“I can no more get enough of a wide prairie than I can of a sunrise…prairie grass is vivid, as if God had just dyed it” —William Quayle
What a beautiful autumn it’s been! I love the opening days of the month; it always feels like a clean slate. A time of beginnings.
As I hiked the prairies and preserves this week, I felt as if I was in a gallery of Impressionist art. Artist Claude Monet would have loved the tallgrass prairie and the Midwestern landscape in the fall.
How can it be November already? The big holiday season is straight ahead, with a new year on the horizon.
The natural world is in transition. You can smell the crisp fragrance of change in the air.
What an exciting month to go for a hike!
The opening quote is from William A. Quayle (1860-1925), a Methodist minister who lived in Kansas, Indiana, and Chicago. This passage first appeared in The Prairie and the Sea (1905), and is reprinted in John T. Price’s edited collection, The Tallgrass Prairie Reader.
Join Cindy for a class or program!
Saturday, November 5, 2022 (10-11:30 am) —Winter Prairie Wonders, hosted by Wild Ones of Gibson Woods, Indiana, in-person and via Zoom. For more information on registering for the Zoom or for in-person registration, visit them here.
Saturday, November 12, 2022 (1-2:30 p.m.)Add a Little Prairie to Your Garden, hosted by the Antioch Garden Club, Antioch, IL. Free and open to the public, but you must register. For information and to inquire about registering for the event, visit the Wild Ones here.
Wednesday, December 7, 2022 (6:30-8:30 p.m.) 100 Years Around the Arboretum. Join Cindy and Library Collections Manager Rita Hassert for a fun-filled evening and a celebratory cocktail as we toast the closing month of the Arboretum’s centennial year. Register here.
“Everything will change. Even this perpetual warmth will change. The fog’s settled steadiness will shift. The wet orthography of the grass will lose its inherently clean line along with its stem’s expressive calligraphy.“–Serhiy Zhadan
Starting over. It sounds good sometimes. Even when it isn’t easy.
Maybe that’s one of many reasons to love the tallgrass prairie, and its endless cycle of rejuvenation. I’m reminded of that this week, after the prairie burn.
It’s the ultimate restart. Prescribed fire wipes the prairie clean from the previous year in one fiery stroke. It keeps the prairie healthy, mimicking Mother Nature’s lightning strikes and the early fire management of prairie by indigenous people.
The first time you see the aftermath of a prescribe burn it is heart-stopping.
Could anything good come from this devastation? Walking the blackened prairie after the burn, it’s difficult to imagine the prairie staging a comeback. Mordor,J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional wasted landscape in his The Lord of the Rings series comes to mind.
After the burn, the prairie and prairie savanna may still smolder for a week. Or more.
Only the toughest trees with thick bark, like bur oak and black walnut, eke out a place on the prairie because of its fires. Even these trees may show the fire’s scars and eventually succumb.
It’s difficult to imagine a healthy, vibrant landscape as I hike the prairie today, six days after the prescribed fire. But imagination—-and memory—fill in the scorched acres of ash. I close my eyes, and remember the prairie in May….
Spring rains and summer heat will soon ignite the wildflowers and grasses. They’ll explode in a vibrant community of color, motion and light.
Butterflies and bees will move from flower to flower. Birdsong will flood the tallgrass.
For now, only a lone robin hops across the charred earth, looking for worms.
Inhaling the scent of smoke—seeing the 360-degree expanse of fire-kissed earth—it defies belief to believe the impossible. But I believe. I have faith in this cycle, this resurrection. Soon. Very soon. Everything will be changed.
I shake mud and cinders from my boots and feel my spirits lift. Each day is going to be a little brighter. Full of new and exciting discoveries. Under the earth, the prairie is stirring. The transition has begun.
I love this time of year.
Welcome, new beginnings.
