Tag Archives: indian grass

March Arrives on the Prairie

“March came in that winter like the meekest and mildest of lambs, bringing days that were crisp and golden and tingling, each followed by a frosty pink twilight… .” ―L. M. Montgomery

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In like a lamb. The first day of March is mild and the forecast shows more of the same. Sunshine, a few clouds. Temperatures that will stretch and hit 50 degrees. The Farmer’s Almanac tells us if March comes in like a lion, it will go out like a lamb. Is the reverse true—will it go out like a lion, then? We’ll find out in a few weeks. Spring is a work in progress.

Crescent moon at sunrise, looking south over Crosby’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Wait, what? Spring? Today—March 1—is the first day of meteorological spring and this year, it’s also Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday. Astronomical spring is March 20, so go ahead — celebrate the first day of spring twice! In the Midwest, March is the month for snow and longer hours of sunlight, for the Northern Hemisphere’s vernal equinox, for tornadoes and the first woodland and prairie wildflowers, for St. Patrick’s Day and Lent, and in some years, Easter. Originally, it was the first month of the old Roman calendar. In my garden, March is the month of snowdrops and crocus blooms. Hyacinth and daffodil shoots peek through the prairie dropseed along the warmest side of the house.

Spring bulbs coming up through prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

This weekend, as Sunday drew to a close, Jeff and I went for a hike at Blackwell Forest Preserve. In winter, it’s a favorite spot for ice fishing and snow tubing. In the summer, kayaks and small motorboats ply the biggest lake as families fish and picnic along the shoreline.

Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Blackwell is also the site of the Urban Stream Research Center, where the federally-endangered Hine’s Emerald dragonfly is being reared in its nymph stage. When the dragonflies are ready to transform from nymph to adult, they are taken to selected locations and released. The Hine’s Emerald adult dragonfly is on my must-see list. I hope 2022 is the year. I’ve only seen the nymph.

Hine’s Emerald Dragonfly (Somatochlora hineana) nymph, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Difficult to believe this nymph will become a beautiful dragonfly, isn’t it? Take a look here to see it in its adult stage.

Tonight, a few archery enthusiasts are out and about the preserve, practicing their skills. A lone ice fisherman collects his gear and heads for his truck. The parking lot is still full of cars, despite the gathering dark. Where is everyone? Perhaps others are out on the trails like we are, enjoying the last half hour before closing time and heading home to start the work week.

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

As we begin our hike, I admire the prairie restoration signs. I don’t remember seeing them before, or that “prairie” was brought to the attention of visitors. Yay!

Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

I’m happy to spy many of my favorite prairie plants. Switchgrass, turning luminous in last light.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) , Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Thimbleweed.

Thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Indian grass limns the shoreline.

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

A small stand of evening primrose stands out against the grasses.

Evening primrose (Oenothera biennis), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Wild blackberry canes thread through the prairie plantings, adding a welcome bit of color. I admire the red, even though as a prairie steward, I know how aggressive this native can be.

WIld blackberry canes (Rubis xxx), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

An alien-looking finger of mullein, ringed with ragged leaves, points toward the sky.

Great mullein (Vervascum thapsus) Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Wild bergamot still holds its minty scent.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

The air smells like melting snow and mud.

Cold and exhilarating.

Sunset, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

It’s almost closing time, so we turn around and start back to the parking lot. But we can’t resist a detour to the bridge.

Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

There, we watch the sunset and scan the frozen water. The tracks on the lake are human, dark and slushy.

Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

I wonder how recent these footprints are? With the temperatures warming, the ice would have been tricky. Were they foolhardy kids? Or were the footprints made much earlier in the week, when the temperatures were bitter and the lake was frozen solid? Difficult to say.

Someone left a message.

Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Sweet! I don’t know if mom would have been happy they were out there, but I’m sure she would appreciate the sentiment.

Old nest, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

The sun drops behind the trees.

Sunset, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

On the opposite side of the lake, the sky becomes a lavender haze.

Sunset, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

We head back to the car. What a pleasant way to end the day! A hike at the forest preserve with prairie plants all around, and new preserve signs showing intentions for future prairie restoration.

Signs of hope.

Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

“A work in progress.” After a week of stunned disbelief watching world events, I needed the peace and solace of a sunset prairie hike and a reminder that everything is a “work in progress.” Tomorrow is another day. Another chance for change.

Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

It’s a good way to welcome a new week. I’m ready to usher in a brand new month, full of possibilities.

You, too?

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The opening quote is by Lucy Maud Montgomery (1874-19420, author of the fictional series Anne of Green Gables; her complete body of work includes 20 novels, 500 poems, more than 500 short stories and numerous essays. Most of her novels are set on Prince Edward Island in Canada.

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Upcoming Programs

See http://www.cindycrosby.com for details.

March 8, 7 pm-8:30pmDragonflies and Damselflies: Frequent Fliers in the Garden at Twig and Bloom Garden Club, Glen Ellyn, IL.

March 9, 1-2:30 pmIllinois Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers at Garden Club of Oak Park and River Forest, Oak Park, IL.

March 28, 7-8:30pmAdd a Little Prairie to Your Garden at Grayslake Greenery Garden Club, Grayslake, IL.

‘Tis the Season of Prairie Grasses

“There is nothing in the world so strong as grass.” —Brother Cadfael

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I’m baking sourdough bread and humming Van Morrison’s song “When the leaves come falling down.” It’s mid-November, but the trees glow. Today’s wind and snow are conspiring to loosen leaves from their moorings.

