Tag Archives: indian grass

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!

Rainy Day on the Prairie

“I feel like it’s rainin’ all over the world.”–Tony Joe White

*****

For the first time since spring, my fingers are stiff and cold as I hike the Belmont Prairie.

Jeff and I have this 10-acre remnant in Downers Grove, IL, all to ourselves this evening. No wonder. Rain falls in a steady drizzle. It’s 40 degrees. Who in the world would hike a prairie in this weather?

It’s worth the discomfort. With the first freeze last week, the prairie traded in its growing season hues for autumn’s deeper mochas, golds, and wine-reds. In the splattering rain, the colors intensify.

Sawtooth sunflowers, dark with wet, stand stark sentinel against gray skies. I inhale the prairie’s fragrance. A tang of moist earth; a tease of decaying leaves and grasses.

Most wildflowers have crumpled like paper bags in the chill.

But when I look closely, a few smooth blue asters still pump out color.

Panicled asters are bright white in the fast-fading light.

Wild asparagus writhes and waves, neon in the dusk.

Goldenrod galls, once brown, are now gently rosed by frost.

Goldenrod blooms are here, too, a few shining yellow wands scattered across the tallgrass.

Most wildflowers have swapped color and juice for the stiffness and starch of structure; the wisps and clouds of seeds.

These seeds promise new life next year; hard-won redemption from the summer of 2020.

Every year is precious. But I’m not sorry to see this year go.

The dripping prairie glows.

Thistle, drenched and matted, plays with the contrast of soft and sharp.

Evening primroses drip diamonds.

Sumac is luminous, splashed with crystal raindrops.

Tall coreopsis runs with water.

Let the rain set the evening alight.

And every plant glitter.

Let the prairie sing its farewell song to warm weather as it greets the dark.

A train sounds its horn in the distance. There is a rumble of metal on rails as the sun drops behind the horizon. Jeff and I head back to the parking lot. As I walk, I think of the winter to come.

The months ahead will bring their own loveliness, reluctantly embraced.

For now, it’s time to say goodbye to what was.

Then, to welcome, with anticipation and courage…

…whatever lies ahead.

*****

Tony Joe White wrote the lyrics to “Rainy Night in Georgia” which open this post. It was sung and popularized by Brook Benton (1970). A great song for a gray day—listen to it here. Bonus points if you can name White’s other hit, which he wrote and performed himself. (Check your answer here).

All photos this week taken at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL (top to bottom): Belmont Prairie trail; indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); stream through the prairie; sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus); unknown plant dead in the freeze; smooth blue asters (Symphyotrichum laeve); panicled aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum); wild asparagus (Asparagus officinalis); goldenrod gall; tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima); canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis); tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum) ; indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); possibly tall thistle ( Cirsium altissimum), evening primrose (Oenothera biennis), staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris) ; sunset on the prairie; indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) in the rain; fall colors in the tallgrass; compass plants (Silphium lacinatum) in the rain; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus) at sunset; fall color on a rainy day prairie trail.

******

Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization. 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 enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction. 

A Prairie with Class

“Before we can imagine saving the landscape we must be able to form it realistically in our imaginations as something that we love.” — Joel Sheesley

*******

Cool nights. Steady rain. A first frost forecast. The September tallgrass is singing its swan song, and I want to listen to every last note.

The prairie is in full autumnal splendor this week, as temperatures drop. Jeff and I are at the campus of the “second largest provider of undergraduate education” in Illinois, but we’re not here to take a class. Rather, we’re hiking the trails of College of DuPage’s beautiful prairies and natural areas in Glen Ellyn, not far from where we live.

Normally, the campus is abuzz with students rushing to their next academic or social commitment. But this year, most on-campus classes are temporarily online. The library, theater, and restaurant are closed.

The only “buzz” comes from the bees, checking out the prairie’s wildflowers. And they’re not the only ones.

Skippers jostle for position on the New England asters.

A false milkweed bug checks out a panicled aster. Looks similar to the “true” large milkweed bug, doesn’t it? But, I discover as I identify it with iNaturalist on my cell phone, the false milkweed bug feeds on members of the aster family.