Serhiy Zhadan (1974-) is a contemporary Ukrainian poet, essayist and novelist. These lines were translated by Amelia Glaser and Yuliya Ilchuk for LitHub.
Tuesday, April 12, 7-8:30 p.m. The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Charm Shop at Glenview Public Library, Glenview, IL (open to the public). Click here for details.
Wednesday, April 13, 7-8 p.m. Add a Little Prairie to Your Garden for Glencoe Public Library and Friends of the Green Bay Trail. Online and open to the public. Register here.
April 25, 9:30-11am The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Charm Shop with Country Home and Garden Club, Barrington, IL (in person). Closed event. For more information on the garden club click here.
April 1-April 30th-–Attention all poets and pollinator lovers! Check out this exciting project YOU can contribute to!
DuPage Monarch Project invites you to participate in Poets for Pollinators, a month-long celebration of nature’s wonders through poetry. Poems featuring bees, butterflies, birds and all pollinating creatures, as well as ones expressing the joy, comfort and delight found in nature will be posted on DuPage Monarch Project’s Facebook page April 1st – April 30th. New and experienced poets of all ages are welcome; this celebration is open to everyone. Multiple entries will be accepted. Please send poems to Lonnie Morris at firstname.lastname@example.org. Poems may be pasted into the email or included as an attachment. Authorship will be given unless anonymity is requested. Formatting in Facebook is challenging but we will make every attempt to present the poem as you have written it. Original photos are welcome. If you don’t have a photo of a favorite pollinator, one will be selected from the DMP photo library. If photos are sent, please include the name of the person who took the photo. By submitting a poem, you are granting DuPage Monarch Project the right to share it on the DuPage Monarch Project Facebook page. The poem will not be shared, used or included in any other manner than the Facebook post during the month of April.
“For a relationship with landscape to be lasting, it must be reciprocal.” —Barry Lopez
I heard the cardinal’s spring song this week for the first time this year. Maybe it was practicing. Maybe it was dreaming. Snow is still piled on the ground and my little pond is frozen, but now I listen for that cardinal song anytime I step outdoors. February is half over. There is plenty of snow and cold ahead. Yet the thought of spring persists.
Spring! But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Winter in the Midwest has a lot to recommend it.
Oh yes. Let’s get outside and discover three reasons to hike the February prairie.
Hike the prairie in February, and you’ll be aware of the temporal nature of life.
Everywhere are remnants of what was once a vibrant wildflower, now aged and gone to seed.
Along the trail is wild bergamot, still redolent with thymol.
Dried grasses are broken and weighted with snow.
And yet, life is here, under the ground. Emergence is only weeks away.
Pollinators are a distant memory. What will a new season bring?
These are the prairie’s closing chapters. The hot breath of prescribed fire whispers. Soon. Soon. When conditions are right. By April, this will have vanished in smoke.
Take in every moment of winter. While it lasts.
2.The Joy of Tracking
Who moves across the winter prairie? It’s not always easy to tell.
Follow the streams and you’ll see signs of life. I know a mink lives along Willoway Brook—are these her prints?
Who took a frigid plunge?
The freeze/thaw freeze/thaw over the past week has blurred and slushed the tracks, adding to the mystery.
Who is it that prowls the tallgrass prairie in February? Who swims its streams?
I’m not always sure, but it’s enough to know that life persists in February.
3.The Exhilaration of Braving the Elements
Hiking the prairie in February involves a little bit of risk, a little bit of daring.
See these prairie skies, how they change from moment to moment? Bright—then dim—then bright? What a joy to be outside!
Sure, the temperatures are in the teens. Wrap that scarf a little tighter around your neck. Breathe in that cold, clarifying prairie air.
Sometimes, you may arrive, only to turn back when the trail has iced beyond acceptable risk.
But isn’t it enough to be there, even if only for a few minutes?
I think so. Why not go see? It won’t be winter much longer.
