Tag Archives: Illinois

Winter’s Prairie Encore

April is the cruelest month — T.S. Eliot

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Oh what a difference a few hours can make on the tallgrass prairie!

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Those of us in the cross hairs of a narrow band of deep snowfall found Sunday’s bizarre blizzard blast a bit of a surprise. Sure, the meteorologists had hyped it, but we’ve heard those gloom and doom predictions before. I paid little attention

On Saturday evening,  Jeff and I went for a hike on the Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum. So green!

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Sunday afternoon, our view out the back door of our house, just north of the prairie,  was a bit different.

At least five inches accumulated over the course of the day.  More than 1,000 flights were cancelled out of O’Hare Airport. Flights were also diverted in our backyard. The bird feeders were full of downy woodpeckers, cardinals, nuthatches, and a few shell-shocked goldfinches.

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My backyard prairie patch—with its “Monarch Way Station” sign—was barely visible the next morning. No monarchs returning from Mexico here, although the sightings in the Chicago region have already begun.

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At 6:30 a.m. Monday morning, my prairie pond is snow and slush.

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By 4:30 p.m. Monday, the heavy snow cover is mostly a distant memory, and the marsh marigolds look none the worse for wear. Snowstorm? What snowstorm?

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By late afternoon Monday, the sun is bright, our taxes are filed, and the temperatures have topped 50 degrees. Life is good. Sunday’s sudden snowfall is now a great story to tell. My little prairie patch is showing signs of life again , the grass is bright emerald, and the sky is impossibly  blue. Outside my window I hear the chorus frogs issuing some tentative trills. There’s the sound of water rumbling out of the gutters, and drip-splash, drip-splash from the roof. Everywhere, puddles mirror the sky.

How mercurial is spring!

This past week, I’ve been reacquainting myself with the plants of the prairie and savanna as they appear in miniature. Earlier this week, I went for a walk on the Belmont Prairie in nearby Downer’s Grove.

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Rattlesnake master is up.

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Today’s walk, after a prescribed burn, is a scavenger hunt of sorts.  There’s a shout-out to baseball season…

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…and a nod to the Master’s Tournament in Augusta this past weekend.

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I’ve found old wallets full of half-burned money, weeding tools, broken bottles, and a slew of flotsam and jetsam after a prescribed burn. What have you discovered on your prairie walks? Leave me a note at the bottom of this post, and let me know.

On Saturday, hiking the Schulenberg Prairie, I found plenty of empty snail shells.

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I don’t notice them much when the grasses and wildflowers fill in, so this time of year is my chance to study them more closely.   Recently, I read “The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating,” which won the John Burroughs award for nature writing in 2011. It’s the true story of Elisabeth Tova Bailey, who is bedridden with a chronic illness. A friend brings her a pot of field violets with a small snail hiding under the leaves. She spends her days lying in bed, observing the snail. Of the book, E.O. Wilson says simply, “Beautiful.”

Bailey’s discovery of the amazing life of the snail reminds me of how much life we are unaware of, all around us on the prairie.

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I want her powers of paying attention.

Still thinking about the book, I decide to check on the pasque flowers. Last week I found two plants! One had germinated from seeds sowed from the mother plant. It’s tough to see the plants against the rocky grays and browns of the graveled prairie. But now—oh glorious day—there are FOUR blooms. And three plants.

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They look tenuous, don’t they? I love these pasque flowers, struggling through the rocky substrate of the prairie before anything else is in bloom here. So fuzzy! That pale color! I’ve read that the common name “pasque” is said to mean “passing by” (Passover, from the Hebrew “pasakh”) or “Easter,” because of their bloom period. These are right on time.

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Soon, we’ll transplant our new pasque flower seedlings out to join them, started from seeds we gathered last spring and grew in the greenhouse. We’ll baby them through the summer. Sure, we have hundreds of wildflower species on the prairie, but to lose pasque flowers would leave an impossible void. There is nothing else on the prairie like them.

It’s difficult to see the four pasque flowers on the early spring prairie unless you know where to look. Not true for bloodroot, which has been in bloom all week in the prairie savanna.