Along the edges of the prairie are four acres of woodland with a few osage orange trees scattered alongside the trails. That bizarre fruit! I’ve heard it called “hedge apples,” but it’s nothing you’d want to dip in caramel or make a pie with.

The wood of the osage orange is a favorite for fence posts and archery bows. The grapefruit sized balls are strangely brain-like in appearance (another nickname: “monkey brains.” )

I’d hate to have one of these drop on my head. Ouch!

The 15 acres of the East Prairie Ecological Study Area, established by College of DuPage visionary Russell Kirt (author of Prairie Plants of the Midwest), includes the aforementioned four acres of woodland, three acres of marsh, with plenty of cattails…..

…and eight acres of reconstructed tallgrass prairie, which according to College of DuPage’s website, were planted between 1975-1997.

Across campus is the Russell R. Kirt Prairie, an 18-acre natural area with marsh, a retention pond, and 11 reconstructed prairie and savanna acres planted between 1984 and 2000. For many years, that was “the prairie” I came to hike at COD. I’m still learning this place—the East Prairie—which Jeff and I found this spring during the first weeks of quarantine. It’s been a bright spot in a chaotic, unsettling time.

Now, Jeff and I make the East Prairie a regular part of our hiking trips. I love exploring its wildflowers in the fall with their unusual seedpods, like the Illinois bundleflower.

Illinois bundleflower is an overly-enthusiastic native on the Schulenberg Prairie, where I’m a steward. We’ve picked its seed defensively in some years, to keep it from spreading. Here it appears in reasonable amounts. We’ve shared seed from the Schulenberg with COD, so it is possible these are descendants from those very plants. I hope it behaves in the coming years!

In contrast, I wish we had more of the white wild indigo seed pods this season. I see a few here at COD’s prairie. White wild indigo is subject to weevils, which eat the seeds, and sometimes make seed saving a difficult chore. These look good!

As I wander this prairie path, my thoughts move away from the plants at hand. I wonder what the winter will bring. Last autumn, the events of the past seven months would have seemed inconceivable.

Sometimes, I wonder if I’ve imagined it all.

Surely we’ll wake up, shake ourselves and laugh. You won’t believe what I dreamed last night.

Most weeks, I try to be intentional about how I spend my time. I want to look back on this chaotic year and know I didn’t just mark off days.

That I chose to make good memories.

Hiking the prairie is part of this. Time to be quiet, and away from the news. Time to soak up the beauty around me.

Room to listen. Time to reflect on where I’ve been, and where I want to go.

Memories in the making.

Time well spent.

*****

The opening quote is from Joel Sheesley’s beautiful book, A Fox River Testimony. Visit Joel’s website to learn more about his art, writing, and inspiration.

******

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby, East Prairie Ecological Study Area at College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL (top to bottom): the prairie in autumn; prairie path in autumn; prairie at COD in September; two skippers, possibly tawny-edged (Polites themistocles) on new england asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae); panicled aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum) with false milkweed bug (Lygaeus turcicus); osage orange (Maclura pomifera); osage orange (Maclura pomifera); cattails (probably Typha glauca); indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); Indian hemp (sometimes called dogbane) (Apocynum cannabinum); illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis); white wild indigo (Baptisia lactea or alba var. macrophylla); beaver-chewed trees; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum); new england aster (Symphotrichum novae-angliae) with flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata); staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); mixed wetland plants at the edge of the marsh; panicled aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum) with Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius); mixed plants at the edge of the prairie; prairie path; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) and culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum) with mixed prairie grasses and forbs.

Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization this autumn! Now booking talks for 2021.

“Nature Writing Online” begins Monday, October 5, through The Morton Arboretum. Last days to register! Want to commit to improving and fine-tuning your writing for six weeks? This is a great opportunity to jump start your blog, your book, or your journal writing while working online from home, supplemented with three evenings of live evening Zoom classes on alternate weeks. Class size is limited; register here.

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 Morton 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 enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction. 