West Side, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Through my kitchen window, I see my prairie patch covered with yellow silver maple leaves from my neighbor’s yard. The gold flies through the air; sifts into Joe Pye weeds, cup plants, prairie cordgrass, culver’s root, and compass plants. When it comes time to burn next spring, these leaves will help fuel the fire.

When the leaves come falling down.

When the leaves come falling down.

Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

Outside, the air is sharp and earthy. It smells like winter. Daylight grows shorter. The last chapter of autumn is almost written.

In an open meadow, a coyote stalks and pounces. Missed! It’s a field mouse’s lucky day.

Coyote (Canis latrans), Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Mallards paddle ponds in the falling snow, oblivious. Their emerald heads shine like satin. Mallards are so common in Illinois we rarely give them a second glance. But oh! How beautiful they are.

Mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos), Lake Marmo, Lisle, IL.

I scoot closer to the water for a better view. A muskrat startles, then swims for the shoreline to hide in the grasses.

Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus), Lake Marmo, Lisle, IL.

Across the road in the savanna, virgin’s bower seed puffs collect snowflake sprinkles. Bright white on soft silk.

Virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

The savanna is striking in the falling snow.

Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

But I only have eyes for the prairie. November is the season for grass.

Indian grass.

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Big bluestem.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL. (2019)

Prairie dropseed.

Prairie dropseed (Panicum virgatum), and leadplant (Amorpha canescens), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

So much grass.

In My Antonia, Willa Cather wrote of the prairie:

“… I felt motion in the landscape; in the fresh, easy-blowing morning wind, and in the earth itself, as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping, galloping …” 

Bison at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. (2016)

In Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie, John Madson told us that weather extremes favor grasses over trees. No wonder the Midwest, with its wild weather vagaries, is a region of grass.

Bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (August, 2020)

In her essay, “Big Grass,” Louise Erdrich writes: “Grass sings, grass whispers… . Sleep the winter away and rise headlong each spring. Sink deep roots. Conserve water. Respect and nourish your neighbors and never let trees get the upper hand.

Grass.

In November, grass slips into the starring role.

The best fall color isn’t in the changing leaves.

It’s here. On the tallgrass prairie.

Why not go see?

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The quote that kicks off this post is from An Excellent Mystery by Ellis Peters, the non de plume for scholar Edith Mary Pargeter (1913-1995). She was the author of numerous books, including 20 volumes in The Cadfael Chronicles; murder mysteries set in 12th Century England. I reread the series every few years and enjoy it immensely each time.

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Join Cindy for a class or program!

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

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

Please visit your local independent bookstore (Illinois’ friends: The Arboretum Store in Lisle and The Book Store in Glen Ellyn) to purchase or order Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit for the holidays. Discover full-color prairie photographs and essays from Cindy and co-author Thomas Dean.

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

Rainy Day on a Remnant Prairie

“I feel like it’s raining…all over the world.”—Tony Joe White

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Rain lashes the tallgrass prairie.

Tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

Wet. Wild. Windy, with gusts of 50 mph. I plunge my hands deep into my coat pockets and put up my hood.

It’s a day for hiking. A day for contemplation.

Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

I’m walking Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, a small remnant prairie of 10-plus acres sandwiched between houses, a golf course, and apartment complexes. There are shopping centers and recreation parks. Railroad tracks and an interstate. This prairie remnant is a favorite of mine. It is as old as time itself.

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

It co-exists with the people and the trappings of civilization and development. Peaceably.

Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

I think about the people who saved this tiny remnant prairie. They saw something special when they looked at it; something irreplaceable.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

We don’t know how to replicate a remnant prairie that functions in the same ways as the prairies we create from scratch. Sure, we plant prairies. And that’s a good thing. I’m a steward on a planted prairie, and it is full of delights and marvels. But it’s not a remnant prairie. There are very few high-quality remnants left in Illinois. Each one is unique. Each one is a small masterpiece of survival.

American Lady butterfly (Vanessa virginiensis) on blazing star (Liatris aspera), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

As I hike, I think about the Bell Bowl Prairie remnant at Chicago-Rockford International Airport.

It’s slated for destruction November 1.

Belmont Prairie Parking Lot, Downers Grove, IL.

Less than one week away.

I’m no activist. I like to live without conflict. And yet. I can’t get Bell Bowl Prairie out of my mind.

Tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

The prairies have given me a lot over the past 23 years. Places to walk, to write, to go to when I need to sort out my thoughts. I teach prairie classes. Give programs on prairie. Write prairie books—and write about the tallgrass here each week. I sketch prairie. Take my children and now, my grandchildren on prairie hikes and prairie picnics. The prairies have always been there for me. Now, it seems, I need to be there for them.

The questions in my mind come thick and fast.

“Do you love the prairie?”

Monarch migration, Wolf Road Prairie, Westchester, IL.

“Does the rasp of big bluestem and Indian grass swaying in the October winds send a tingle down your spine?”

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

“Do you delight in the crystallized compass plant rosin? Do you love to tell the story of how Native American children chewed it like Wrigley’s Spearmint gum? Do you marvel at all the stories these plants have to tell us?”

“Do you walk the prairie in the rain, admiring the way it brings out contrast in the grasses and seedheads?”

Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

“Are you grateful for what Wendell Berry calls “the peace of wild things” in the world, in a time when so much is conflict and unrest?”

I ask myself these questions and more. What kind of world do I want to leave my children and grandchildren? Am I willing to step outside of my comfort zone to leave them things that really matter?