Barry Lopez (1945-2020) was an American writer who loved the Arctic and wolves, and wrote 20 books of fiction and non-fiction exploring our relationship to the natural world. The opening quote for today’s blog is from his National Book Award winner, Arctic Dreams(1986), which is still my favorite of his works.
Join Cindy for a class or program in February!
February 26 — Plant a Little Prairie in Your Yard for Citizens for Conservation. Barrington, IL. (10 am-11am.) Open to the public with registration. Contact them here.
February 26 ––Conservation: The Power of Story for the “2022 Community Habitat Symposium: Creating a Future for Native Ecosystems” at Joliet Junior College. Tickets available at (https://illinoisplants.org/). (Afternoon program as part of all-day events)
“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.”– John Steinbeck
‘Tis the season for the winter Olympics; the perfect way to spend February’s frigid days. We cheer for the skiers and snowboarders, admire the elegance of the figure skaters, get rowdy with the hockey players, and puzzle over the curling competition. “Hog Line”? “Pebble”? Curling is a mystery. The Olympics remind me of our collective resilience. So much dedication! So much drive.
Outside my back door, the squirrels practice Olympic moves at the bird feeders. Flocks of juncos and goldfinches bump each other from the thistle tubes. Woodpeckers (red-bellied, hairy, downy) fly in for the suet, while the chickadees, cardinals, and nuthatches peck at the sunflower and safflower seed. This week—at the recommendation of our birding friends—I add two finch “socks” to our smorgasbord. A day later, half a dozen common redpolls showed up. Our first!
Despite their name, they are anything but common. We have an irruption in our area this winter. I’ve not paid much attention to redpolls in the past, so I take a few moments to read up on them at Cornell’s All About Birds. Redpolls may make tunnels in the snow—up to a foot long—to stay warm, I learn. While they will eat sunflower seeds, redpolls love thistle socks (like the ones pictured).
These Arctic tundra and boreal forest birds can survive cold spells of up to minus 65 degrees Fahrenheit, I discover. Yikes! And I thought it was cold in Illinois.
Despite the lure of our backyard bird feeder Olympics and the 24/7 coverage of the ongoing competition in Beijing, Jeff and I left the house to hike PrairieWalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, a small park in Lisle, IL.
It feels good to be outside. The air is cold; much more frigid than the temperatures would suggest. But there is plenty to take our minds off the bitter weather. The looped path we hike is planted with prairie natives in various degrees of winter decomposition. Age has its own sort of loveliness.
Dragonflies patrol the pond in the warmer seasons. I know that under that frozen surface, the nymphs wait for spring. But on this day, it’s all about the snow.
February skies. Icy paths. I’m grateful for my Yaktrax that keep me from sliding around. The snow-covered pond provides a backdrop for the silhouettes of prairie natives.
The colors of the Indian hemp pods and stems remind me of the redpolls. Subtle—with a dash of scarlet.
Switchgrass, the color of caramel, gets me thinking about lunch. Or maybe just dessert. Or dessert instead of lunch.
It’s a frozen landscape. Yet there is motion in the sway of a vine…
…the sprays of prairie cordgrass…
…and the peel of bark on a tree planted alongside the path.
There is movement in the explosive form of a rosette gall…
…and in the chorus of gray-headed coneflower seeds along the shoreline.
Every winter walk is full of surprises. Is it worth missing a few Olympic events for?
You be the judge.
The opening quote is from Travels with Charleyby John Steinbeck (1902-1968), the author of 33 books—many of which were required reading in my high school. His book, The Grapes of Wrath, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1939 and the National Book Award. Steinbeck also won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.
Join Cindy for a class or program this winter!
February 26 — Plant a Little Prairie in Your Yard for Citizens for Conservation. Barrington, IL. (10 am-11am.) Open to the public with registration.