September Arrives on the Prairie

The three great elemental sounds in nature are the sound of rain, the sound of wind in a primeval wood, and the sound of outer ocean on a beach.” –Henry Beston

*****

Crackle. Pop. Crunch. The once-tender prairie wildflowers and grasses snap under the weight of my boots. The wind rustles the dry big bluestem and switchgrass. Dust puffs up behind me.

Today is the first day of meteorological autumn. The prairie is hard as concrete, desperate for water.

Since the Durecho on August 10, not a drop has fallen in Glen Ellyn. Twenty-one days without precipitation. I miss the sound of rain. I miss the way the garden lifts its leaves and perks up after a shower. I long for the slam-ka-BAM of thunder, the drumming of raindrops on the roof. Flicker-flashes of lightning that illuminate the world. And the clean, earthy smell of the prairie after a storm.

I think of the early settlers and the Dust Bowl. How did they feel as the harsh winds blew their lives to ruin? It’s only been three weeks without rain, and I’m on edge. Brittle. Testy.

In the evenings, I water my backyard prairie patch and garden, but the green bean leaves turn yellow anyway. Zucchini leaves dry up. Tomatoes hang green on the vine and fail to ripen. Cardinal flowers close up shop as the cup plants crumb and brown.

Wildflowers wilt.

We need rain.

I walk my dragonfly monitoring routes on the prairies, astonished. Where are the Odes? Has the lack of water affected them? Perhaps. A few migrants —a trio of black saddlebag dragonflies, a cluster of common green darners circling overhead, the glint of a wandering glider—are all I see on an hour-long outing. Where before there was a richness of species and numbers, the dragonflies have dwindled to these few. Damselflies? Not a single one.

And it’s no wonder. Willoway Brook’s tributaries—usually aflutter with ebony jewelwing damselflies and blue-fronted dancers—are dry and choked with brush.

Ordinarily, we complain about rain: that despoiler of picnics, outdoor weddings, kayak outings, and camping trips. And yet. How we long for it when it doesn’t show up.

A lone common buckeye butterfly surprises me on the path. It fruitlessly loops from clover to clover, seeking nectar. The red clover blooms are withered and brown and it comes up empty.

On the parched prairie, the grasses and wildflowers continue on. Tall coreopsis is vibrant despite the lack of precipitation.

Cream gentians still look fresh and supple.

Carrion flower, with its alienesque seeds, is show-stopping.

Big bluestem and Indian grass, look brittle and bruised.

Stiff goldenrod pours out its blooms, irregardless of drought, attracting a goldenrod soldier beetle (sometimes called leatherwings). Butterflies love it. Monarchs depend on this relatively well-behaved goldenrod and other fall wildflowers to fuel up for their long journey south. Planted in backyards and prairies, goldenrod helps ensure survival of this beloved butterfly.

As a child, I remember bringing an older relative goldenrod in a kid-picked bouquet. Alarmed, she thanked me for the flowers, but removed the goldenrod—because she said it gave her allergies. Today, we know this is a myth. It’s the ragweeds (both common and giant ragweed —-also native) that bloom about this time of year that wreak havoc with allergy suffers. We can enjoy goldenrod without fear.

Tall boneset announces autumn as it opens in clouds on the edges of the prairie, mingling with goldenrod and competing for a seat in the savanna.

Nearby, wingstem in full bloom attracts its share of pollinators, including this non-native honeybee and native bumblebee.

There’s been a lot of discussion among prairie stewards about competition between native and non-native bees. Should we have beehives on our prairie restorations? Or not? Read this excellent post by Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie’s Bill Glass here. We’re always learning new things about prairie stewardship; always adjusting our management strategies and expectations as we grapple with new information and its implications for a healthy prairie. It’s important to keep an open mind. Not to get mired in doing things “the way we’ve always done them.” To keep reading and learning from others who have experiences we can benefit from. I mull over information on managing for native bees as I walk.

As I finish my hike on the prairie, thinking about prairie management issues, I try to be patient. Rain will come. The prairie will survive. Soon, my longing for rain will be only a memory. In the meantime, I cultivate patience.

The road ahead is uncertain.

Staying flexible. Keeping an open mind. Adapting. Listening to experts. Acting on the science as it unfolds. Practicing patience.

Good advice for prairie stewardship—and for life in general in September.

