blue jays, and cardinals and other backyard regulars are part of a greater effort. I’m one of many citizen scientists contributing to an important conservation tool. In 2023, I hope to monitor my backyard feeders at least once a week and report my sightings.

Ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL. (2016)

Will the redpolls will show up again this winter? Fingers crossed.

*****

6. I will expand our native plantings.

When we purchased our home in 1998, there was little in the turf-grassed yard except the aforementioned arborvitae and a lot of rosebushes and yew. Today, we have a diversity of native plants…

Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL. (2020)

…as well as a vegetable garden and some traditional garden favorites. Over the past few decades, we’ve chipped away at the turf grass, adding a small pond. We’ve left just enough backyard grassy areas for yard games and walking paths.

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Each year, we try and tackle a different planting project. After removing the invasive burning bush which came with our home, our resolution in 2021 was to “plant native shrubs.” We added American hazelnut, spicebush, native honeysuckle, witch hazel, and buttonbush.

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL (2022).

2022 was the year I vowed to plant a little prairie in the front yard. We succeeded in a modest way. It’s not a large planting, but it gives us a lot of joy. We also get a few unexpected visitors.

Marine blue butterfly (Leptotes marina) on blazing star (Liatris aspera), Crosby’s front yard prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL. This species is a rare migrant to Illinois.

In 2023, I hope to plant natives on the east-facing side of our house. Presently, it’s home to our air conditioner unit and compost bin, and…dare I say it? Fairly unsightly. We removed an invasive Japanese barberry a decade or so ago that was the only shrub in that location. This winter, I’m researching native plants, shrubs, and trees that can take half-day shade and standing water as our subdivision runoff goes right through this area. Maybe a swamp oak? Any ideas? I’d love to hear what worked for you if you have a spot like mine on the side of your house that needs attention.

******

Now that I’ve shared a few of my New Year’s resolutions, I feel a sense of accountability to make them happen. Good intentions, but the road to you-know-where is paved with some of my past ones. We’ll see how it goes.

Pollinator, possibly a carpenter bee? (Xylocopa sp.) heading for blazing star (Liatris aspera), Crosby’s front yard prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL.

What are your prairie resolutions for the New Year? I’d love to know. Maybe you have some of the same ones as I do. Let’s all enjoy more hikes outside, pay attention more closely, plant for the future, tune in to some of the smaller members of our natural world (insects, fungi, lichen) and enjoy the way the sky changes from minute to minute in this beautiful place we call home.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Good luck with your resolutions, and happy hiking!

*******

The opening quote is by William Quayle (1860-1925), who penned such books as Prairie and the Sea and A Book of Clouds. Another favorite quote by Quayle: “You must not be in the prairie; but the prairie must be in you.”

*****

Join Cindy for a Class or Program this Winter

The Tallgrass Prairie in Popular Culture—Friday, January 20, from 10-11:30 a.m. Explore the role the tallgrass prairie plays in literature, art, music—and more! Enjoy a hot beverage as you discover how Illinois’ “landscape of home” has shaped our culture, both in the past and today. Class size is limited. Offered by The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL; register here.

Nature Writing Workshop— Four Thursdays (February 2, 9, 16, and 23) from 6-8:30 p.m. Join a community of nature lovers as you develop and nurture your writing skills in person. Class size is limited. For more information and to register visit here.

*****

Illinois Prairie needs you! Visit Save Bell Bowl Prairie to learn about this special place—one of the last remaining gravel prairies in our state —and to find out what you can do to help.

***Note to readers: All undated photos were taken this week.

A Very Prairie New Year

“Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” — Mary Oliver

******

The last week of the year is a good time for reflection. I’ve been thinking about all of you; the wonderful readers who have joined me on this virtual prairie hike adventure.

Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL (January 2022).

Eight years ago this week in December of 2014, I wrote the first post for Tuesdays in the Tallgrass. About 40 people joined me for that initial post, mostly family and close friends, who encouraged me by clicking “follow” and then, reading each week.

Dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Thanks to so many of you who love prairie and the natural world, this week the “odometer” ticked over to 1,000 followers. In the world of social media, of course, that’s small potatoes. But not to me. Each of you are an important part of this virtual prairie community.