February 26 ––Conservation: The Power of Story for the 2022 Community Habitat Symposium: Creating a Future for Native Ecosystems at Joliet Junior College. Tickets available at (https://illinoisplants.org/). (Afternoon program)
March 3–Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online –enjoy this online class with assignments over 60 days and one live Zoom together. Digitally explore the intricacies of the tallgrass prairie landscape and learn how to restore these signature American ecosystems. Look at the history of this particular type of grassland from the descent of glaciers over the Midwest millions of years ago to the introduction of John Deere’s famous plow to where we are today. We will examine different types of prairie, explore the plant and animal communities of the prairie, and discuss strategies specific to restoring prairies in this engaging online course. Come away with a better understanding of prairies and key insights into how to restore their beauty. You will have 60 days to access the materials. Register here.
***Thank you John Heneghan and Tricia Lowery for the thistle sock recommendation for redpolls. It worked!
“Year’s end is neither an end nor a beginning but a going on, with all the wisdom that experience can instill in us.” —Hal Borland
And so 2021 comes to a close.
On the prairie, the tallgrass colors transition to their winter hues.
The prairie is stripped to bare essence.
The deep roots of prairie plants continue to hold the tallgrass through the winter.
As Paul Gruchow wrote, “The work that matters does not always show.”
2021 has been another tough year. We’ve attempted to make each day meaningful in the midst of uncertainty and loss.
We’ve pulled from our reserve strength until we wonder if there is anything left. Trying to keep a sense of normalcy. Trying to get our work done. Trying. Trying. It all seems like too much sometimes, doesn’t it? In When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chӧdrӧn writes, “To be fully alive, fully human, is to be continually thrown out of the nest.” The past two years have made us realize how comfortable that “nest” used to be.
But we keep moving forward, little by little. Reaching for that extra bit of patience. Putting away the media for a time out. Setting aside a morning to go for a walk and just be.
Listening to our lives. Listening to that interior landscape.
We’ve learned we are fragile.
We’ve also learned we are more resilient than we ever knew we could be.
In 2019, we had no idea of the challenges ahead.
And yet, here we are. Meeting those challenges. Exhausted? You bet! It’s not always pretty, but we keep getting up in the morning and getting things done.
We’re making the best of where we find ourselves.
Trying to keep our sense of humor, even when there doesn’t seem to be much to laugh about.
With less margin, we are learning to untangle what’s most important from what we can let go of.
We are making life work, even if it’s messy. Knowing that whatever is ahead in 2022, we’ll give it our best shot.
We’ll hike—the prairies, the woodlands, or wherever we find ourselves—aware of the beauty of the natural world. We’ve never appreciated the outdoors spaces like we have these past months.
We’ll give thanks for joys, big and small. Grateful in new ways for what we have.
And we’ll encourage each other. Because we need community, now more than ever before.
Keep on hiking. The road has been long, but we’ve got this. Together.
Happy New Year!
Hal Borland (1900-1978) was a naturalist and journalist born in Nebraska. He is the author of many books of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and plays, and wrote a tremendous number of nature observation editorials for TheNew York Times. He was also a recipient of the John Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Nature Writing. I’m so grateful for his “through the year” books— I love books that follow the months and seasons! Thanks to blog reader Helen Boertje, who generously shared her copies of Borland’s books with me. I’m so grateful.
Making a New Year’s resolution? Don’t forget Bell Bowl Prairie! Commit to doing one action on the list you’ll find at Save Bell Bowl Prairie, and help us save this rare prairie remnant from the bulldozers.
Happy New Year, and thank you for reading in 2021. What a year it’s been! I’m grateful to have this community of readers who love the natural world. I’m looking forward to virtually hiking the prairies with you in 2022.Thank you for your encouragement, and for your love of the natural world.
“I wish you peace, when the cold winds blow….”— Patti Davis and Bernie Leadon
Strange weather. Crazy headlines. The holidays. I’ve been caught up in a baking frenzy, turning out cinnamon rolls, Italian Christmas cookies, and bread. Lots of bread. All good—but if I’m going to bake—I need to hike. And nowhere is hiking better than the tallgrass prairie.