*******

Henry Beston (1888-1968) was a writer and naturalist, best known for The Outermost House. I particularly love the chapter “Orion Rises On the Dunes.” Check it out here.

****

All photos taken at the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, and copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): the prairie in August; new england aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae); canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum); common green darner dragonfly (Ajax junius); Willoway Brook; wild lettuce or prickly lettuce (Lactuca serriola); common buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); cream gentian (Gentiana alba); carrion flower (probably Smilax ecirrhata); indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigida) with goldenrod soldier beetle (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus) and unknown beetle; tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima); tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum); wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) with a honeybee (Apis sp.) and bumblebee (Bombus sp.); Illinois tick trefoil (Desmodium illinoense) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) with unidentified insects; path through the Schulenberg Prairie; smooth aster (Symphyotrichum laeve).

******

Join Cindy for an Online Class this Autumn! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for details.

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” Begin a new session this Thursday, September 2 through The Morton Arboretum! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional Zoom session. Classes are limited to 50. Register here.

“Nature Writing Online” Begins Monday, October 5, through The Morton Arboretum. Want to commit to improving and fine-tuning your writing for six weeks? This is a great opportunity to jump start your blog, your book, or your journal writing while working online from home, supplemented with three evenings of live evening Zoom classes on alternate weeks. Class size is limited; register here.

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

Chasing Dragonflies Final Cover 620.jpg

Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton 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 this chaotic time.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction. 

A Little Prairie Solace

“Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile, the world goes on…” — Mary Oliver

******

Jeff and I began the hopeful work of garden prep on Sunday. We added a new raised bed and filled it with compost and top soil; then knocked down some old zinnia and tomato stalks in an older raised bed and carted them away.  I spaded and forked in a dollop of compost here, breaking up a dirt clod over there. And then — look! A few sprouting onion sets, missed from the year before. Something alive and growing! So welcome.

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In the herb garden, the chives were up. My Egyptian walking onions were vital enough to cut some of the tops and use them in an omelet. The first greens of the year. In the backyard prairie patch, the signs of life were less evident. But I know it’s only a few days  until the life-force of new plants push through the ground. Spring.

As I raked topsoil, we heard a racket overhead. Waves and waves of sandhill cranes.

The cranes, as it turned out, were flying just ahead of a snowstorm that has since blanketed the Chicago region. By bedtime Sunday, the garden we had readied was covered with white. The pond and the prairie patch as well. We woke Monday morning to a completely different backyard that the one we’d gardened in the day before.

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Everything looked softer somehow, the harsh edges of unraked leaves and prairie grass stalks in the backyard blunted by snow. The activity and bag-lugging and digging the day before was over now for a while.

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I scanned the pewter sky. So silent. The cranes were somewhere north now, ahead of the weather.

*****

On Saturday, the Illinois shelter-in-place order was announced. Feeling unsettled by events, Jeff and I went to the Belmont Prairie for a short hike.

The prairie was empty.

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The sandhill cranes flew over as we hiked. It was reassuring, somehow—certainty in the midst of uncertainty. The cranes migration is a rhythm of spring, as dependable as the sun rising in the morning. Knowing that cranes of some species have been around for at least 10 million years is a comfort. Their lives go on.

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The creek flowed through the prairie, winding its way through this remnant as it likely has since time before human memory. Western chorus frogs sang from the wet areas. Creeeeek! Creeeek!

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A train whistled in the distance. High—oh so high in the sky—a plane  from O’Hare took off for parts unknown, and I thought of my niece, returning that same day from Australia after a study abroad cut short. How glad I was to know she was on her way home! I wondered—how much longer will planes continue to fly?  Will travel cease, as it did after 9/11? Unimaginable, only a month ago, that we would ponder these questions today.

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But life is full of the “unimaginable” right now. I thought of the stories I was hearing from friends; fears for health, for job security, for older family members far away.

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Jeff and I walked, and walked, and walked. In the creek, the new growth of cursed crowfoot spreads across the surface of the water.

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Deer tracks sliced through the grasses and wildflowers and mud…

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….showing where they had made their way through the prairie to drink here. I stepped across the footbridge and peered closer.