Kaleidoscope of sulphur butterflies (Colias sp.), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. (2015)

Each week, your readership reminds me of how many people love the natural world.

River jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx aequabilis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (Summer 2022).

It’s also a reminder of how important it is, as the late poet Mary Oliver said, to “tell about it.” It’s not enough to enjoy the natural world and the prairie for ourselves. Sharing it with others—or as the remarkable Dr. Robert Betz once said—making “a real effort to educate the public about (the prairie’s) importance as a natural heritage and ecological treasure” is an ongoing necessity. If you and I don’t share the wonders of the natural world with others today, how will they make the personal connections that ensure the prairie’s survival in the future?

First prairie hike for this little one, Fermilab Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL (2018).

What a world of wonders the prairie offers us! When you count the Tuesdays over the past eight years, that’s 416 virtual hikes we’ve made together.

Female northern cardinal, (Cardinalis cardinalis) Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

It’s a lot of stories; a lot of hikes. Yet, each week we barely scratch the surface of the diversity, complexity, and marvels of the tallgrass prairie and the natural world. There is so much to see!

Chasing dragonflies at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (2017).

Tuesdays came no matter where I found myself. So, we’ve dreamed about prairie together as I corresponded on my travels from far-flung Sicily…

Broad scarlet dragonfly, (Crocothemis erythraea), Santo Stefano, Sicily, Italy. (2014)

… to the deserts of Arizona…

Queen butterflies (Danaus gilippus), Tucson, AZ. (2021)

…. to the mangrove swamps in Florida.

Roseate spoonbill (Platalea ajaja), J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, FL (2020).

But I’ve learned that I don’t need to travel the world to find marvels. The best adventures are waiting for us in our own backyards.

Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Most of our adventures together have been in the tallgrass, of course. Together, we’ve explored remnant tallgrass prairies, national prairie preserves, cemetery prairies, planted prairies in parks, and large tracts of Nature Conservancy prairies.

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

We’ve investigated birds on the prairie and at the backyard feeders…

Red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

….as well as turtles, snakes, butterflies, bunnies, bees, beetles, coyote, opossum, beavers, muskrats, and anything else that flies, buzzes, or hovers. As I’ve learned more about prairie pollinators and prairie plants, you’ve cheered me on, gently corrected my wrong ID’s, offered ideas on your own favorite places, and said an encouraging word or two at just the right time.

Male calico pennant dragonfly (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (2020).

You’ve hiked with me through some difficult times, through my cancer diagnosis and recovery; through a new knee that got me back on the prairie trails again; and through a medical issue that sidelined me for several months this fall, unable to do much more than photograph the prairie plantings and the garden in my yard. Your encouragement and comments have been an important part of the healing process.

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) and ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) on non-native zinnias (Zinnia sp.) in Crosby’s garden, Glen Ellyn, IL (2019).

As a former bookseller, I couldn’t write about prairie here without also writing about the books I love. Over the years, we’ve rounded up a yearly list of favorite and new prairie books each season, a tradition I’ve come to enjoy (and I hope you have, too!). And, as I’ve penned this blog, I’ve written or co-authored three additional books, all of which took inspiration from the discipline of writing this weekly missive. Every one of you has played a role in my books, because your questions and comments informed and encouraged those writings.

Chasing Dragonflies (2020, Northwestern University Press); The Tallgrass Prairie (2016, Northwestern University Press); Tallgrass Conversations (2018, Ice Cube Press, with Thomas Dean).

As I write this note to you at the end of 2022, we continue to navigate a world-wide pandemic. Here in Illinois, during the holidays, we are experiencing a “triple-demic” of RSV, flu, and Covid-19. Another daunting aspect of life in 2022 is the lack of civility and care for each other that the news headlines trumpet daily. Sometimes, the world feels like a scary place. But whatever a week brings, I always feel the joy of knowing this little prairie community is here on Tuesday, ready to share with me in the excitement and delight of a virtual hike.

Eastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience,” wrote the Irish poet and novelist Patrick Kavanagh. To know the tallgrass prairie—or even the small plantings in my suburban yard—would take several lifetimes. But what an adventure it is!