What about you? Why not come along? Enjoy a stress-free hour. Blow those stressful headlines out of your mind. On the prairie, your biggest decision is not what size/what color/how much and “will it arrive in time?” Rather, it’s…
Which trail should I take?
Or, Which aster is that?
Take a deep breath. Listen. What’s that sound? Perhaps it’s the ice cracking under your boots.
The hushed whisper of wind stirring the tallgrass.
Or the chick-a-dee-dee-dee song rising from a tiny fluff-ball in the prairie shrubs.
So many wonders are all around, changing from moment to moment. Simple things, like a jet etch-a-sketching its way across the prairie sky, leaving contrails in its wake.
The accordion shape of a December prairie dock leaf.
Look for its soul-sister, compass plant,aging gracefully nearby.
Go ahead. Look. Really look. Let it soak in.
Admire the prairie in its December garb, from a single leaf…
…to its chorus of spent wildflowers…
…to the reflections in a prairie stream.
Then, find some milkweed floss.
Thank the plant for its service to monarchs this year. Pluck a single seed, make a wish, and send that seed on its way.
As it travels on the wind, let your worries and stresses go with it.
Then, pause. Tuck away this memory for later, when you need a good one.
Here’s wishing for a peaceful week ahead for you. Enjoy the hike.
The opening quote is from Patti Davis’ and Bernie Leadon’s song, “I Wish You Peace,” sung by the Eagles on their album, One of These Nights. Disagreement over including the song on that album is said to be one of the last straws that led to Bernie leaving the group; he was replaced by Joe Walsh. Oddly enough, Patti Davis is the daughter of former President Ronald Reagan, which was said to be another part of the dispute. An interesting story about how she came to write a song for the Eagles can be found here. “I Wish You Peace” is often dismissed as a “trite and smarmy” song, but Jeff and I had it sung at our wedding, almost 40 years ago. Still love it.
Seven years ago, I penned “Tuesdays in the Tallgrass” for the first time and invited you to come along for a hike each week. Where did the time go? Thanks for reading, and thanks for your love of the natural world. And thank you for sharing prairie, and keeping the tallgrass alive in people’s hearts and minds. I’m grateful.
Join me in 2022 for a prairie program! Visit www.cindycrosby.com for current class and program listings. Need a speaker for your event, class, or program? See the website for more information.
“The month of June trembled like a butterfly.” —Pablo Neruda
Mother Nature ushered in the summer solstice Sunday with plenty of drama; severe drought here in my part of Illinois, followed later that night by wicked thunderstorms and a tornado touchdown nine miles from our house. If it was March, we’d say the solstice “came in like a lion.” Our hearts go out to those affected by the storm.
Weather aside, it’s been a week full of wonders in the tallgrass.
While chasing dragonflies at Nachusa Grasslands, I spotted a dozen or so regal fritillary butterflies, flying through the pale purple coneflowers, prairie coreopsis, and white wild indigo.
And almost always—a dragonfly. Seeing them is often the stated motivation for so many of my summer prairie hikes.
But even when I’m monitoring, clipboard in hand, my prairie hikes are about so much more than counting dragonflies. I go for the solace I feel under a wide-open prairie sky.
The joy of discovery. The delight of the unexpected.
My body is tuned to “prairie time.” The signs of summer are there to be read in the opening of wildflowers, the arrival of birds, the explosion of insects, the shifts of weather. The prairie tells us we are closing in on the Fourth of July. How? Lead plant lights its floral fireworks.
The orderly unfolding of summer on the prairie is a reassurance in a time where we crave normalcy. The tallgrass is a spendthrift; it keeps on giving. Brimming with bugs, overflowing with wildflowers.
There is so much to take in.
So much to be grateful for.