Henslow’s sparrow (Centronyx henslowii), remnant at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (2018).

So much about the future is unknown.

We build upon the past. But what happens when we lose our heritage?

Leadplant (Amorpha canescens) with tiny pollinator, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

There is a lot I don’t know. There is much that I don’t understand. But I do know this: Each small “cog” and “wheel” has meaning as part of the whole. The wild things—even those in the middle of developments, or maybe especially those—are worth caring about.

Citrine forktail damselfly (Ischnura hastata), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

When we lose any member of the prairie community—plants, birds, pollinators—-we lose something priceless.

Hinsdale Prairie remnant, Hinsdale, IL.

Aldo Leopold wrote in his foreword to A Sand County Almanac: “Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth its cost in things natural, wild and free.”

Eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus) on bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Crosby backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

We have a finite number of prairie remnants in North America. There is no original prairie anywhere else in the world. Once each remnant is gone, it is gone forever. There are no “do-overs.”

St. Stephen Cemetery and Prairie remnant, Carol Stream, IL.

I’m thankful people spoke up and this remnant I hike today—Belmont prairie—was saved. I’m thankful for so many other wild places, including the prairie remnants, that were preserved through vision and the power of people’s voices. I say a few of the prairie remnant names out loud, speaking them as a prayer. Nachusa Grasslands. Hinsdale Prairie. St. Stephen. Wolf Road Prairie. Great Western Prairie. It grieves me to think of Bell Bowl Prairie missing from this list. Losing these wild places hurts everyone. This is one wild place that doesn’t have to be lost.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL.

As uncomfortable as it is sometimes to speak out, I owe the prairies this space today.

Thank you for listening.

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How Can I Help Save Bell Bowl Prairie?

Please visit www.savebellbowlprairie.org to learn about the planned destruction of a special gravel prairie remnant by the Chicago-Rockford International Airport in Rockford, IL. Ask them to reroute their construction. Discover how you can help save this home of the federally-endangered Rusty Patched Bumble Bee. The remnant is slated for bulldozing on November 1. Every small action by those who love prairies will help! Make a quick call, tweet or FB a note to your friends. Time is running out.

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Tony Joe White (1943-2018) whose quote opens this post was nicknamed “The Swamp Fox” and wrote a number of songs, including “Poke Salad Annie,” made famous when Elvis Presley and Tom Jones both did covers. He also wrote songs covered by Tina Turner (“Steamy Windows” and “Undercover Agent for the Blues”). But my favorite is “Rainy Night in Georgia,” from which the opening line is taken. Listen to the beautiful version by Brook Benton here.

Join Cindy for a Program or Class!

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology: Opens online Monday, Nov.1 –Are you a prairie steward or volunteer who wants to learn more about the tallgrass? Do you love hiking the prairie, but don’t know much about it? Enjoy a self-paced curriculum with suggested assignments and due dates as you interact with other like-minded prairie lovers on the discussion boards. Then, join Cindy for a live Zoom Friday, November 12, noon to 1 p.m. CST. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. See more details here.

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

Hello, October Prairie

The little bluestem was exquisite with turquoise and garnet and chartreuse; and the big bluestem waved its turkeyfeet of deep purple high against the October sky, past the warm russet of the Indian grass.” — May Theilgaard Watts

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Drip. Drip. Drip.

Rain at last. A welcome opening to October! Sure, we’ve had a few intermittent showers just west of Chicago in September, but rainfall is far below normal. The garden shows it. My prairie patch—so resilient—is also suffering. No amount of watering with the hose is quite the same as a good cloudburst.

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

Ahhhh. The air smells newly-washed…as it is. As I walk the neighborhood, the leaves drift down, released by wind and water.

Fallen leaves, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Welcome, rain! Stay awhile. We need you.

Road through Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Dry conditions suit prairie gentians. They linger on, adding their bright color to an increasingly sepia landscape.

Prairie gentian (Gentiana puberulenta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Goldfinches work the pasture thistles.

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Bright male goldfinches of spring and summer are gradually changing to the olive oil hues of autumn and winter. When I see them working over the seed pods in my backyard, I’m glad I left my prairie plants and some garden plants in seed for them. They love the common evening primrose seeds.

American goldfinches (Spinus tristis), Crosby backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL. (File photo)

This past week, the dragonflies put on a last-minute show. Most will be gone in mid-October; either migrated south, or their life cycle completed. It’s been great to see meadowhawks again. Usually ubiquitous in the summer and autumn, this group of skimmers have gone missing from my dragonfly routes on both prairies where I monitor this season. Suddenly, they are out in numbers. Mating in the wheel position…

Autumn meadowhawks (Sympetrum vicinum) in the wheel position, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

…then flying to a good spot to oviposit, or lay eggs. Everywhere I turn, more autumn meadowhawks!

Autumn meadowhawks (Sympetrum vicinum) in “tandem oviposition”, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Ensuring new generations of meadowhawks to come on the prairie. A sign of hope. I love seeing that brilliant red—the bright scarlet of many of the species. Autumn meadowhawks have yellow-ish legs, which help separate them from other members of this difficult-to-identify group. The white-faced meadowhawks have, well…. you know.

White-faced Meadowhawk (Sympetrum obtrusum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

The face is unmistakeable. Many of the meadowhawks are confusing to ID, so I was grateful to see my first band-winged meadowhawk of the year last week, with its distinctive amber patches.

Band-winged Meadowhawk (Sympetrum semicinctum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

If only all meadowhawks were this easy to distinguish as these three species! It’s a tough genus. I’m glad they showed up this season.