Cooper’s hawk (Accipter cooperii), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

At the end of 2022 I want to say thank you. Thank you for reading. Thank you for giving me a bit of your time each Tuesday morning. Thank you for the constant stream of well-wishes; of “shares,” and “retweets” and Facebook reposts. Especially thank you to those who take time to click the comment button from time to time and say how much you love prairie, or if you enjoyed a particular post or photograph, or that you want to recommend a book title. Maybe you sent me a link to an interesting website, or you have an idea about how to get rid of buckthorn or honeysuckle, or you wanted to share a “prairie recipe” or tip. Thank you for being a community.

Shooting star (Dodecatheon meadii), in bloom at Beach Cemetery Prairie, Ogle County, IL, on an outing with the Illinois Native Plant Society (2022).

Most of all, thank you for getting outside. If you live in prairie country, thank you for hiking the prairies. For planting prairie in your gardens. For volunteering on a prairie, or dedicating your professional life to caring for prairie, or sharing prairie with a child. Thank you for photographing prairie and sharing prairie with your friends. If you live in a different part of the country, or the world, thank you for admiring prairie and for caring for the natural world, as I know some of my readers do from across the miles. My prairie may be your forest, or wetland, or river. We are all stewards of wherever we find ourselves.

Trail over Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (2015).

As this year of prairie hikes comes to a close, thank you for caring. Knowing you are out there continues to be an inspiration to me, through the light and dark places as we hike the prairie trails, wade in the prairie streams looking for dragonflies and damselflies, watch for bison…

Bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. (2021)

…and explore the natural world together.

Ebony jewelwing damselflies in the wheel position, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2017)

As the poet Mary Oliver wrote, “Paying attention: This is our endless and proper work.”

Regal fritillary butterfly (Speyeria idalia), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. (2021)

What a joy that work can be! I can’t wait to hike the trails in 2023 together.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2016)

Happy New Year! See you next week on the prairie.

*****

Mary Oliver (1935-2019), whose quote opens this last post of 2022, wrote compellingly about experiencing the natural world. In New and Selected Poems, she writes: “When it’s over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement.” Yes.

*****

Join Cindy for a Class or Program this Winter

The Tallgrass Prairie in Popular Culture—Friday, January 20, from 10-11:30 a.m. Explore the role the tallgrass prairie plays in literature, art, music—and more! Enjoy a hot beverage as you discover how Illinois’ “landscape of home” has shaped our culture, both in the past and today. Offered by The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL; register here.

Nature Writing Workshop— Four Thursdays (February 2, 9, 16, and 23) from 6-8:30 p.m. Join a community of nature lovers as you develop and nurture your writing skills in person. For more information and to register visit here.

*****

Illinois Prairie needs you! Visit Save Bell Bowl Prairie to learn about this special place—one of the last remaining gravel prairies in our state —and to find out what you can do to help.

***Note to readers: All undated photos were taken this week.

A Very Merry Prairie Christmas

“Start anywhere to catch the light.” — Joy Harjo

*******

Snow! At last. Bright sparks in what has been a predominantly gray week.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) and Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Snow quilts the Chicago suburbs, softening harsh edges, muffling sound.

Stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

It prompts joie de vivre for the holidays.

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

And where better to hike in the snow than the prairie?

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

Snow dusts crystals on the tallgrass wildflowers, gone to seed…

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…sifts into milkweed pod seams…

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

….makes the unexceptional—astonishing.

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

Listen! The snow softens sounds in the tallgrass. Even the geese are uncharacteristically silent as they slide across the prairie pond.

Canada geese (Branta canadensis), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

A harsh wind blows the snow into em dashes.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The wind numbs my nose; sends a chill deep into my bones.

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

I keep hiking.

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

Who knows what the snow has transformed? What else is there to discover? I don’t want to miss a thing.

White wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The sun has been a stranger this week. But Sunday and Monday, we had a short reprieve. Sunshine! Good sledding weather. I took a turn or two with a few of my grandkids, sliding down our small hill. Later, the day seesawed back and forth from sun back to that familiar silver-plated sky. But the brief hours of bright light were enough to lift our spirits.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Wednesday—tomorrow—is the Winter Solstice, also known as the first day of astronomical winter. With the fewest hours of daylight, it’s considered the darkest day of the year.

Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

But the light is coming. Each day we’ll see more of it, until these gray days are only a distant memory.

Despite the parade of mostly gloomy days, there is so much beauty all around.

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

Even a short hike like this one today unwraps so many gifts. The gift of quiet. The gift of paying attention. The gift of using our senses to fully enjoy the incredible world around us.

Tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum) and Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I want to linger longer.

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

Every step on the snowy prairie rekindles my sense of wonder.

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

More snow—perhaps more than we might like—is on the way in the Chicago Region. The sort of snow that keeps the weather forecasters happily occupied as they predict the coming blizzard apocalypse. As I type this, the forecast calls for 30 below zero wind chill at the end of the week; plus a foot of white stuff on the way. Time to head to the grocery store and lay in a few supplies.

It’s not just people watching the weather. Sunday, right before dusk, I hear an unmistakeable sound over the house. I look up…and… .

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Crosby’s neighborhood, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Sandhill cranes! On their way south. Perhaps they’ve sensed the forecast—and are putting as many miles between themselves and the coming snowstorm as possible. I watch them until they disappear over the horizon.

Safe travels, sandhills.

And safe travels to all of you, dear readers, during the Hanukkah and Christmas festivities.

Happy holidays!

*****

The opening quote is from Joy Harjo’s Catching the Light. Harjo (1951-) is our current United States Poet Laureate, and the first Native American to be so. She is also a musician and playwright.

******

Join Cindy for a Class or Program this Winter

The Tallgrass Prairie in Popular Culture—Friday, January 20, from 10-11:30 a.m. Explore the role the tallgrass prairie plays in literature, art, music—and more! Enjoy a hot beverage as you discover how Illinois’ “landscape of home” has shaped our culture, both in the past and today. Offered by The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL; register here.

Nature Writing Workshop— Four Thursdays (February 2, 9, 16, and 23) from 6-8:30 p.m. Join a community of nature lovers as you develop and nurture your writing skills in person. For more information and to register visit here.

*****

Illinois Prairie needs you! Visit Save Bell Bowl Prairie to learn about this special place—one of the last remaining gravel prairies in our state —and to find out what you can do to help.

A Very Fermi Prairie Legend

“I had caught prairie fever.” — Dr. Robert Betz

*******

Most people know Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, as a particle physics and accelerator laboratory. But today, I’m here for the prairie.

Interpretive trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

Fermilab is a protected government area, so a guard checks my driver’s license at the gate, then makes me a guest tag to stick on my coat. He smiles as he hands me a map and waves my car through the checkpoint. I’m off to the interpretive trail…

Interpretive trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

… to see what delights the December prairie has in store for me this morning.

Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

You might wonder: What is tallgrass prairie doing at a place where phrases like “quantum gravity” and “traversable wormhole” are the norm?

Prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

So glad you asked! The prairie was the dream of Dr. Robert “Bob” Betz, a Northeastern Illinois biology professor who was dubbed by the Chicago Tribune as “a pioneer in prairie preservation.” In 1975, Betz heard that Fermilab’s then-director Dr. Robert Wilson was looking for ideas on how to plant its thousands of acres in the Chicago suburbs.

Interpretive trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

As Betz tells the story in his book, The Prairie of the Illinois Country (published in 2011 after his death), he enlisted the help of The Morton Arboretum’s legendary Ray Schulenberg and Cook County Forest Preserve’s David Blenz to go with him to meet with Dr. Wilson to pitch the prairie project.

Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

Dr. Wilson, Betz said, listened to their ideas. He then proposed the interior of the accelerator ring for planting. “How long would it take to restore such a prairie?” Wilson asked the trio.

Prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

Betz admitted it might take five years. Ten. Twenty or more.

White wild indigo (Baptisa alba macrophylla) Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

Betz writes that Dr. Wilson was quiet for a few seconds, “… and then he turned to us and said, ‘If that’s the case, I guess we should start this afternoon.’ “

Interpretive trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

What vision these men had! Their dream, coupled with the work of countless volunteers and staff, has birthed this restoration of Illinois’ native landscape across Fermilab’s vast campus today.