The opening quote is from the poem “The Month of June” by Chilean poet and politician Pablo Neruda (1904-1973). Neruda won the Nobel Prize for Literature (1971) and is known for his passionate love poems.
Join Cindy for a program or class this summer!
Beginning Dragonfly and Damselfly ID: online Monday, July 12 and Wednesday, July 14 (two-part class) 10-11:30 am. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. The first session is an introduction to the natural history of the dragonfly, with beautiful images and recommended tools and techniques for identification of species commonly found in northern and central Illinois. You will then put your skills to work outside on your own during the following week in any local preserve, park, or your own backyard. The second session will help you with your field questions and offer more advanced identification skills. To conclude, enjoy an overview of the cultural history of the dragonfly—its place in art, literature, music, and even cuisine! You’ll never see dragonflies in the same way again. To register, click here.
Virtual Summer Prairie Wildflower Walk: Offered through The Morton Arboretum. No matter where you live, join us on Zoom to see the amazing summer tallgrass prairie wildflowers and hear their stories of uses in medicine, folklore, poetry, and even as love charms! Register here.
“The afternoon is bright, with spring in the air, a mild March afternoon, with the breath of April stirring… .”—Antonio Machado
It’s 63 degrees. I leave my heavy winter coat, gloves, and scarf in the closet and pull out my windbreaker for the first time in months.
Winter hasn’t quite let go. No mistake about it. But the five senses say a shift in seasons is underway.
In between the prairie dropseed planted along the edges of my backyard patio, the crocus and snowdrops have emerged from their dark sojourn underground.
When I dug them in last October, the pandemic seemed to have gone on forever. Vaccination was only a dream. Spring seemed a long way off. Today, I count the flowers—10, 20, 40… . Look how far we’ve come.
Cardinal song wakes us in the morning. The windows are cracked open to take advantage of the smell of clean, laundered air.
On the prairie trails I see a honey bee, flying low to the ground, looking for something blooming. Not much. Warm temperatures and hot sun have brought the earliest prairie fliers out today. My ears catch the buzz—a sound I haven’t heard in months. Soon, I won’t even register it when the pollinators are out in numbers. Today, that “buzz” is still new enough to catch my attention.
In the afternoon, hundreds of sandhill cranes pass overhead, their cries audible even inside the house. We stand on the back porch, eyes shielded against the bright sun, watching.
Waves upon waves upon waves. Heading north to the top of the world. Flying determinedly toward something they only dimly remember.
On the prairie, ice still slicks the trails where shadows lie. We pull on knee-high rubber boots and slosh through slush.
In spots the paths are springy like a mattress. The trail gives unexpectedly and I tumble down, sprawling, laughing. It’s like sinking into a pillow– although a cold, muddy one. In spring, there are so many new sounds and scents it’s easy to forget to watch your step.
Burdock burs, grasping at their last chance to hitchhike a ride, catch our clothes. We spend a few minutes pulling them off. Ouch! I’d forgotten how sharp they are. Years ago, I remember our collie getting into a big patch of burdock. Impossible to remove. I spent a good long while with the scissors, cutting the burs out.
All around me are the last seeds of 2020; those that remain uneaten by voles, undisturbed by winter storms. Seed dispersal is so varied on the prairie! Wind and animals; people and birds—we all have a role to play in the continuing life of plants. Even now, the vanishing snow is filtering the fallen seeds into the soil, ready for a new life.
Inhale. The smell of damp earth. Not the scent of fall’s decay, but something similar.
The fragrance teases my nose. Tickles my memory. It’s the spring’s “prairie perfume.”
The sky begins to cloud with tiny popcorn cumulus. The warmth of the day takes on a bit of a chill. These are the last days of tallgrass.
Any day now, fire will come to these prairies. Smoke-plumes will rise in the distance. The old season will be burned away.
Until then, the brittle grasses and battered wildflowers wait, tinder for the flames.
Today, spring seems like something exotic, something new.