Other insects are busy in different pursuits. Some skeletonize plants, leaving emerald cut lace.

Skeletonized riverbank grape (Vitis riparia) leaf, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

Northern leopard frogs, now in their adult stage, prepare for hibernation. As I hike through the prairie wetlands, looking for dragonflies, they spring through the prairie grasses and leap into the water.

Northern leopard frog (Lithobates pipiens), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Whenever I see them, I’m reminded of the Frog & Toad books I love to read to my grandchildren, and the value of true friendships, as evinced in those stories. Strong friendships, worth hanging on to.

Familiar bluet (Enallagma civile), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

As we begin to navigate our second pandemic autumn, I feel a renewed gratitude for close friends, an appreciation for family, and an appreciation for the peace and solace to be found in the natural world.

False solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum),Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

I can’t wait to see what the prairie holds for us in October.

Schulenberg Prairie trail, Lisle, IL.

Why not go see for yourself?

*****

The opening quote is from Reading the Landscape of America by May Theilgaard Watts (1893-1975). Watts was the first naturalist on staff at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, and a poet, author, and newspaper columnist. Her drawings and words continue to illuminate how we understand a sense of “place.”

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Join Cindy for a program or class!

Wednesday, October 13, 10-11:30 a.m. (CT): “A Cultural History of Trees in America” ONLINE! Offered through The Morton Arboretum. Join Cindy from the comfort of your couch and discover the way trees have influenced our history, our music and literature, and the way we think about the world. Register here.

Friday, December 3: WINTER PRAIRIE WONDERS–ONLINE10-11:30 a.m. (CT)Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass! Make yourself a cup of hot tea, snuggle under a warm afghan, and join prairie steward and writer Cindy Crosby virtually for this interactive online immersion into the tallgrass prairie in winter. See the aesthetic beauty of the snow-covered grasses and wildflowers in cold weather through colorful images of winter on the prairies. Follow animal tracks to see what creatures are out and about, and see how many you can identify. Learn how birds, pollinators, and mammals use winter prairie plants;  the seeds for nourishment and the grasses and spent wildflowers for overwintering, protection, and cover. Then, listen as Cindy shares brief readings about the prairie in winter that will engage your creativity and nourish your soul. Registration information here.

A Very Prairie New Year

“There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.”—Barry Lopez

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And so we come to the last days of 2020. Hope glimmers dimly on the horizon, but the darkness is still with us.

Christmas Star, just past conjunction, Danada Forest Preserve, Wheaton, IL.

As we step through the shadows into 2021…

Trail through the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…we’re reassured by the orderly progression of the seasons. On the prairie, little bluestem paints patches of red and rust.

Little bluestem (Schizychrium scoparium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I think of the novelist Willa Cather’s words: “I wanted to walk straight on through the red grass and over the edge of the world, which could not be very far away.”

We marvel at ordinary pleasures as simple as sunlight bright on an ice-filled stream.

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

We welcome back the longer daylight hours—more of an idea now than a reality, but gradually becoming noticeable.

No matter what twists and turns lie ahead…

Wild River Grape (Vitis riparia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…there is solace in the beauty of the natural world.

Grey-headed coneflower (Ritibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

As we hike the prairie for the last time together in 2020, I wish you good health.

Ice crystals and big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)

Freedom from fear and anxiety.

Round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

A long-awaited reunion with friends and family—-when it’s safe to do so.

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

And—a renewed capacity for joy and wonder. No matter the circumstances. No matter what is in the news each day. Despite the challenges the new year will bring.

Pasture rose hips (Rosa carolina), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Keep paying attention.

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Keep hiking.

Prairie plantings along the DuPage River, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Goodbye, 2020.

Late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Welcome, 2021.

Happy New Year!

*****

The opening quote is by author Barry Lopez (1945-2020), who passed away on Christmas Day. If you’ve not read his books, a good one to begin with this winter is Arctic Dreams, which won the National Book Award in 1986. He wrote compellingly about wolves and wilderness. Read more about him here.

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Please note: As of this week, I’ve moved all photo identifications and locations to captions under the images. Enjoy!

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Join Cindy in 2021 for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a complete list of virtual offerings. All classes and programs with Cindy this winter and spring are offered online only.

January 14-February 4 (Four Thursdays) 6:30-8:30 pm CST Nature Writing II Online. Deepen your connection to nature and your writing skills in this intermediate online workshop from The Morton Arboretum. This interactive class is the next step for those who’ve completed the Nature Writing Workshop (N095), or for those with some foundational writing experience looking to further their expertise within a supportive community of fellow nature writers. Over the course of four live, online sessions, your instructor will present readings, lessons, writing assignments, and sharing opportunities. You’ll have the chance to hear a variety of voices, styles, and techniques as you continue to develop your own unique style. Work on assignments between classes and share your work with classmates for constructive critiques that will strengthen your skill as a writer. Ask your questions, take risks, and explore in this fun and supportive, small-group environment. Register here.

February 24, 7-8:30 CST: The Prairie in Art and Literature Online. The tallgrass prairie is usually thought of for its diverse community of plants, animals, and insects. Yet, it is also an inspiration for a creative community! In this interactive online talk, natural history author and prairie steward Cindy Crosby will explore historical and contemporary writers and artists, musicians, and other creatives working in the prairie genre: from Neil Young to Willa Cather to graphic comic artists and jewelers expressing the prairie through their work. See the prairie in a new light! Come away inspired to appreciate and express your love of the tallgrass as you enjoy learning about this prairie “community.” Offered by The Morton Arboretum: “ Register here.