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As I hike, I admire the bloodroot. I also discover the tiny leaves of purple meadow rue, the pink-veined leaves of shooting star forming tiny clumps, and  the pale yellow mayapple missile points bulleting up through the soil. All signs the season has turned, even with this brief snowy setback.

The marsh marigolds in my little backyard prairie pond, the bloodroot on the prairie savanna, and the pasque flowers all whisper spring to me—snow or no snow. Sure, we may see another  flurry or two before April is over.

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But under the snow melt, the prairie comes alive. It’s all a part of the seasonal dance: snowflakes and sunshine, ice and bloom, freeze and buzz.

No blast of winter is going to stop spring from coming.

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The opening quote is from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Eliot is probably best known for his series of poems, The Four Quartets. You can hear him read Burnt Norton here, or learn more about T.S. Eliot here.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): half moon over Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie greening up after prescribed fire, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; video of snowfall on Sunday outside author’s back door, Glen Ellyn, IL; goldfinches (Spinus tristis) at the feeder, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; author’s backyard prairie pond under snow, Glen Ellyn, IL; author’s backyard prairie pond at 4:30 p.m. the same day with marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) in bloom, Glen Ellyn, IL; Belmont Prairie clouds, Downer’s Grove, IL;  rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; baseball, Belmont Prairie Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; golf ball, Belmont Prairie Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; snail shell (species unknown), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; new growth at Belmont Prairie Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; line of osage orange (Maclura pomifera) trees at East Prairie and Ecological Study Area, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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Cindy’s Classes and Speaking This Week:

Ongoing: Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online continues, through The Morton Arboretum. Next class is in June, register here.

April 18: Spring Wildflower Walk, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: (Sold out)

Discover other classes and speaking at http://www.cindycrosby.com

Naming the Prairie Community

“That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.” —Aldo Leopold

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Spring is here, and with it the smell of toasted prairie.

prescribedburntwoweekslaterSPMA33119-spring.jpg A night or two of rain, some sunshine and rising temperatures, and the burned landscape greens up. Add a dollop of chlorophyll; the scent of wet earth. It’s the scent of spring in my little corner of the world.

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With the obliteration of last season’s desiccated foliage after the prescribed fire, signs of the prairie community are open for investigation. It’s worth taking a hike to go look at the hidden, now made visible for a moment in time.  The fire reveals the tunnels across the prairie. But who uses them? Meadow voles? Prairie voles? Or something more wriggly, perhaps?

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With the tallgrass cover stripped away, a giant ant hill comes into focus. Hmmm. Didn’t know that was there. Did you know a group of ants is called a “colony?” Good name for them.

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This particular mound is a big one. Soon, it will be smothered in lush grasses and wildflowers and for all purposes, invisible until next spring.

The prairie bursts with new growth on this cold, sunny day.  As I hike, Willoway brook, freed of its burden of ice, murmurs in the background.  I feel myself relax.

Almost under my hiking boot, I see a native thistle, lime green against the blackened prairie. Pasture thistle? I think so.  But I’m not completely sure.

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A bird calls from the nearby savanna. I listen, but can’t remember which species goes with the song.  Hmmm… .   I’ll be re-learning bird songs and plant ID from now until fall; saying goodbye the tattered remains of the last year’s prairie….

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… reacquainting myself with plants and birds as they make their appearance.

As I’m looking for the unknown bird calling from the prairie’s edge, I notice a maple’s bark-chewed branch. Squirrels know maple sap flows in early spring, and that they’ll get a tasty treat if they gnaw the bark. Occasionally, when the sap runs from one of the chewed places, then freezes, I break off and lick a “maple sap-sicle” —sweet and a bit earthy tasting. But it’s too warm for maple sap-sicles this evening.

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Squirrels. The collective name for a group of squirrels, I discover, is called a “scurry,” depending on what source you consult. The maple tree has its scurry of squirrels as well as birds. And that mysterious bird is singing again. I take out my phone and record it. I’ll do more research  back home.

Birds are pouring into Chicago. Every day brings arrivals from the south. A group of birds is a flock, I remind myself. Easy, right? But I recently learned that when a mixed group of birds bands together to look for the same type of food, they are called a “foraging guild.” Cool!