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Iris speared through the stream. That vivid green! The prairie was coming alive.

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I turned from the footbridge and made my way along the path. Would the Belmont Prairie stewards be able to burn this remnant prairie this season? How, when groups of people can no longer gather? Disruption. When will life return to “normal?”

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My stewardship work on both prairies where i volunteer is on hold. As it should be.

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All the hustle and bustle of tasks I once deemed imperative have taken a back seat to staying healthy.

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Keeping others healthy.

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And yet. In this midst of knowing so many of the ordinary tasks I take for granted would cease, it felt like a relief to do something—even if “doing something” essentially meant doing nothing. Or at least, less of what I was accustomed to.

****

In our new work-from-home rhythm, Jeff and I went for a walk Monday morning, admiring the transformation of our suburban street. A few houses down, the  neighborhood children—sequestered at home, with schools closed—had made a snowman.Snowman 32320WM

By Monday afternoon, the snow had all but melted. In the wetlands at the Arboretum, the skunk cabbage was in bloom. People were out walking in the neighborhood, desperate perhaps for some fresh air.

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My backyard pond, covered with the white stuff just six hours before, was snow-free by 4 p.m.

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This new rhythm of our days—the rhythm of sticking close to home—has its rewards. The backyard in close proximity has taken on new significance.  I refill the bird feeders, and marvel at the common but welcome birds that visit. Laugh at a fat robin that attacks the suet, or the herd of mourning doves that peck at the safflower seed. The squirrels even get a pass this week as they scale the feeders—a Herculean task, due to squirrel baffles and other deterrents. Their ability to make me laugh is worth a few pounds of birdseed. The snow this weekend brought out the first truly “gold” goldfinches, which showed up at the thistle feeder in full mating plumage. A change of color. Another signpost of spring.

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After our morning walk on Monday, Jeff and I worked from home until supper time. Then, we went for another walk to end the day. We’ve both found that a 30-minute hike helps alleviate the stress that can accumulate when the news of the day feels like…well…too much. These walks are bookends to the day that are helping us establish new rituals of “normalcy.”

Indiangrass32120BelmontPrairieWM.jpgAround and around and around the block we walked, oohing and aahing over simple things. The sound of a cardinal singing. Lichens patterning a a tree branch in olive green. We even saw an owl.

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What will the next few days bring? We don’t know.  Every day is a new challenge in focus. We choose what we can control: Kindness. Patience. Attentiveness.

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Letting go of what we can’t control.

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As we walked around the block, we noticed that the snowman, made that morning by the kids down the block a few hours earlier, was now only a memory.

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But above that slushy mess, the flowering silver maples along the street signaled the hope of spring. Of a new season.

 

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Each day is a new challenge.

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Meanwhile, the natural world goes on.

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We can still choose to pay attention.

*****

The opening quote is from the poem, Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver. This particular poem has been so widespread and oft-quoted that people tend to dismiss it. It remains one of my favorites. Haven’t read it? Check it out here. You’ll be glad you did. Stay well, my friends.

****

All photos and video taken at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL;  unless otherwise indicated (top to bottom): garden bed, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis); author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn,IL; garden beds, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; trail through Belmont Prairie; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis); creek through Belmont Prairie; Indian hemp/dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum); round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata) (infected with a virus); cursed crowfoot (Ranunculus sceleratus–thank you Andrew Hipp, for the correction!); thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica); footbridge over the creek; iris (unknown species); compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium); pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida); queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota); snowman, author’s neighborhood, Glen Ellyn, IL; skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus); The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; pair of goldfinch (Spinus tristis) previously taken in April 2019, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans);  owl, species uncertain, author’s neighborhood, Glen Ellyn, IL;  little girl checks out the natural world; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium); snowman, author’s neighborhood, Glen Ellyn, IL; silver maple (Acer saccharinum), author’s neighborhood, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); Belmont Prairie trail.

***

Cindy’s classes have moved online! For current updates on classes and events, please go to http://www.cindycrosby.com.

*****

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 Amazon.com for delivery in April.).  I’m grateful for your support in this difficult time for prairie, books, small publishers, and freelance writers like myself.