Hiking the Prairie with Willa Cather

” … that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.”—Willa Cather
*****

As I scanned the “On this date in history” in the newspaper Monday, there she was. Novelist Willa Cather was born Dec.7, 1873. Her writing explored life on the western prairies, and also, the desert Southwest.

For those of us who love any prairie—-tallgrass, mixed grass, or shortgrass—several of her passages are inseparable from the way we see the landscapes we walk through, prairie or otherwise. These sentences stay with us, as the best writer’s words do, surfacing when the winds riffle the tallgrass or the broad sweep of a prairie sky stops us in astonishment.

The original prairie has largely disappeared since the days of Willa Cather. In Oh Pioneers! she wrote, “The shaggy coat of the prairie…has vanished forever.”

I wonder what she would have thought about the tallgrass prairie of Illinois?

In honor of Willa Cather’s birthday this week, let’s hike the prairie together and view it through her writing.

******

“I was born upon the prairie, where the wind blew free, and there was nothing to break the light of the sun.” — Oh Pioneers!

“There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm.” — The Song of the Lark

“As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea.” — My Antonia

“The red of the grass made all the great prairie the color of wine stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.” —My Antonia

“I wanted to walk straight on through the red grass and over the edge of the world, which could not be very far away.” — My Antonia

“Trees were so rare in that country, and they had to make such a hard fight to grow, that we used to feel anxious about them, and visit them as if they were persons.” — My Antonia

“Success is never so interesting as struggle.”–The Song of the Lark

The light and air about me told me that the world ended here: only the ground and sun and sky were left…

… and if one went a little farther there would only be sun and sky, and one would float off into them, like the tawny hawks which sailed over our heads making slow shadows on the grass.” — My Antonia

“The landscape one longed for when one was far away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!” –Death Comes for the Archbishop

The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.”–Oh Pioneers!

“There was nothing but land; not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.”–My Antonia

The land and all that it bore they treated with consideration; not attempting to improve it, they never desecrated it.” –Death Comes for the Archbishop

Thanks, Willa.

What prairie writers will you think about when you walk the tallgrass trails this week? Leave me a comment below, if you’d like to share your favorites.

Happy hiking!

******

The blog quotes today are from various works of Willa Cather (1873-1947), who won the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours (1923). After graduating from University of Nebraska, she lived in Pittsburgh and New York City. Death Comes to the Archbishop was recognized by Time as one of the 100 best novels between 1923-2005. The opening quote is from My Antonia, and is engraved on Cather’s tombstone in Jaffery, New Hampshire.

*****

All photos taken at College of DuPage’s Russell R. Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL unless tagged otherwise (top to bottom): Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis) compass plant (Silphium lacinatum); Prairie Parking sign; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum); prairie pond; the prairie in December (college in background); little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) under ice, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL (2/19); trail to the trees; unusual rosette gall (Rabdophaga rosacea); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) over the prairie; sky over the prairie; fasciation on common evening primrose (Oenothera biennis); December on the prairie (college in the background); common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).

******

Please consider giving the gift of books this holiday season! Support writers, small presses, and independent bookstores. Through December 31st, you can receive 40% 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 your favorite indie bookseller. Thank you, and happy reading!

The Prairie in November

“November comes–And November goes–With the last red berries–And the first white snows.”—Elizabeth Coatsworth

*****

They’re leaving!

Winds from the northwest. Blue skies. Temperatures falling. I see the text from Jeff at work alerting me, and hurry outside. I don’t have to ask “who” is leaving. It’s that time of year. Look up and—Yes! There they are.

Hundreds of sandhill cranes choreograph their way over the house, a tsunami of sound.

Their high-pitched cries, unlike anything else in nature, carry for up to two and a half miles. As they fly their intricate patterns, they become invisible for a moment. I shade my eyes against the sun and then—-there. They turn and are visible again. Headed south. The cranes pirouette in some previously agreed upon rhythm, scatter, then reform their arcs across the blue–blue–blue sky.

I watch until they’re gone.

See you next year.

*****

We’re on the downhill side of November, with the year’s finish line appearing just over the horizon. Last week, Jeff and I unpacked the Christmas lights and decorations, longing for the spirit of the season to buoy our spirits.

The neighbors are doing the same. My 2019 self might have made wisecracks about the resulting mishmash of scarecrows and snowmen; leftover Halloween pumpkins and poinsettias; cornucopias and candy canes. But my 2020 self silently cheers them on as I walk the neighborhood and admire the latest decorations. My yard reflects the same holiday collision.

On the tallgrass prairie, plunging temperatures, random snows, high winds, and then—strange balmy days full of sunshine—have burnished the prairie to metallics.

Golds.

Rusts.

White golds.

Bronzes.

Pewters.

Glimpses of mixed metals appear in the Illinois bundleflower seedheads scattered along the prairie streams. I love how the sunshine sparks the interior of the seedpods ember-red.

Willoway Brook runs low and cold…

…reflecting the mood of the skies, which capriciously swing from sunshine to clouds to rain to snow and back again, all in the space of 24 hours.

The prairie’s newly-mown edges are ready for spring burns. Bring it on!

Everywhere, as I drive around town, are rising columns of smoke. Stewards lay fire to woodlands and wetlands, mostly, but a few prairies as well. These fires, made by humans but emulating nature’s processes, will ensure healthy, vibrant natural areas for generations to come.

