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5 Reasons to Hike the December Prairie

A sense of wild is engendered by awareness, a sense of connection with and deep understanding of any landscape. The pavement of any city side street wriggles with enough life to terrify and delight us if we choose to immerse ourselves in it.”—Tristan Gooley

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Brrrr! It’s bitter cold—-as it should be in December. The added hours of darkness make it seem more arctic. Whenever the sun shines during these short-lit days, I follow it, cat-like, from room to room, hoping to absorb as much as possible. Soon, the Winter Solstice will arrive, and with it, the return of longer hours of sunshine.

On our Christmas tree, I hang dried orange slices, backlit by the tree lights, which turn the fruit to stained glass. Anything for more light. Color. Beauty.

December darkness is relentless. The pandemic has shadowed this month with more than the usual gloom as well: limiting our activities, sapping our spirits.

For these reasons alone, it’s a great time to get outside. Walk the tallgrass prairie trails. Enjoy brief moments of sunshine, or even a bit of fresh air if the day is gray. Undecided? Worried that it’s too chilly? Here are five more reasons to hike the December prairie.

  1. Unpredictable sightings. I walk the local prairies regularly, yet I never fail to see something that surprises me. This past week, a belted kingfisher rattled from the prairie pond, amusing me with its call—and its “hairstyle.”

Not far away, a partially dismantled osage orange fruit lies on the tallgrass trail, appearing as some alien Christmas ornament.. Despite its name, it’s related to the mulberry, not the orange. I’ve seen them here before, but they always give me pause. So strange!

Nearby, in a stand of tall goldenrod, a plant displays two types of galls on one stem. Huh! That’s a new one for me.

You can see the ball gall–maybe two of them? —topped by the rosette or bunch gall. Nice to see the insects are sharing housing arrangements. It was a big year for goldenrod—-and galls—on this particular prairie.

Piles of cut branches are everywhere; the sign of ongoing maintenance to keep woody shrubs and trees out of the tallgrass. It appears staff or site stewards tried to whack back this persistent tree.

What a stubborn will to live! You have to admire its determination.

2. That peculiar slant of light. December has a certain type of light unlike any other month; low and piercing.

When the sun breaks through the clouds, the prairie ponds and wetlands dazzle; almost too too bright to look at directly. The light turns the landscape monochromatic in places.

The sun scrolls through the sky, hugging the horizon and leaving the grasses and forbs alight.

Aster seeds, seen in this light, may be more beautiful in December than when they were in bloom.

Their puffs of brilliant white brighten gray days.

3. The sounds of winter. As I type, half-asleep at the kitchen table in the early hours, a THUNK snaps me fully awake. A Cooper’s hawk is perched outside, scanning the area for breakfast. Looks like it hit the window—ouch!—but missed its prey. No wonder the feeders have been mostly empty all morning.

I watch the hawk preen its feathers, then hop down and sift through the prairie dropseed planted around the porch. Looking for voles, maybe? Or a frightened sparrow? It’s the hungry season for hawks. After a few minutes, it flies away. The backyard is quiet for a long time afterwards.

Out on the prairie edges, juncos flit from tree limb to limb, their wings shuffling through the dry leaves. Geese honk their way over the tallgrass, headed for a nearby empty soccer field.

There’s a sound of water running. Listening, I feel the tension in my muscles loosen and I relax. Water music has that effect on us. The brook runs free and clear. And, I imagine, cold.

Ice laces the edges.

I think of the legions of dragonfly and damselfly nymphs waiting under the water to emerge. So much life unseen! Water on the prairie—whether pond, brook, river or wetland—-is ever-changing. Never dull. Always interesting. There’s always something new to see, no matter the time of day, or the season of the year.

4. Those December skies! What will each day bring? Steel gray scoured clouds, snuffing out the sun? Burnished blue cloudless skies, warming up the 20-degree temperatures? Veils of milky cirrus?

Or wind-combed clouds, streaming toward some destination far away?

This week, the prairie’s night skies will fill with meteor showers, the best holiday light show of all. By night or by day, the prairie is a front-row seat to the life of the skies. Don’t forget to look up.

5. That feeling of well-being that a good prairie hike brings. Clear your mind of Zoom meetings. Inhale the fragrant smell of December—frozen earth, wild bergamot seedheads, the tang of ice and decay. Turn off the news. Put paid to politics. Silence your cell phone. Go for a prairie hike.

You’ll be glad you did.