Interpretive trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

I wonder what Dr. Betz would think if he could hike with me this morning, and see the array of tallgrass prairie plants that shimmer under the winter sky…

Interpretive trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

… which changes every few moments, kaleidoscoping from dark clouds to blue sky; contrails to sunshine.

Interpretive trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

Within view of the interpretative trail looms Wilson Hall, where the nation’s most intelligent scientists mingle and confer.

Wilson Hall, Fermilab, Batavia, IL.

I think of these scientists as I hike the prairie. The future, meeting the past. I think of Dr. Betz, and his willingness to dream big.

Common mountain mint (Pycanthemum virginianum), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

The slogan for Fermilab is this: “We bring the world together to solve the mysteries of matter, energy, space and time.”

Indian hemp or dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

The tallgrass prairie is full of mysteries.

Stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

It’s a restoration, hearkening to the past, but also the landscape of our future, holding hope for a healthier, more diverse natural world. Because of the work of Dr. Betz and the people who took time to introduce him to prairie in a way that seeded in him a life-long passion for saving and restoring the tallgrass, we can continue to learn about our “landscape of home” here, even as science moves us into the future.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

Thanks, Dr. Betz.

You made a difference.

*****

Dr. Robert Betz (1923-2007) caught “prairie fever” after a nature outing with the also-legendary Floyd Swink (Plants of the Chicago Region, first edition 1969). Once Betz was hooked, he became a force of nature in Illinois for prairie conservation and restoration. At the end of his book, The Prairie of the Illinois Country, he writes: “Fortunately, in spite of all the tribulations the Prairie of the Illinois Country has undergone during the past 150 years, its remnants are still with us. But to continue the work that began decades ago to save, protect, restore, and enlarge these remnants, future generations must make a real effort to educate the public about their importance as a natural heritage and ecological treasure…. Hopefully, what this may mean in the future is there would be a plethora of people infected with the author’s ‘prairie fever.‘”

******

For more information on Dr. Betz’s work at Fermilab, check out Fermilab’s natural areas here, and Fermilab’s Batavia National Accelerator Laboratory here. Read more about Dr. Betz in his obituary here, or in this article by former Fermi staff member Ryan Campbell here. A tremendous thanks to all the stewards, staff, and volunteers who keep the Fermilab Natural Areas healthy and thriving. As Dr. Betz wrote, it is an “ecological treasure.”

****

Save Bell Bowl Prairie!

Bell Bowl Prairie at the Chicago-Rockford International Airport is once again under siege. Help save this important remnant prairie! See simple things you can do here. Thank you for keeping this ecological treasure intact.

A Frosty Prairie Morning

“It’s possible to understand the world from studying a leaf. You can comprehend the laws of aerodynamics, mathematics, poetry and biology through the complex beauty of such a perfect structure.” — Joy Harjo

*****

We wake up to fire and ice.

Crosby’s backyard prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL .

Worn-out leaves are alight with dawn; brushed with frost.

Cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The grass crackles with freeze as the rising sun illuminates each blade, sparks of light on a frigid morning. Swamp milkweed’s silk seed tufts are tattered almost beyond recognition by the night’s sharp whisper.

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Joe Pye weed becomes nature’s chandelier.

Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Prairie cordgrass arcs across my prairie planting, stripped bare of seeds.

Prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Our small suburban backyard, as familiar to me as my breath, is transformed into something mysterious.

Ironweed (Vernonia sp.), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Tallgrass prairie plant leaves, furred with frost, take on new personas.

Crosby’s front yard prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Seedheads bow under the weight of the cold snap.

Queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The ordinary becomes extraordinary.

New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Goodbye, November.

Queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL. See the heart?

What a wild weather ride you have taken us on!

Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

What a month of wonders you’ve given us to be grateful for.

Common evening primrose (Oenothera biennis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

See you next year, November.

*****

Joy Harjo (1951-) is our 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States. A writer of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, her words are often autobiographical, and incorporate myths and folklore. Her poetry makes you think (“I could hear my abandoned dreams making a racket in my soul”). Her books include Catching the Light, Poet Warrior, Crazy Brave, and An American Sunrise. I love this line from Secrets from the Center of the World where she writes, “I can hear the sizzle of newborn stars… .”