In the evenings, brilliant sunsets, shrouded by smoky skies, tell of the hard work done by prairie stewards.

The sandhill cranes will continue moving through these brilliant skies in the weeks to come. As I hike, I wonder. What will life look like when they return from migration in the spring?

I feel hopeful. Until they return, my prairie hikes and walks outdoors will help keep me feeling that way.

You, too?

Elizabeth Coatsworth (1893-1986) was a prolific author and a Newberry award winner (1931) for The Cat Who Went to Heaven. Her husband, Henry Beston, was author of The Outermost House, and her daughter, Kate Barnes, was the first poet laureate of Maine. She lived in Maine and Massachusetts.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, unless tagged otherwise (to to bottom): November skies; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), author’s prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), author’s prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; rose hips (Rosa carolina); wild grapevine (Vitas spp.); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium); side-oats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula); late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica); wild blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis); Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis) reflections in Willoway Brook; November skies on the edge of the prairie; mown prairie in November; prescribed fire (2014); November sunset, author’s prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); hiking the prairie in November.

*****

Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization in 2021. Email Cindy through http://www.cindycrosby.com.

Literary Gardens Online: Friday, Dec.4, 1-2:30 p.m.CST– Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby from wherever you live in the world for a fun look at gardens in literature and poetry. From Agatha Christie’s mystery series, to Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Goudge, Rumer Godden, May Sarton, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Gilbert, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, and Lewis Carroll–and many more! This class is online. Register here through The Morton Arboretum.

Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.

Chasing Dragonflies Final Cover 620.jpg

Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org, direct from Northwestern University Press (use coupon code NUP2020 for 25% off), or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during these unusual times.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (phrelanzer). Or visit her website at http://www.cindycrosby.com. See you there!

5 Reasons to Hike the November Prairie

“November is chill, frosted mornings with a silver sun rising behind the trees, red cardinals at the feeders, and squirrels running scallops along the tops of the gray stone walls”. —Jean Hersey

*****

November marks a tumultuous halfway point. What a month!

School playgrounds are empty.

Families fear to gather. Headlines promise no quick answers.

Pewter skies. Cold drizzle. Tornado watches. 50-mph winds.

Let’s go look for hope. Peace. Beauty.

Here are five reasons to hike the November prairie.

  1. November’s prairie is a sea of gorgeous foamy seeds. Exploding asters loosen their shattered stars against the winds.

Boneset seeds prepare to set sail on the breeze.

Thistles are an exercise in contrast.

Thimbleweed’s wispy Q-tips hold fast against the wind. A few lose their grip, but most will hang on to their seeds through winter.

So many seeds.

So much promise for 2021. Hope for the future.

2. November’s prairie offers the solace of gray skies. Depressing? No. Curiously calming to the spirit, even in high winds, which carve curves in the clouds.

On mornings when the temperature drops below 30 degrees, the freeze softens plants; breaks them down. They crumple. Ice pierces succulent plants from the inside out.

The skies are misted and vague.

The future seems uncertain. But the skies, cycling between sunshine and steel, remind us how quickly change is possible.

3. November’s prairie is full of music. Autumn’s orchestra is fully tuned now, with winter whispering soft notes in the wings. Switchgrass and Indian grass hiss in high winds, like onions sizzling in a frying pan.

Geese cry overhead. on their way to nowhere special.

A train blows its mournful whistle.

I listen until the sound fades away.

4. Leaves are the stars of November’s tallgrass. Prairie dock leaves are topographic maps of the world.

Rattlesnake master masters the curves. I’m reminded of the Olympic ribbon dancers; rhythmic gymnastics performed in taupes and beiges.

Yet these leaves are immobile. Grace and motion frozen in high winds.

Other leaves signal surrender. Tattered and shredded by weather.

I kneel by the compass plant, trying to read its leaves for direction.

It seems as lost as I am.

5. November’s prairie is art in process. What will you see there?

Works by the impressionists.

Echoes of Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World.

Modern art?

Perhaps.

The prairie paints a thousand pictures every day. Sings a hundred songs. Tells stories.

Ready for more?

Let’s go.

*****

Jean Hersey (1902-date of death unknown) was the author of The Shape of a Year. She wrote about gardening, houseplants, herbs, grief, flowering shrubs, and penned many homespun articles for Women’s Day magazine.

All photos this week are from Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL unless tagged otherwise (top to bottom): deserted school playground, Glen Ellyn, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); Belmont Prairie in November; Belmont prairie boardwalk; panicled asters (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum); tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum); pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor); thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica); mixed grasses and forbs; gray skies over Belmont Prairie; hard freeze (prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL): Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripterus); Canada geese (Branta canadensis); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium); unknown prairie forb; unknown prairie forb; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); mixed grasses; Belmont Prairie edges; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) in November; Jeff hikes Belmont Prairie; trail through Belmont Prairie in November.

*****

Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization–now booking talks for 2021. Email Cindy through http://www.cindycrosby.com.

Literary Gardens Online: Friday, Dec.4, 1-2:30 p.m.CST– Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby from wherever you live in the world for a fun look at great (and not-so-great) gardens in literature and poetry. From Agatha Christie’s mystery series, to Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Goudge, Rumer Godden, May Sarton, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Gilbert, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, and Lewis Carroll–and many more! This class is online. Register here through The Morton Arboretum.

Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.