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The opening quote is from Tristan Gooley, who has authored many books on reading and navigating the landscape. Thanks to my son and daughter-in-law for the boxed gift set of Gooley books—I am enjoying them immensely. Check out Gooley’s website at The Natural Navigator.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at College of DuPage Natural Areas, East Prairie, unless tagged otherwise (top to bottom): unknown vine with berry from invasive honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica); author’s Christmas tree, Glen Ellyn, IL; belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon); osage orange (Maclura pomifera); ball galls (Eurosta solidaginis) and rosette gall (Rhopalomyia solidaginis) on tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima); unknown tree sprouting; last leaves; prairie pond; COD East Prairie and line of osage orange trees (Maclura pomifera); unknown aster (Symphyotrichum sp.); Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; Canada geese (Branta canadensis) flying over COD East Prairie; Willoway brook ice, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; East Prairie skies; East Prairie skies; bench at COD East Prairie.

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Please consider giving the gift of books this holiday season! Support writers, small presses, and independent bookstores. Through December 31st, you can receive 40% off The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction (2016) and Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History (2020) when you order directly from Northwestern University Press. Use the code HOLIDAY40 at checkout. At regular price, order Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit (with Thomas Dean) from Ice Cube Press (2019). Or order these three books from The Arboretum Store or your favorite indie bookseller. Thank you, and happy reading!

The Prairie Whispers “Courage”

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” —Viktor Frankl

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I look out my kitchen window at my prairie planting and see something purple. It’s the first hyacinth in bloom. I’m a native plant aficionado, so hyacinths aren’t really my thing—and I planted prairie over the old garden bulbs that came with the house we purchased 20 years ago. But I welcome hyacinths this week. I welcome their fragrance. Their beauty. That purple.

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As I look out the window, I’m folding a piece of parchment paper to reuse. I’ve been baking. A lot. Comfort baking, I imagine.  I’m also trying to minimize trips to the store during this time of Covid-19 uncertainty. “Shelter in place” means making the most of what we have on hand.

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I think of my grandmother, now long passed, who would have recognized this moment. One of my early memories is of her washing a piece of foil, then folding and putting it away to reuse later. As a child, I scoffed at this, impatient. There is always more than enough of everything, wasn’t there? An endless supply. Little did I know. But she knew.

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Grandma also had a victory garden. Long after World War II was over, her garden gave her a sense of food security. Today, I feel a kinship with her as I start vegetable and flower seeds; spade my soil to plant lettuce, peas, potatoes.

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I feel the ghosts of my grandmothers in my kitchen as I plan meals using the ingredients I have on hand, plant a garden, struggle with uncertainty, just as they once did during the Great Depression and wars. This March, I’ve remembered—and marveled at—the courage they showed as they lived through times of insecurity, fear, and uncertainty. Courage I didn’t appreciate before. Courage I didn’t really understand when I was a child, or even a young adult. Courage I didn’t understand until now.

I wish both my grandmothers were here so we could talk.. They’d tell me their stories of these times, and I could ask them for advice. As a child, I squirmed when they hugged me. What I wouldn’t give to hug my grandmothers now.

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Jeff and I hiked the Schulenberg Prairie Sunday in 50-mph wind gusts, needled by sharp darts of drizzle that stung our faces and soaked our jeans. It was cathartic. And invigorating. We hiked  staying “present to the moment” by necessity—aware of the cold we felt as we  sloshed through the flooded prairie trails.

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I noticed the way the black walnut and oak trees were darkened on one side from the slashing rain, and bone dry on the other.

Shadow and light.

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The tallgrass is flattened now. In previous years, its tinder would be gone to ashes from the prescribed burn that happens here each spring. For perhaps the first time in its almost 60-year history, this planted prairie I’m hiking through may not see fire when it needs it. A prescribed fire here calls for a team of two dozen people or more working together, and it’s difficult to envision those simple gatherings happening anytime soon. By the time our Illinois shelter-in-place guidelines are lifted, it will likely be too late.

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I walked, and I wondered, and I looked. In the savannas and woodlands this week…

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…I found sharp-lobed hepatica, nodding in the rain.

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Joy!

I’m looking for a different wildflower today, the pasque flower. Its newer scientific name is Pulsatilla patens, synonymous with the older name,  “Anemone patens.” It’s one of the first native wildflowers to bloom on the prairie. “Pasque” comes from the Hebrew word “pasakh,” “passing over.” The flower blooms despite the flames of early prescribed burns, usually during the Easter season (thus the name “pasque” is also associated with this holiday from the old French language.). When the pasque flower blooms, I feel as if winter has passed.

Last year, the few blooms we had were memorable, perhaps for their scarcity.

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“Anemone” means “windflower.” “Pulsatilla” means “sway” or “tremble” which the pasque flower does in March and April breezes. Appropriate names for a flower that faces down cold, brutal winds, prescribed fire, and seasonal instability.  Our population of these fuzzy-leaved lavender bloomers had dwindled in previous years; down to just one clump plus a few stragglers. Since then, I’ve sown seeds to re-invigorate our plant population from another preserve.

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Would anything be up? Jeff and I slogged through the mud and peered closely. And there! One tiny fuzzed green shoot. And another! Barely detectable in the wind and drizzle.