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Nuthatches, both the white-breasted nuthatch and the red-breasted nuthatch show up at my backyard feeders by the prairie patch each afternoon, scuffling with the downy woodpeckers for peanuts. On the edge of the prairie, I watch them peck their way around the trees. A group of nuthatches, I discover, is called a “jar.” Not sure what this nuthatch thinks about that.

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The prairie real estate market is booming. In early April, just outside of Fermilab Natural Areas’ prairies and Nachusa Grasslands, you can see large numbers of herons flying with grasses and twigs in their bills, building their nests.

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You may know that herons nesting together form a “rookery” or “heronry.” But did you know a group of these birds is called a “siege” of herons? That’s a new one for me!

Smaller, but just as interesting, are the field sparrows looking for seeds and insects on the blackened ground. I’ve seen the collective name as “host of sparrows,” “knot of sparrows,” and “quarrel of sparrows.” Which one do you prefer?

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On the two-weeks-burned Schulenberg Prairie, the male mallards are paddling along Willoway Brook, looking for mates.  Spring is the beginning of the mating season for many birds in the prairie community.  The ubiquitous Canada geese, which mate for life, are already scouting out nest sites. (Groups of geese are called “a gaggle” or a “skein.”).

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Even the mallard ducks have special names. I’ve seen the word “sord” or “sword” used; also the more expected “flight”or “flock”. Even “daggle” of ducks and “doppling” of ducks.

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Which brings us full circle to where this “group-of-living-things” tangent began, doesn’t it? It’s fun to learn the collective names of members of the tallgrass community.

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What are some of your favorites? Leave a comment and let me know. I enjoy puzzling over bird songs and plant seedlings; thinking about collective names, feeling the sun on my face and the nip of the still-sharp spring air on my nose.

But its not all delight at this time of year on the prairie. There is loss, as well. On my hikes after the burn I find the charred bones of small mice and voles, who couldn’t out-scramble the prairie flames. A raccoon with a luxurious pelt, which looks asleep, but has been felled into eternal slumber by distemper. Feathers blowing across the trail, doubtless from an arriving spring migrant that became a fox or coyote’s snack.

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It’s all part of the deep joy I feel on the prairie. Not some superficial feeling. But rather, the feeling that comes with the reality of the tallgrass. Beautiful? Yes. But it’s no Hallmark  greeting card. There is life here, with all its glorious growth and bad luck; successes and failures.

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The contrast of life and death; the familiar and the strange; cold nights and warm days; loss and renewal; all mingle together in a mish-mash of community on the just-burned prairie. So much to observe. So much to learn.

So much to love.

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So much to pay attention to.

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Aldo Leopold is best known for his book, A Sand County Almanac (1949); and also, as the father of wildlife ecology, wilderness systems in the United States, and conservation ethics. Read more about him and his work here.

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All photos and video clips copyright Cindy Crosby—today’s posts are from the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL unless otherwise noted: Schulenberg Prairie about two weeks after the prescribed burn; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) sprouting; unknown tunnel after the burn; ant mound or hill on burned prairie; Willoway Brook video clip; probably native pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor); old prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) leaf; sugar maple (Acer saccharum) branch gnawed by squirrels; white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis); white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis); great blue heron (Ardea herodias) rookery, North Aurora, IL; field sparrow (Spizella pusilla) ; Canada geese (Branta canadensis) in flight; male mallard duck (Anas platyrhynchos) (notice the band on his leg); male mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) on Willoway Brook; sunset in the Schulenberg Prairie savanna; Schulenberg Prairie after the prescribed burn;  black walnut (Juglans nigra) and new growth.

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For more on group names for living things, check out the book A Charm of Goldfinches by Matt Sewell, and these lists of collective names from the Baltimore Bird Club and MNN.com. The names used here came from these and other sources. Have fun!

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Cindy’s classes and speaking this week:

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online continues through The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Nature writing online and in-person concludes tonight at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Just released! Order from your favorite independent bookseller or Ice Cube Press here.

With grateful thanks to our sponsors: The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Friends of Neal Smith Wildlife Preserve, Grinnell College Center for Prairie Studies; and The Tallgrass Prairie Center at the University of Northern Iowa. Great places, great folks.