*****

Join Cindy for her last program of 2022!

Wednesday, December 7, 2022 (6:30-8:30 p.m.) 100 Years Around the Arboretum. Join Cindy and award-winning Library Collections Manager Rita Hassert for a fun-filled evening and a celebratory cocktail as we toast the closing month of The Morton Arboretum’s centennial year. In-person. Register here.

Reading the Tallgrass Prairie

“We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on there.” –Annie Dillard

****

Welcome to the Tuesdays in the Tallgrass annual “Tallgrass Prairie Book Roundup.” With wind chills in the single digits here in the Chicago region and the fireplace going nonstop this week, curling up with a book and a mug of something hot and delicious has never sounded better.

Rough blazing star (Liatris aspera), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

For this roundup, I looked for books I’ve not featured before in the past seven years. It was a daunting task. I’ve previously shown some of the more noteworthy prairie reads, such as John Madson’s Where the Sky Began or Chris Helzer’s charming small format Hidden Prairie, or Paul Gruchow’s eloquent Grass Roots: The Universe of Home and other must-reads. This year, for help with some lesser-known and a few out-of-print books, I turned to my local library in Glen Ellyn and the Sterling Morton Library at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL. These libraries never disappoint. Along the way, I also encountered some prairie books geared toward older elementary and middle-school kids, and a fantastic DVD about prairies.

Showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa), Crosby’s front yard prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Whether you’re a prairie steward or volunteer, an avid hiker, an armchair naturalist, or someone who loves to read and learn about the natural world, I believe there’s a book here for you! (Can you tell I used to own a bookstore?) Let’s go for a hike through the world of prairie books, and see what we might find.

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If you’re interested in Native Americans and a more scholarly understanding of how they managed prairie, the first essay in the edited volume City of Lake and Prairie: Chicago’s Environmental History (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020) is not to be missed. “Native Peoples in the Tallgrass Prairies of Illinois” by Robert Morrissey argues that “…the primary agents in shaping the midwestern landscape since the ice age were people, the architects of prairie… .” Morrissey adds that “Native peoples of the Midwest did not simply use the nonhuman environment as they found it… .” This turns upside down the idea that indigenous people moved through the prairie, but left no impact.

Anyone who desires to understand prairie history needs to read this essay. I know it expands my view of Native American management and its role in the prairie seen today, and informs the way I teach prairie ecology. Morrisey’s primary sources, included as notes at the end of the book, are additional rabbit trails that will fill your winter reading hours. Plus, there’s an excellent essay in the book on educator and prairie advocate May T. Watts.

And speaking of scholarly…check out Harold W. Gardener’s technical manual Tallgrass Prairie Restoration in the Midwestern and Eastern United States: A Hands-On Guide (Springer, 2011). Gardner organized the “Prairie Dawgs” volunteers near Peoria, IL, and he and his his wife purchased half a mile of the right of way of Burlington Northern Railroad near Brimfield, IL, a prairie remnant that had become degraded, working to improve the health of the prairie. He later moved to Carlisle, PA, where he maintained seed beds for about 150 species.

Dr. Gardner described more than 200 species of prairie plants, their preferred soils and planting conditions, and seed germination and seed collection strategies, as well as a seed collection time table. He included some of his own experiences with the plants (for example, “This author has found it difficult to restore Queen-of-the-Prairie from seed.”) I particularly enjoyed his writing on “Fire Management” and what can go wrong; as he wrote of one prescribed fire— “An additional lesson was learned; roads are not always reliable firebreaks.” I also appreciated some of his frustrated asides. In one section on “Control of Alien Plants” he wrote “It is difficult to refrain from adding editorial remarks about the USDA bureaucracy.” For most of us, the $170-plus price tag for this book puts it out of reach. So I extend my gratitude to the Sterling Morton Library for shelving it so I could access it without cost.

Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

While at the Sterling Morton Arboretum this week, the always-awesome library collections manager Rita Hassert showed me this book by the influential prairie restorationist pioneer Dr. Robert Betz (1923-2007), architect of the FermiLab prairie in Batavia, IL, in 1975. I had no idea this book existed! Self-published posthumously by his wife Eleanor, there are limited number of copies in circulation in the Chicago Region; the Sterling Morton has a copy for in-library use only as the binding is fragile. In the short time I was able to spend with the book, I was fascinated by this slice of prairie restoration history and the roll call of people who helped influence restoration in the Chicago Region (shout-out Floyd Swink and Ray Schulenberg, to name just two).

I can’t wait to return to the library to spend a long afternoon at one of the reading tables, finishing the book and taking copious notes. And who knows—maybe a copy will turn up at a used bookstore in the future! I’ve had no luck finding this book for purchase, used or otherwise. But that’s an excuse to spend more time in the beautiful Sterling Morton library this winter.

Better luck: locating this out-of print book, Tallgrass Prairie: The Inland Sea (Lowell Press, 1975). I found a kindred spirit in author, naturalist, and photographer Patricia Duncan, whose words will resonate with any prairie aficionado. There is very little written about the tallgrass prairie in winter, so I was delighted to discover a few paragraphs and photos of the season. She wrote, “On the coldest days, I will trudge through the deep path worn by motorcyclists, and I barely get a dozen steps along before I must stop for a picture of the light coming through the ice-covered stems of big bluestem… .”

The cover of the library book I received had lost its dust jacket over the years since it was published in 1979, and the interior photographs also show its age. My, oh my, how photography has improved in books! That said, the photos are a slice of a time now past; a “remnant” of almost half a century ago. The grandeur of the prairie, almost half a century later, shines through the despite the limitations of photography and the publishing process of the time.

When Duncan began with a quote from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (the same quote which kicks off this blog post), I was hooked. After three pages, a used copy of this book was on the way to my house. It’s fairly easy to find online. Duncan’s book is a little slice of prairie history. I can’t wait to take a deeper dive into her book over the holidays.

How often have you looked at a prairie plant at this time of year and wondered which part was the actual seed? At a recent presentation on native plant gardening I gave to the Antioch Garden Club, one of its members enthusiastically recommended The Prairie in Seed. I was delighted to find it at my Glen Ellyn Library, and have already put it on my Christmas list.

Although I have featured other books on seed collection in this roundup before, I appreciated the detailed information on seed readiness and seed size and appearance here that is a valuable resource for any prairie steward, prairie volunteer, seed saver, or native plant gardener. The silhouette of the seed stalk is also helpful for identification for collection.

University of Iowa’s Bur Oak Books series is full of good reads like this one, and as a prairie steward and native plant gardener, I’m excited to add it to my Christmas list.

A prairie wildflower guide I’ve missed in my previous round-ups is Don Kurz’s Falcon Guide Prairie Wildflowers (2019). Many of us have the older Falcon Guide by Doug Ladd (there were at least two editions, and I own both) that have happily seen us through learning prairie plants over the years. This one is touted as its “spiritual successor.”

Although I was surprised by some of the color assignments in the book (pasque flowers, for example, are only under found under “white” and not listed under lavender or purple), it’s a lovely guide that will help introduce prairie wildflowers to a new generation of readers. I need to add it to my library as I have prairie ecology students who buy it as an initial introduction to their prairie experience. I’m glad Falcon continues to keep variations of the Prairie Wildflowers field guides in print.

What about younger readers? For elementary and middle schoolers, there are some beautiful and informative books on prairie available. In The Prairie Builders: Reconstructing America’s Lost Grasslands, Sneed Collard introduces kids (and adults, too!) to how a prairie restoration happens from vision to implementation, using Iowa’s Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge as the centerpiece of the story.

I especially enjoyed the stories of stewards working to protect and cherish our tallgrass prairies. The book’s photographs feature plenty of people as well as tallgrass plants and critters. I especially enjoyed the photos and essays on the reintroduction of the rare regal fritillary butterfly, a species I’ve only seen at Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL. Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge is on my bucket list!

Any adult who wants a basic overview of how prairies are managed and how restorations are done will also enjoy this book. I especially appreciate Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge as its “Friends” group it is one of the sponsors of Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit, a book I co-authored with Tom Dean. Thank you, Friends of Neal Smith!