Chasing Dragonflies Final Cover 620.jpg

Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org, direct from Northwestern University Press (use coupon code NUP2020 for 25% off), or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during these unusual times.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (phrelanzer). Or visit her website at http://www.cindycrosby.com. See you there!

Fire Season

Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.” -Gilda Radner

*******

The smell of smoke drifts through our open windows. A few miles away, a white plume rises.

Fire! Prescribed fire.

At the forest preserves, the Arboretum, and conservation sites, flames creep along the woodland floor. Embers smolder. A tree chain smokes.

It’s prescribed burn season in the woodlands, and even on a few prairies and wetlands. In the Chicago region, a stream of blessedly warm, dry days have made conditions right for fire.

Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.

Fall burns are a management tool stewards and site staff use to encourage healthy natural areas. Spring burns will follow in 2021. In late winter or early spring, we burn the tallgrass prairies.

Because of COVID in 2020, many prairie stewards and staff were unable to gather in large groups to use prescribed fire. For those of us used to seeing this predictable cycle of the prairie season, the unburned prairies—now tangled and tall—were one more curveball in an unpredictable year.

I missed the usual spring dance of fire and flammable grasses; the swept-clean slate of a newly-burned prairie this March. Early wildflowers were difficult to find, buried under the thatch of last-year’s Indian grass and big bluestem. The prairies, untouched by flame, seemed out of kilter all summer. Alien.

This spring, prairie willows flowered. For the first time in remembrance on one prairie where I volunteer, prairie roses put on second year growth. Now, in November, the willows are thick and tall. Bright rose hips are sprinkled through the brittle grasses.

Although I’m not working on the fire crews this season, I feel a rush of adrenaline when I see the tell-tale towers of smoke in the distance. They tell me life is back on track again. That there is some semblance of normality. Welcome back, prescribed fire.

Out with the old, in with the new. Sweep away this year. Let’s start over.

Fire can be a destructive force. But these fires are healing.

They bring the promise of rejuvenation. I know next spring and summer, the prairies, savannas, and woodlands will brim with color. Motion. New life.

As I hike the trails and drive through areas being burned, I watch the flames lick the ground clean of the remains of 2020. Hikers stop and gawk. Through the haze, cars move slowly. Driver’s rubberneck. A yellow-slickered volunteer talks to two walkers, waving her hands as she explains why they are torching the woodlands.

It’s a seeming grand finale for the plants on the woodland floor. But under the ashed soil, the roots of wildflowers and grasses wait for their encore. Spring.

Change is on the way.

*****

Last week, as Jeff and I hiked the prairie trails, we saw them. Woolly bear caterpillars! These forerunners of the Isabella tiger moths were a delightful appearance in the midst of a chaotic week; a sign that the regular rhythm of the seasons was in play. Their appearance was calming. I knew these woolly bears—or “woolly worms” as some southerners call them—were looking for an overwintering spot.The woolly bear’s stripes, according to folklore, predict the coming winter weather.

The small cinnamon stripe I saw on this one points to a severe winter. Hmmm.

Last autumn, the woolly bears I found had a larger cinnamon stripe than this season, indicating a mild winter. I riffled through the old digital records on Google and discovered that in 2019-2020, we had the fourth-warmest December through February period on record.

Way to predict the weather, woolly bear! Although science doesn’t put a lot of stock in these caterpillar forecasts, it’s a fun idea. It will be interesting to see how the 2020-2021 winter season shakes out, stripe-wise.

We like to know what’s coming. We want to know the future. Yet the past eight months, we’ve learned to live with ambiguity. Each day has brought its particular uncertainty—perhaps more than many of us have ever had—in one big gulp.

Life is full of ambiguity, even in the best of times. This year—when even simple rituals like meeting a friend for a morning at the coffee shop have been upended—it’s been draining. Fear and anxiety are constant companions for many of us. Some have lost loved ones. Others have grappled with an illness our medical professionals are still trying to get a handle on. And yes, even the comforting work we do on prairies and natural areas came to a stop for a while.

I’m grateful for the woolly bears, and the normal rhythm of life they represent. I’m also grateful for the fires I see, although for the 100-acre Schulenberg Prairie—like many other prairies—the prescribed burn will be set in the spring. But the mowed firebreaks are a foreshadowing of what’s to come.

New beginnings are ahead.

I feel my spirits lift, thinking about a fresh start. A new season.

I’m ready. Let’s go!

*****

The opening quote is from Gilda Radner (1946-1989) an original cast member of the comedy show “Saturday Night Live.” One of her best-quoted lines, “It’s always something.” She died from ovarian cancer.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby and are taken at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, unless otherwise indicated (top to bottom): smoke plume from prescribed burn, East Woods; video of prescribed burn, East Woods; tree on fire, East Woods; smoke in the East woods; ashes after prescribed burn, East Woods; Schulenberg Prairie prescribed burn (2013); Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie; New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Schulenberg Prairie; rose hips (Rosa carolina), Schulenberg Prairie; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Schulenberg Prairie; burned over prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) on the Schulenberg Prairie parking lot strip; Schulenberg Prairie Savanna in summer; prescribed burn in the East Woods; woolly bear (Pyrrharctia isabella), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; woolly bear (Pyrrharctia isabella) on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Schulenberg Prairie (2019); prescribed burn sign; mowed firebreak on the Schulenberg Prairie; bridge at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; possibly a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), West Side prairie planting.

*****

Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization–now booking talks for 2021. Email Cindy through http://www.cindycrosby.com.