Tallgrass Conversations cover Cindy Pick9a

Prairie Burn Paradox

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

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I’ve been re-reading Annie Dillard’s books this week and mulling over her words, like the ones that open today’s blog post. Thinking about how to spend my time wisely. It’s a challenge, isn’t it?

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Walking the prairie after the burn, I’m reminded of time, and seasons of time, and our perception of it. As I hike, I’m surprised at the volume of sound. You’d think there would be silence on a charred landscape.

 

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But the prairie is bustling and noisy. A killdeer cries its name as it sweeps across the ruins, looking for a place to build its nest. A just-burned prairie is exactly right. I hunt for the killdeer’s nests each spring, but they are such expert camouflage artists I’ve never found one. Maybe this will be my year.

Robins chatter, hopping along the banks of Willoway Brook, sifting the ashes for something good to eat. Overhead, waves and waves of sandhill cranes move high in the air, migrating north. So many! Thousands and thousands.  This weekend was host to the largest movement of cranes I’ve ever seen at one time in the Chicago region. Pelicans were migrating, too! Check them out.

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Elation! Then I look around me. Such desolation. I always have mixed feelings after the burn. A prescribed fire on the prairie  leaves you with a sense of loss. Everything you knew written on that particular prairie slate is wiped clean. Close the book. Open a blank journal and begin a new season.SPMA32019WMburnWM.jpg

There is also a sense of relief. All my mistakes of the last year as a steward, writ large in reed canary grass growing vigorously by the brook, or the sneezeweed missing in action in the swale, are swept away.  This season, I can start fresh. Daunting? Yes. And challenging.

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The fire leaves me with a sense of hope. That thicket of brambles? This will be the year we finally knock it back. We can seed in missing milkweeds; repair a deteriorating trail, add an interpretive sign or two.

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Day by day—week by week—stewards, staff, and volunteers will write a new seasonal story together. Every pulled garlic mustard plant makes room for a new shooting star wildflower to bloom. Remove invasive buckthorn and open space and light for bee balm wildflowers to flourish.

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Rain, sunshine, snow—-they’ll all help write the new seasonal prairie story. Deer, coyotes, dragonflies, the mink who swims the creek—-they’ll each have a paragraph or two.

The just-burned landscape is prelude to the most exciting time of the year on the tallgrass prairie. New growth. The first blooms.

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The red-winged blackbirds sing me along the trail as the sun sets.  In the old, fire-damaged hawthorn tree, they mingle with brown-headed cowbirds whose lispy “clink! clink! clink!”  calls are percussion to the blackbirds’ brassy song. I try to count the birds—how many do you see?

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Annie Dillard once wrote about a “Tree of Lights” —a tree full of blackbirds. I think about her story as I watch the birds settle in for the night.

Then, another sound. Coyotes! A pack. The coyotes are invisible. but their calls are close by. Their wails and yips are both mournful and excited.

 

 

 

Exactly how I feel as I walk the burned prairie tonight.

The visible and the invisible. The old and the new. The past and the present. The coyotes announce the passing of one chapter in the prairie’s story; the beginning of a new one.

Time to turn the page.

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Annie Dillard , whose quote opens this blog, won the Pulitzer Prize for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974).  Read the full passage the quote was taken from here. One of my favorite sentences on her view of the way the world works: “It’s a hell of a way to run a railroad.” On writing: “Spend it all…do not hoard what seems good for (later).” Read the whole quote here. Wise woman. Wise words.

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All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom):  bench on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie after the burn, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American white pelicans ( Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) migrating, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; Schulenberg Prairie after the burn, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown species of moss on a burned-out log along the Schulenberg Prairie trail, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bramble (Rubus species unknown) and bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) singed by fire, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; trail through the burned Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; 19 red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus)and brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater)  in a hawthorn tree (probably Crataegus mollis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; coyotes (Canus latrans) calling on the Schulenberg Prairie at sunset, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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More from Cindy:

Just released last week! Available at your favorite bookstore or online.

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New Podcast!

Thanks to Shannon at Take A Hike Podcast in Los Angeles! Click  here for the interview. Caution! Explicit dragonfly reproduction content in this podcast. 🙂

Cindy’s classes and speaking this week:

Nature Writing (online and in-person) continues this week at The Morton Arboretum. April 1–Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden and Prairie’s Frequent Flyers: LaGrange Garden Club, LaGrange, IL. (closed event). See more classes and events at http://www.cindycrosby.com.