The Prairie Whispers “Spring”

“…this spring morning with its cloud of light, that wakes the blackbird in the trees downhill…”—W.S. Merwin

******

On March 1, Jeff and I celebrated the first day of meteorological spring by hiking the 1,829-acre Springbrook Prairie in Naperville, IL.  March came in like a lamb.

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From its unlikely spot smack in the middle of subdivisions and busy shopping centers, Springbrook Prairie serves as an oasis for wildlife and native plants. As part of the Illinois Nature Preserves and DuPage Forest Preserve system…

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… it is (according to the forest preserve’s website) “a regionally significant grassland for breeding and overwintering birds and home to meadowlarks, dickcissels, grasshopper sparrows, woodcocks and bobolinks as well as state-endangered northern harriers, short-eared owls, and Henslow’s sparrows.” Some of these birds stick around during the winter; others will swing into the area in a month or two with the northward migration.

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That’s quite a list of birds.  Shielding our eyes against the sun, we see something unexpected.

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A bald eagle! From its “grave troubles” in the 1970s (as the Illinois Natural History Survey tells us), it is estimated that 30-40 breeding pairs of bald eagles now nest in Illinois each year. We watch it soar, buffeted by the winds, until it is out of sight. As we marvel over this epiphany, we hear the sound of a different bird. Oka-lee! Oka-lee!

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We first heard them a week ago as we hiked the Belmont Prairie. Their song is a harbinger of spring.  Soon, they’ll be lost in a chorus of spring birdsong, but for now, they take center stage.

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A few Canada geese appear overhead. Two mallards complete our informal bird count. Not bad for the first day of March.

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The scent of mud and thaw tickles my nose;  underwritten with a vague hint of chlorophyll.

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Strong breezes bend the grasses.

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The temperature climbs as we hike—soon, it’s almost 60 degrees. Sixty degrees! I unwind my scarf, unzip my coat.

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Joggers plod methodically along the trail, eyes forward, earbuds in place. They leave deep prints on the thawing crushed limestone trail. Bicyclists whiz through, the only evidence minutes later are the lines grooved into the path.

Our pace, by comparison, is slow. We’re here to look.

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Bright light floods the grasslands. Mornings now, I wake to this sunlight which pours through the blinds and jump-starts my day. In less than a week—March 8—we’ll change to daylight savings time and seem to “lose” some of these sunlight gains. Getting started in the morning will be a more difficult chore. But for now, I lean into the light.

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What a difference sunshine and warmth make!

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Families are out in groups, laughing and joking. Everyone seems energized by the blue skies.prairieskiesspringbrookprairie3120WM.jpg

Grasslands are on the brink of disappearance. To save them, we have to set them aflame. Ironic, isn’t it?  To “destroy” what we want to preserve? But fire is life to prairies. Soon these grasses and ghosts of wildflowers past will turn to ashes in the prescribed burns.

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Mowed boundaries—firebreaks—for the prescribed burns are in place…

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…a foreshadowing of what is to come. We’ve turned a corner. Soon. Very soon.

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The prairie world has been half-dreaming…

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…almost sleeping.

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It’s time to wake up.

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All the signs are in place. The slant of light. Warmth. Birdsong. The scent of green.

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Spring.

*****

The opening quote is part of a poem “Variations to the Accompaniment of a Cloud” from Garden Time by W.S. Merwin (1927-2019). My favorite of his poems is “After the Dragonflies” from the same volume. Merwin grew up in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and was the son of a Presbyterian minister; he later became a practicing Buddhist and moved to Hawaii. As a child, he wrote hymns. He was our U.S. Poet Laureate twice, and won almost all the major awards given for poetry. I appreciate Merwin for his deep explorations of the natural world and his call to conservation.

*****

All photos this week copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Springbrook Prairie, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County/Illinois Nature Preserves, Naperville, IL (top to bottom):  March on Springbrook Prairie; sign; prairie skies (can you see the “snowy egret” in the cloud formation?); bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus); red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus); possibly a red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) nest (corrections welcome); mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccafolium); switchgrass (Panicum virgatum); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); hiker; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); prairie skies; dogbane or Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum); mowed firebreak; curve in the trail; snowmelt; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); grasses and water. “Lean into the light” is a phrase borrowed from Barry Lopez —one of my favorites —from “Arctic Dreams.”