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Life was going on, despite the chaos of the outer world. Nature calmly follows the rhythm of spring. It was a shot of hope in a dismal month. Brave little pasqueflower. It seemed to whisper to me. Courage.

I find myself trying to summon courage for each day. Not for tomorrow, or for next week, but for the 24 hours ahead of me, in which I need to make good choices. Courage right now, as Governor Andrew Cuomo has said in one of his binge-worthy news conferences on Covid-19, means “looking for the light.” I desperately want to be strong, but some days, it’s tough to know where to start. Looking for the light seems like a good place to begin.SPMAmarch32920WM.jpg

Courage.

The courage to get up each morning, get dressed, make a meal. Even if no one sees us.

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Courage. The courage to rise each morning and school our children.

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Courage. The courage of those who live alone, whether from necessity or from choice—and who ride this season out, bereft of their usual friendships and routines.

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Courage. Those who work in a makeshift office in a bedroom, an attic, a basement, or from the kitchen table. We may deliver groceries, work in hospitals, fill prescriptions. We watch our businesses implode, our freelance work vanish, our jobs lost, our retirement savings plummet.

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And still. We choose to take the next step. We teach a lesson on weather to our children. Go for a walk with the dog and wave to the neighbors—-neighbors we’ve never seen before until two weeks ago and suddenly have gotten to “know” from across the road—because they are out walking too.  We realize that so much is out of our control.

And yet, the world goes on.

In the midst of it, we find courage to make the choices we can make.  Courage to sit through another online meeting—trying to show up with our best game face, even though we feel like getting into bed, pulling the covers over our head, and not coming out for the next month.

Or maybe the next two.

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Courage to be patient with our children as they sense the fear we feel and need us now—and our reassurances—more than ever.

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Courage to be kind to our spouse and those we share space with—adult children, older parents, grandchildren. We find ourselves together 24/7, without the distractions of outside errands and activities. Our margin for patience gets slimmer each day. But we dig deep. We find new reserves. Because patience and kindness are the things that matter most. They are choices we can make.

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We ask for courage to be patient with those who don’t see this crisis the way we do, and act in ways we find irresponsible—or perhaps, overly-cautious.

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Courage to bake bread, start learning a new language, clean out a drawer, begin a journal, plant garden seeds, laugh at an old sitcom, watch re-runs of classic baseball games because there is no opening day. Because the crack of a bat, the roar of the crowds— the  memory of what once was normal is something that reassures us. We find humor in situations—-even when we don’t feel like laughing. Why? Because those are choices available to us, when so many other choices are not.

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We scrape up our last bit of bravery to find courage to live into the next hour, much less the next day. To think ahead? It’s terrifying. We turn on the news, then turn it off. We need to know, but we don’t want to know.

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In a world where once we had so many possibilities at our fingertips —and just about anything we wanted was available to us at the tap of a computer key—we have different choices to make now. How will we live in this new reality? When we look back on this next year—in five years, ten years—what stories are we living out that we we tell our children, our grandchildren, and our friends? How will we use this time we are given? What chapter in our lives will we write? It’s up to us. Today. Right now.

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Don’t surrender to fear.

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We can choose to love. To be kind. To keep moving forward.

Take courage. You’re not alone.

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Together, let’s keep moving forward.

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The opening quote is from Viktor Frankl’s (1905-1997) Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl was a Holocaust survivor and Austrian psychiatrist who lost his wife during their incarceration. A quest for meaning was what Frankl said helped him survive tremendous uncertainty and suffering. “Meaning,” he says, came out of three things: work, love, and courage in the face of difficulty. Read more here.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Dutch hyacinth (Hyacinthus orientalis), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; rolling pin, author’s kitchen, Glen Ellyn, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; seed starting, author’s office, Glen Ellyn, IL: flooded trail, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tree lashed by rain, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sharp-lobed hepatica (Anemone acutiloba), Lisle, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla or Anemone patens) in bloom on the Schulenberg Prairie in 2019, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flower (Pulstilla or Anemone patens) seeds, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla or Anemone patens) shoots, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie; Schulenberg Prairie; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), log on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; March on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; western chorus frogs (Pseudacris triseriata); The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); mosses (unknown species, would welcome ID suggestions!); common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; fox squirrel (Sciurus niger), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morotn Arboretum, Lisle, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bridge over Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; chalk art, author’s driveway, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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Cindy’s classes have moved online! For updates on classes and events, please go to http://www.cindycrosby.com. The next Tallgrass Prairie Ecology class online begins in early May. See more information and registration  here.

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Have you always been curious about the native landscape of the Midwest, but didn’t have time to read?  Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit (order directly from Ice Cube Press) and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction  from Northwestern University Press (order from your independent bookseller if they remain open or deliver, or from Bookshop or Amazon.com.  I’m grateful for your support for prairie, books, small publishers, and freelance writers like myself.