It’s not a shout yet. It’s barely a whisper.
Can you hear it?
The quote that opens this post is by Antonio Machado (Antonio Cipriano José María y Francisco de Santa Ana Machado y Ruiz) (1875-1939) from Selected Poems, #3. Machado is regarded as one of Spain’s greatest poets. Reflective and spiritual, his poems explore love, grief, history and the landscape of Spain. A longer excerpt (as translated by Alan Trueblood), reads: “The afternoon is bright, /with spring in the air, /a mild March afternoon,/with the breath of April stirring,/ I am alone in the quiet patio/ looking for some old untried illusion -/some shadow on the whiteness of the wall/some memory asleep/on the stone rim of the fountain,/perhaps in the air/the light swish of some trailing gown.”
Virtual Wildflower Walks Online: Section A: Friday, April 9, 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. CST Woodland Wildflowers, Section B: Thursday, May 6, 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. CST Woodland and Prairie Wildflowers. Wander through the ever-changing array of blooms in our woodlands and prairies in this virtual walk. Learn how to identify spring wildflowers, and hear about their folklore. In April, the woodlands begin to blossom with ephemerals, and weeks later, the prairie joins in the fun! Each session will cover what’s blooming in our local woodlands and prairies as the spring unfolds. Enjoy this fleeting spring pleasure, with new flowers revealing themselves each week. Register here.
Plant A Backyard Prairie:Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm. CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Register here.
“…How swiftly time passes in the out-of-doors where there is never a moment without something new.”– Sigurd Olson
It starts with graupel. Icy pellets of rimed snow. Soft hail. The graupel rattles the windows. Pelts the patio. Bounces like tiny ping-pong balls across my backyard and into the prairie patch. The winter storm is here.
Four mourning doves swoop onto the porch. They peck-peck-peck the scattered millet seed around the bird feeders, then shelter under the eaves. Darkness falls. The wind rattles the windows. And at last, it begins to snow.
A light snow cover has blanketed the prairies this week. Critters leave clues to their identities.
The prairie grasses, overshadowed by wildflowers most of the year, find snow is the perfect backdrop to showcase their charms.
Snow is a stage for tallgrass shadows and silhouettes to play upon.
Turkey tail fungi sift snow, letting it powder each arc of nuanced color.
From a distance, Indian hemp seems stripped of all but pod and stem.
Come closer. A few seeds still cling to the scoured pods, ready to set sail in the high winds.
Everywhere is something to spark wonder. “Even an adult can grow in perception if he refuses to close the doors to learning,” wrote Sigurd Olson in Reflections from the North Country.There are stories to be listened to…
…messages to be read in the midst of the snow, if only we can decipher them. If we keep the doors to learning open.
When the doors to learning stand open, what is there to discover?
Perhaps, diversity is beautiful.
Or, Think of future generations, not just of the needs or desires of the moment.
Remember the past, but don’t get stuck there.
Embrace change, even when it’s difficult. It usually is.
Appreciate what you have today…
…it may not be here tomorrow.
The choices we make aren’t always clear or easy.
There are a lot of gray areas.
But it’s never too late to reflect. To listen. To learn.
And then, to move forward.
There is so much to see and think about on the prairie.
So much to pay attention to.
So much to consider, on a prairie hike in the snow.
Sigurd Olson (1899-1982), whose quote opens this post, was born in Chicago and grew up in northern Wisconsin. He is considered one of the most important environmental advocates of the 20th Century. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area—over one million acres in size—owes its preservation to the work of Olson and many others. Olson worked as a wilderness guide in the Quetico-Superior area of Minnesota and Canada, and his nine books explore the meaning of wilderness and the outdoors. He is a recipient of the John Burroughs Medal, the highest honor in nature writing, for Wilderness Days. If you haven’t read Olson, I’d suggest beginning with The Singing Wilderness. A very good read.