******

Join Cindy for a Class or Talk in March

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL. For details and registration, click here. Sold out. Call to be put on the waiting list.

The Tallgrass Prairie: A ConversationMarch 12  Thursday, 10am-12noon, Leafing Through the Pages Book Club, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Open to the public; however, all regular Arboretum admission fees apply.  Books available at The Arboretum Store.

Dragonfly Workshop, March 14  Saturday, 9-11:30 a.m.  Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. Free and open to new and experienced dragonfly monitors, prairie stewards, and the public, but you must register as space is limited. Contact phrelanzer@aol.com for more information,  details will be sent with registration.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26 through the Morton Arboretum.  Details and registration here.

See more at http://www.cindycrosby.com   

5 Reasons to Hike the February Prairie

“…Some say that February’s name comes from an ancient and forgotten word meaning “a time that tries the patience.” — Hal Borland

*******

February is the shortest month of the year. But it may seem like the longest.

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Big, wet snowflakes fall outside. I welcome the snow—-it brightens up the seemingly endless gray skies that feature so prominently this month. Snow helps lift my mood. Hiking the prairie? Even more so.

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Let’s take a stroll on the prairie…

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…and find five good reasons to walk it in February.

1. Experience Weather Swings

Indecisive February!

Trail through COD PRairie 2920WMWM.jpg

The weather shivers between rain, sleet, sunshine and snow. To hike the prairie this month is to experience shifts of temperature in real time. Feel the freezing sleet on your face. Admire the snowflakes that collect on your sleeve. Crystals play on a hundred thousand seedpods, as precipitation pelts the prairie plants.

Milkweed in the Sleet COD PrairieWM 2920.jpg

I love to discover transitions on the prairie as the temperatures plunge and rise.

Pond on the Russell Kirt Prairie COD 2920.JPG

There’s the tension between freeze and thaw; sunshine and leaden skies; the snap of ice under our boots and the suck of mud. February is all about our impatience for the last month of meteorological winter to finish and the first month of meteorological spring to arrive in Illinois. Hurry up! Our minds are already turning to spring. But what a loss it would be, if we failed to enjoy what February has to offer.

2. Signs of the Unseen

I rarely glimpse the meadow voles, prairie voles, or white-footed mice during the warmer months in the tallgrass. Although once in a while I’m surprised, as Jeff and I were this spring when we reached into a prairie trail map box and found these tenants.

SurpriseMiceTwoWolfRoadPrairieWM102019

In winter, these mostly-invisible members of the tallgrass community are betrayed by their tracks and tunnels. I think about them as I follow their progress across the prairie.  The collapsed snow tunnels. An occasional escape hole. And my favorite—the sewing machine “stitches” —-tiny tracks evenly spaced—that criss-cross the trails.

Mouse trail COD Prairie 2920WM.jpg

As we hike, Jeff and I leave our tracks alongside their prints—and the tracks of geese, coyotes, deer, and other members of the prairie community. I like that. It reminds me that we’re all a part of this place.

ridgelineCODPrairie2920WM.jpg

3.  Plant Silhouettes

The same gray skies that plunge some of us into seasonal affective disorder throw prairie plants into sharp relief this month. It’s a new perspective. Indian hemp pods swing in bundles, bereft of any seeds.

DogbaneIndianHempCODprairie2920WM.jpg

I’m more aware of the ribbon-like curves of big bluestem leaves, shorn now of  their turkey-footed seadheads.

Big bluestem COD Prairei 2920WM.jpg

I enjoy the rhythmic sway of Indian grass, pushed by periodic blasts of Arctic wind.

IndianGrass CODPrairie2920WM

Prairie cinquefoil takes on a ghostly aspect, blurred in the falling sleet.  Its silhouette makes me think of tulips. Of the bulbs beginning to spear through the garden in my backyard. Of spring.

Cinquefoil2 COD PRairie 2920WM.jpg

These grasses and wildflowers won’t be here long.

Fire is coming.