Spring Prairie Moon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On one side of the trail, ashes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Happiness! Spring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spring Prairie Thaw

“Keep busy with survival…remember nothing stays the same for long, not even pain. Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go.”  ― May Sarton
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Mid-March in the Chicago region feels like emergence from a long dream.  The world is waking up. Slowly.
We blink in the sunshine. Rub our eyes. Stretch.
Listen!
What’s that sound?
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It’s the sounds of water. The prairie creek thaws. At last!
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Melted snow runs into cracks and crevices. Water tunes up; provides a musical soundtrack for the tallgrass once again.
Sure, it’s not officially astronomical spring until March 20, another week away, when winter officially ends.
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 But you can see the transitions in play.
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Not quite spring yet? Tell that to the birds. They know better. Soon, migrants will pour through the skies, piping their songs to us Midwesterners. We’ll ask each other, “Was that a white-throated sparrow singing?” They are common migrants and occasional winter residents here in Illinois. Every spring, I hear them calling on their way north, headed for the upper Midwest and Canada. It’s just a matter of days, now. I’m listening.
Speaking of birds…In the tallgrass, one has pecked through the Chinese mantis egg case  I’ve been watching all winter. The case is in tatters. Goodbye, little future insects! Praying mantises are pretty merciless predators themselves, so perhaps it’s justice.
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It’s a savage world out there, especially at the end of winter when survival is still bitterly won. Hunger gnaws. Reserves are low. Hang on. Don’t quit. Sit it out. You can make it!
Soon, the March mud season will give way to color and song. For now, I welcome the sunshine, the melt and the thaw.
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Cardinal songs in the morning. The “oke-a-leeeeee” conversations of red-winged blackbirds as I hike the prairie trails by the brook.
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The first green shoots. The last old stands of dried grasses and wildflowers, fuel for the coming prescribed burn. You can feel spring trying to punch through the cold; break out of the gray and the gloom.
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The old order is passing. Something new is on the way.
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Breathe in. Can you detect spring in the air? It’s in the scent of water. The smell of earth. That subtle scent of green. Feel the mud cling to your boots. Hear spring’s tentative first notes as the prairie community warms under the March sun.
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Later, we’ll demand more than these small pleasures from the tallgrass.
But for now, they are enough.
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The poet May Sarton (1912-1995), whose quote begins this post, was also the author of numerous fiction and nonfiction books, including “Recovery.” She was particularly interested in aging, illness and depression (and our responses to both); solitude; personal, emotional, and artistic growth; our need for community and dependency on others; and the close observation of the natural world. Read “Mud Season” about her spring garden here. “Fluent, fluid…” said one reviewer of Sarton’s work; another wrote that her words are, “…direct and deeply given.”  Her writing, however, has been largely snubbed by major critics. She died of breast cancer at the age of 83. Read more in her obituary from The New York Times.
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All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bubbles under the ice, Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ice waterfall, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; water running into crevices at Fermilab Prairie’s Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL;  ice on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Chinese mantis ((Tenodera sinensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook ice, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) singing on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.
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Pre-order Cindy’s New Prairie Book By Clicking Here Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit (Cindy Crosby and Thomas Dean), Ice Cube Press. Releases in April, 2019, full-color hardcover, $24.95. Also available at The Arboretum Store: https://www.mortonarb.org/visit-explore/arboretum-store
Cindy’s Classes in March
Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online March 27 (The Morton Arboretum—work at your own pace from home and hone your knowledge of prairie)

A Tallgrass Season on the Brink

“Winter is on the road to spring.” — William A. Quayle

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March is all about transition.  As I write, it’s -1°F. Prairie ponds are frozen; patches of snow linger. In only a few days, the temperatures will soar 50 degrees.

Spring. It’s coming. Two more weeks!

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Skunk cabbage jabs skyward now in our region—or so I’m told. And yet, no matter how I’ve slid and scrabbled through the icy muck in my usual skunk-cabbage-speared haunts this week, I can’t find a single leaf rocketing through the soil. I console myself by scrolling through old photos from previous years, and admiring it nostalgically, like this photo from a previous year.