Older elementary or middle school kids who are science-minded or who have to write a book report will find Life in a Grassland (2003, Twenty-First-Century Books) jam-packed with classroom-type information on the grassland ecosystem. It would also make a good homeschool science text. While it doesn’t specify that it is about “tallgrass” prairie, it does offer a wealth of ideas about North American grasslands that will be of help to any adults who want to understand how a prairie works.

The interior pages brought back memories from my own early science classes (Consumers! Producers! Decomposers!). It’s a good refresher for adult prairie volunteers, and a nice introduction to anyone who is new to the tallgrass prairie.

On a more literary note, I was excited to find an essay on tallgrass prairie sandwiched among the coral reefs and jungles in Greek writer Julian Hoffman’s book, Irreplaceable, a look at the wild places and creatures disappearing around the globe.

Hoffman visits Konza Prairie in Kansas, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Illinois, and a Native American resource center in Chicago as research for the book. It’s helpful to see how he places the loss of tallgrass prairie in the context of other ecosystem and species losses enumerated in the book, and a reminder to prairie volunteers, stewards, and staff why we do the work we do.

Too tired to read?

Although it’s not a book, Jeff and I recently checked out “America’s Landscape” (2005, Bullfrog Films) from the library on DVD. Both of us were riveted to this documentary, which includes an interesting selection of extra scenes not to be missed. Wes Jackson, Daryl Smith (Tallgrass Prairie Center), Dayton Duncan, Nina Leopold, and many others speak on camera in juxtaposition with luscious prairie cinematography.

If the wind chill temperatures are too frigid for you to think about an actual prairie hike this winter, this might be a nice alternative. Or, if you have a prairie steward group whose workday is cancelled due to inclement weather, you won’t go wrong hosting a screening of this fascinating film.

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There are a few new prairie books on the horizon as well as these older ones. I’m anticipating Benjamin Vogt’s Prairie Up: An Introduction to Natural Garden Design, which is slated for release in late January of 2023. I’ve featured Vogt’s previous book A New Garden Ethic in previous round-ups. If you garden with natives at home, you’ll want to take a look. And of course, I hope you’ll check out my books—all five of which include stories about prairie—as you make your Christmas lists this year. Find or order them from your favorite independent bookseller.

Want more tallgrass prairie book recommendations? Explore a few of the previous “Tuesdays in the Tallgrass” books featured at these links for more reading and gift-giving ideas:

Reading the Tallgrass Prairie 2021

Prairie Literature 101

The Tallgrass Prairie: Annual Books Edition

A Year of Reading Prairie

The vast tracts of original tallgrass prairie are gone, but we continue to work to restore what is left. We plant prairies in our forest preserves, our arboretums, and our yards. But what about the tallgrass prairie books? John T. Price, the editor of “The Tallgrass Prairie Reader” tells us that “the relative absence of prairie literature and writers in the American canon…is another kind of extinction.” How can we ensure the stories of the tallgrass prairie continue to be told? By reading and supporting books that celebrate and introduce people to the tallgrass prairie, whether through your local library or purchasing them and adding them to your bookshelves. Or sharing them with friends and family!

Sky blue aster (Symphyotrichum oolentangiense), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

What prairie book has made a difference in your life? Which are your favorite reads? Please add yours in the comments section below. I’m a pushover for a tallgrass book recommendation. And—other than hiking the prairie in winter, I can’t think of a better way to spend the season.

Here’s to prairie…may its stories live on.

Happy reading!

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The opening quote is by Annie Dillard, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Pilgrim of Tinker Creek, one of my top ten books of all time. This quote is also included in the opening of Patricia Duncan’s lovely book, Tallgrass Prairie: The Inland Sea, included in the book round-up above.

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Join Cindy for her last program of 2022!

Wednesday, December 7, 2022 (6:30-8:30 p.m.) 100 Years Around the Arboretum. Join Cindy and Award-winning Library Collections Manager Rita Hassert for a fun-filled evening and a celebratory cocktail as we toast the closing month of the Arboretum’s centennial year. In-person. Register here.