Register for Cindy’s Literary Gardens Online: Friday, Dec.4, 1-2:30 p.m.CST– Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby from wherever you live in the world for a fun look at great (and not-so-great) gardens in literature and poetry. From Agatha Christie’s mystery series, to Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Goudge, Rumer Godden, May Sarton, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Gilbert, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, and Lewis Carroll–and many more! This class is online. Register here through The Morton Arboretum.

Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org, direct from Northwestern University Press (use coupon code NUP2020 for 25% off), or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during these unusual times.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (phrelanzer). Or visit her website at http://www.cindycrosby.com. See you there!

Little Prairie in the City

“Wherever we look, from the dirt under our feet to the edge of the expanding cosmos, and on every scale from atoms to galaxies, the universe appears to be saturated with beauty.”–Scott Russell Sanders

********

We went looking for beauty. We found it in the northwest corner of Illinois, on a day both foggy and cold.

The 66-acre Searls Park Prairie and wetland is tucked into a mosaic of soccer fields, jogging trails, picnic grounds, and a BMX bike track. Once part of a 230-acre family farm homesteaded in the 1850’s, today the prairie is a designated Illinois Nature Preserve and part of the Rockford Park District.

Fog drizzles the tallgrass with droplets, but no light sparkles. Staghorn sumac lifts its scarlet torches in the gloom, bright spots of color on this gray, gray day.

This remnant is mostly mesic prairie; or what I call the “Goldilocks” type of prairie—-not too wet, not too dry. Well-drained. Just right. Black soil prairie was once coveted by farmers as a fertile place for crops—farmers like the Searls, no doubt. For that reason, most black soil prairies have vanished in Illinois.

It’s quiet. Even the recreational areas are empty in the uncomfortably damp late afternoon. No soccer games. No picnics. The BMX bike track is closed.

The prairie seems other-worldly in the silence.

Prairies like this, tucked into cities, are important sanctuaries. Searls Park Prairie is known for hosting three state-listed threatened or endangered plant species. I don’t see any of the rare or endangered plants on my hike today. But I do see Indian grass….lots and lots of Indian grass.

Its bright bleached blades are etched sharply against the misty horizon. The colors of the drenched prairie are so strong, they seem over-exposed.

Thimbleweed, softly blurred in the fog, mingles with…

…round-headed bush clover, silvery in the late afternoon.

Canada wild rye is sprinkled with sparks.

Gray

Inhale. Ahhhh. Gray-headed coneflower seedheads are soggy with rainwater, but still smell of lemons when you crush them.

I pinch the hoary leaves of bee balm. Thymol, its essential oil, is still present. But the fragrance is fading.

Mountain mint has lost most of its scent, but still charms me with its dark, silvery seedheads.

Stiff goldenrod transitions from bloom to seed, not quite ready to let go of the season.

Overhead, a flock of tiny birds flies over, impossible to identify. There are rare birds here, although I don’t see any today. On our way to the prairie, we marveled at non-native starlings in the cornfields along the interstate, moving in synchronized flight. I’ve never been able to get this on video, but there are great examples of this flight found here. I’ve only seen this phenomenon in the autumn; one of the marvels of the dying year. Once seen, never forgotten.

On the edge of the prairie, wild plums spangle the gloom.

Such color! Such abundance.

I’ve read there is high-quality wet prairie here, full of prairie cordgrass, blue joint grass, and tussock sedge. We look for this wetter area as we hike, but the path we’re on eventually disappears.

No matter. So much prairie in Illinois is gone. So little original prairie is left. I’m grateful to Emily Searls for deeding her family’s farm to the city of Rockford almost 80 years ago, ensuring this prairie is preserved today.

So much beauty. We hardly know where to look next.

The sun burns briefly through the fog like a white-hot dime.

Dusk is on the way, a little early. We make our way back to the car, just ahead of the dark.

There are many different ways to think of beauty.

It’s always available for free on the prairie, in all its infinite variations.

Why not go see?

********

The opening quote is from Scott Russell Sanders’ (1945-) The Way of Imagination. Sanders is professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN, where Jeff and I lived for a dozen or so years. After writing the opening quote, he follows it with “What are we to make of this?” and later “How then should we live, in a world overflowing with such bounty? Rejoice in it, care for it, and strive to add our own mite of beauty, with whatever power and talent we possess.” Oh, yes.

All photos from Searls Park Prairie, Rockford, IL (top to bottom): fog over the Searls Park Prairie; Illinois nature preserve sign; staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); white vervain (Verbena urticifolia); dedication plaque; foggy landscape; indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica); round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata); canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum); fog on the prairie; stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum); indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and wild plum (Prunus americanus); wild plum (Prunus americanus); autumn colors; Jeff on the Searls Park Prairie; sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus) in the mist; foggy day on the Searls Park Prairie; prairie landscape in the fog; unknown umbel.

*****

Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization–now booking talks for 2021. Email Cindy through http://www.cindycrosby.com.

Literary Gardens Online: Friday, Dec.4, 1-2:30 p.m.CST– Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby from wherever you live in the world for a fun look at great (and not-so-great) gardens in literature and poetry. From Agatha Christie’s mystery series, to Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Goudge, Rumer Godden, May Sarton, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Gilbert, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, and Lewis Carroll–and many more! This class is online. Register here through The Morton Arboretum.

Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.

Chasing Dragonflies Final Cover 620.jpg

Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org, direct from Northwestern University Press (use coupon code NUP2020 for 25% off), or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during these unusual times.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (phrelanzer). Or visit her website at http://www.cindycrosby.com. See you there!