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Skunk cabbage is the first native plant to bloom each year in the Chicago Region, according to Illinois Wildflowers. It’s the tipping point between winter and spring, although I’ve found it in “bloom” as early as December. But not so this year. We seem a bit like the proverbial Narnia of C.S. Lewis’ children’s book series—frozen in a perpetual winter.

Hiking the prairie in early March, it is tough to believe anything will ever have color again, isn’t it?

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At Nachusa Grasslands, the “sand boil”—a natural spring—is bubbling away, and the stream flowing from the source runs freely, despite the Arctic weather.

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Clouds of mosquitoes and biting flies colonize this spot in late May and June. If heavy rains fall in the early summer, it can become semi-impassible, choked with lush foliage by August. In early March, mosquitoes are only a bad dream. Splotches of ice hopscotch across the grass hummocks and make my hike a slow, uncertain stumble. I’m proud of myself. I only fall once.

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Despite the chill and gloom on the prairie, spring is signaling its imminent arrival. Sandhill crane traffic on the aerial northern expressways is heavy. I don’t always see their confetti-ed exuberance overhead, but their creaky cries are unmistakable.

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Blooms? Well, some plants are trying. In a sheltered south-facing spot against a wall, the non-native but always-welcome snowdrops are in bud and trying halfheartedly to bloom. Indoors, in our prairie greenhouse cooler, we unveiled the results of sowing pasque flower seed this past autumn. Asking me to name my favorite prairie plant is like asking me my favorite flavor of ice cream.  Too difficult to choose! The pasque flower is high on my list.

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Maybe it’s because of pasque flower’s early bloom time, early to mid April in my part of the Chicago Region. On one prairie planting where I’m a steward, all but two of the pasque flower plants have been lost over the past 50-plus years of restoration. Will we lose them all? Not on my watch, I’ve determined. After collecting a handful of seeds last spring and propagating them in the greenhouse…

Pasqueflowers51318SPMAwm.jpg …we have five seedlings to show for it.

Five. Count-em! Five. Not bad for a notoriously difficult seed to germinate. Now, the learning begins. Because they are such early bloomers, do we put these baby seedlings out this spring? With temperatures hovering around zero, this week is out of the question. But when? I don’t know.

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This is where I rely on the network of people who have wrestled with the same questions.  Even if a prairie problem is new to me, it’s probably been answered by someone else. It’s a good lesson in the need for community.

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Spring seems to be having a bit of trouble germinating this year, just like the pasque flower seeds.  On March 4, we broke a 129-year-old record for the coldest high temperature in the Chicago Region: 12°F degrees. I’m not sure it’s something to celebrate.

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It seems further confirmation of a long road ahead before warmer days and wildflowers.

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The cardinals sing me up each morning, their spring mating songs clear in the shattering cold. Sunday, March 10, we “spring forward” in Daylight Savings Time in Illinois, and gain a little extra light at the end of the day, or at least, the perception of it. March 20 is the vernal equinox,  the first day of astronomical spring.

Any sign of spring, natural or artificial, is welcome. I’m ready.

You too?

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William Alfred Quayle (1860-1925) was the president of Baker University, the first university in Kansas, and an Episcopal bishop. He was also a prolific writer of  spiritual texts about the natural world, such as God’s Calendar (1907) and In God’s Out-of-Doors (1902). The complete quote by Quayle from the snippet that begins this blog post is: “Winter is on the road to spring. Some think it a surly road. I do not. A primrose road to spring were not as engaging to my heart as a frozen icicled craggy way angered over by strong winds that never take the iron trumpets from their lips.” (“Headed Into Spring” from The Sanctuary, 1921).

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): pond at College of DuPage Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), Lake Marmo, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) leaf, College of DuPage Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; sand boil, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; sedge meadow, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), author’s prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL;  pasque flower (Anemone patens or sometimes, Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; pasque flower (Anemone patens or sometimes Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), College of DuPage Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; pond-side prairie grasses, College of DuPage Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; white oak (Quercus alba), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; road to Thelma Carpenter Unit, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

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Many thanks to the good folks at Illinois Botany FB page and @Dustindemmer on Twitter who offered advice and help on the pasque flower, from seed collection to planting out. Fingers crossed!