Little Bluestem Use this oneWM COD 2920

4. Unexpected Gatherings

When I think “grassland birds,” mourning doves aren’t exactly what comes to mind. But hiking the College of DuPage’s Russell Kirt Prairie this weekend, that’s what turned up. Notice how this mob has fluffed out their feathers against the cold—like down vests, puffy and tinged with color. It reminds me of the down vests I wore in the 1970s.

COD Tree full of pigeons 2920WM.jpg

Why did they choose this tree on the prairie, and not another? What are they murmuring about? I wonder. After a bit of looking around on birding websites, I discover a group of doves is called a “dole” or “dule,” and sometimes, a “cote, a “bevy,” and even, a “flight.” Flight? Maybe not. These birds look like they’ve settled in for the long haul.

Mourning Doves COD2920WMWM.jpg

Seeing them in the tree reminds me of one of my favorite scenes from the original 1967 Disney adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book.” Remember the four vultures, loosely modeled on the Beatles, talking to each other in a tree? “What do you wanna do?” one asks. “I dunno, what do you want to do?” And so it goes. I can imagine these mourning doves asking each other the same question, over and over. Makes me smile.

5. Snow Magic

Hike the prairie in February, and you’ll be aware of contrasts. Snow is the mitigator. A light dusting of snow makes everything softer, brighter, more appealing. Snowmelt softens the crisp edges of senescing plants, like this prairie dock leaf.

COD Prairie Dock 2920WM.jpg

Cup plants, cracked and brittle…

COD Prairie CupplantsTALLWM 2920.jpg

…become a foil for the crystal flakes, their veins and wrinkles more obvious now than in the summer. This leaf looks like footed pajamas hung on a laundry line, doesn’t it?

Cup Plant COD Prairie 2920WM.jpg

A sprinkling of snow makes February’s gray skies seem a little brighter.

GoldenrodandBeeBalmMonardaWM2920 COD.jpg

A little snow makes the month of February a little more do-able. More digestible. Beautiful. Why not go for a hike and see for yourself?

COD Trail in the Snow 2920WM.jpg

February will be over before you know it.  The prairie is waiting.

*****

This winter, I’ve been enjoying the writing of Hal Borland (1900-1978), whose quote from A Sundial of the Seasons, 365 days of natural history observations, opens this post.  It was tough to find his books—all out of print, I believe— so I’m once again grateful to the marvelous Sterling Morton Library of the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL,  which carefully curates vanishing works of literature like Borland’s. Thanks to Mary Joan for introducing me to to his work. The original opening quote is prefaced by the caveat, “There’s no evidence to support it in the dictionaries, but some say… .” Ha!  If the actual etymology of the word “February” isn’t true, the supposed meaning certainly is.

*****

All photos this week are taken at College of DuPage’s Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL, except where noted (top to bottom): Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum);  Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis); “Prairie Parking” sign with unknown lichens; snowy trail through the prairie; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); COD pond; white-footed mice (Peromyscus spp.), Wolf Road Prairie, Westchester, IL (photo from 2019); mouse and vole trails through the snow;  top of the ridge on COD’s Russell Kirt Prairie; Indian hemp, sometimes called dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum); big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); prairie cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta—us older prairie folks will remember it as Potentilla arguta); little bluestem (Schizachryium scoparium); mourning doves (Zenaida macroura); mourning doves (Zenaida macroura); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum); cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum); tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima) and wild bergamot, sometimes called bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); snowy trail through the prairie.

*****

Please join Cindy for a class or talk!

Pre-Valentine’s Event! The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Shop: February 13 (Thursday) 8-9 p.m., Park Ridge Garden Club, Centennial Activity Center 100 South Western Avenue Park Ridge, IL. Free and open to the public! Book signing follows.

Wheaton Book Signing! Local Authors Event.  Sunday, 2-3 p.m., Prairie Path Books in Town Square, Wheaton, IL. Free and open to the public. Click here for details.

Nature Writing and Art Retreat, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, February 22 (Saturday) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Cindy will be facilitating the writing portion. Sold Out. Waiting list –register here.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26.  Details and registration here.

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum. For details and registration, click here.  

See more at http://www.cindycrosby.com