Where the Wild Things Are

“In wildness is the preservation of the world” —Henry David Thoreau

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This past week, I enjoyed mingling with more than 2,000 other like-minded folks at the Wild Things Conference here in the Chicago region. The synergy created was a radiant spot in a cold, gloomy February. So many people invested in the natural world! So many who gave up their Saturday to learn and share more about wild things. It gives me hope for a brighter future.

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This February, I find myself needing reasons to hope. I enjoy winter. But I’m ready for spring. The signs are beginning to pop up. Lately, as we sleep with our window cracked open to the frigid air, I wake to cardinals singing their spring songs. They drop in for breakfast at our backyard feeders.

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The first sandhill cranes are winging their way high over the region, heading north.  It’s a sure sign that despite the brutal temps and snow, change—spring— is coming.

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The birds always know, don’t they?

After the Wild Things conference, Jeff and I did a reverse migration and headed south to spend a few days on the Florida beaches. We left 50-mph winds and zero temps, shaking snow off our boots, and stepped into another world of sandals and sunshine. It was appropriate that a “mackerel sky” was starting to form on our arrival.

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Are you familiar with this old rhyme?

Mackerel sky, mackerel sky, sometimes wet and sometimes dry.

Or a slightly different version:

Mackerel scales and mare’s tales, make tall ships carry low sails.

Supposedly, seasoned sailors know when a “mackerel sky” forms—-cirrocumulus or altocumulus clouds (the puffy ones) in rows, sometimes with mare’s tales (the wispy cirrus clouds) showing high winds aloft, a weather change was on the way.

So, we weren’t surprised when storm clouds moved in a few hours later.  The birds knew! There was a frenzy of activity beforehand, including a beach-combing blue heron, looking for lunch.

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The skies over the Florida sands  are full of wings. Some birds, like the osprey, we have back home. In the warmer months. I occasionally see them high over the prairies and hear their unmistakable cries.ospreyCaptiva219WM.jpg

Gulls, like this one below, are familiar Chicago residents as well.  Only the backdrop is different.

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I always struggle with gull ID. I brought my old battered National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of North America  with me, but there are pages and pages of gulls. I squint at the gull on the beach in the bright sun, then thoughtfully turn the pages of the guide. Ring-billed gull, perhaps? What do you think?

Other birds here, like the white ibis, remind me that no matter how many birds I recognize from the prairies back home, this is a different world. At least the ibis is an easy ID. The beak is a give-away. And look at those baby blues!

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When I think of the wildflowers of the prairie in February….

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… and contrast them with Florida’s February blooms…

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…it might seem like hands down, Florida would have my heart. Here the February air smells like sweet flowers. We’ve been sniffing all the blooms, but have yet to find the particular flower source. Hibiscus? Nope. Bougainvillea? Nope. A mystery.

At home on the Illinois prairies, the winds smell of snow. Color is a distant memory.

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But as much as I enjoy the heat and the sun, I miss the wild things of home. “We can never have enough of nature,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. True whether we’re in a convention center with 2,000 people talking about mosses and birds at Wild Things, hiking alone on a prairie in winter, or puzzling over a gull ID on a beach in Florida.

I’m grateful for the wild things —wherever I find myself. You too?

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Henry David Thoreau (1817-62) is best known for his classic, Walden. His words, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…” are some of the most famous lines in nature literature.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; male and female northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Jasper Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area, Medaryville, IN; sky, clouds, and sand, Captiva Island, FL; great blue heron (Ardea herodias), Captiva Island, FL; osprey (Pandion haliaetus), Captiva Island, FL; possibly ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis), Captiva Island, FL; white ibis (Eudocimus albus), Captiva Island, FL, round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; hibiscus (Hibiscus, species unknown), Captiva Island, FL; the invasive Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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Join one of Cindy’s Classes This Week!

Nature Writing–online and in-person, The Morton Arboretum. Begins Tuesday, Feb.26 online! Register here.

History of Wilderness in America –Feb. 28, The Morton Arboretum, part two of two classes. (Closed)

Dragonfly Workshop, March 2, 9-11:30 a.m., Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. Free and open to the public, as well as for new and seasoned monitors. Pre-registration required: Email phrelanzer@aol.com.