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. Join me from your computer anywhere in the world.
Begins Monday, February 6 OR just added —February 15 (Two options): Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online--Digitally explore the intricacies of the tallgrass prairie landscape and learn how to restore these signature American ecosystems as you work through online curriculum. Look at the history of this unique type of grassland from the descent of glaciers over the Midwest millions of years ago, to the introduction of John Deere’s famous plow, to where we are today. We will examine different types of prairie, explore the plant and animal communities of the prairie and discuss strategies specific to restoring prairies in this engaging online course. Come away with a better understanding of the tallgrass prairies, and key insights into how to restore their beauty. All curriculum is online, with an hour-long in-person group Zoom during the course. You have 60 days to complete the curriculum! Join me–Registration information here.
February 24, 7-8:30 p.m. 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 , quilters, 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.
“…There exists a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else…”–Mary Oliver
Gusting winds and gale warnings overnight. Plunging temperatures. We wake up to an ice-cold sunrise. Brrrrr. Today is Dec.1, the first day of meteorological winter.
Astronomical winter is December 21, the winter solstice, when we’ll see more daylight hours again. But today, I’ll take the meteorological date. After an unusually warm November, it feels like the season has changed.
As the cold settles in, the work of the garden is almost finished. Mornings and evenings —jacket-less—I dash outside to the compost pile. Coffee grounds, strawberry hulls, and the odds and ends of Thanksgiving dinner vegetable leftovers mingle and molder in the lidded bucket for that purpose. After unscrewing the top of the Darth Vader-like black plastic helmet that holds the compost (dubbed “The Earth Machine” by the manufacturer) I shake the scraps into the pile, which at this time of year, lies stubbornly unchanged from week to week in the cold. Spring heat, which will turn these scraps into brown gold for my raised garden beds, is still a long way off.
Nearby, the desiccated cup plants, brittle asters, and grasses of my prairie patch rustle in the rising wind.
Swinging the empty bucket, I linger at the raised beds where the still-green parsley, bright wands of rainbow chard, and crisp kale have slowed production, but continue to provide fresh greens for our meals. Today brings temperatures that fall into the mid-20s for a sustained period, so I cross my fingers that I’ll continue the harvest. Other plants have surrendered. The sugar snap peas are in flower, but have long stopped setting pods. Woody overgrown radishes mingle with the parsnips and a few lone beets.
I pull a radish, and it’s nibbled around the edges. Voles? Mice?
More for the compost pile.
Hiking the prairie this week, I notice almost all the green is gone—except on the grassy trails.
The joy of bloom and color—goldenrod, late asters—has passed; the shift of attention continues to move to structure and smell. The cool tang of mountain mint, when gently rubbed between the fingers…
…the dustier, Earl Grey tea-like smell of wild bergamot—bee balm—when vigorously crushed. Mmmm. Smells so good!
I know the wild bergamot —Monarda fistulosa—of the prairie is not the citrus fruit “bergamot” oil found in the tea. And yet. The smell is the same. I love the connection; love drinking Earl Grey on a frigid winter day and tasting prairie on my tongue.
As winter settles in, blue-bright skies will alternate with skies of slate and sleet. On clear nights, newly-visible Orion stalks the crystal whirl of constellations with the advent of this winter season. Seeing him after dark reminds me to go to the bookshelf and find “Orion Rises On The Dunes,” a chapter from Henry Beston’s The Outermost House, and re-read it again.
Indian hemp—or dogbane, if you will (Apocynum cannabinum)—-curls its now-seedless pods on stalks along the trails. The slant of sunlight turns it Santa suit red.
Native Americans knew that Indian hemp fibers can be stripped for good fishing line, cords, and threads. Try it if you grow the plants; it’s easy to make and a wonderful reminder of how the prairie was prized for its utility at one time, as well as its beauty.
As I round a corner of the trail, I discover goldenrod bunch galls, sometimes called “rosette galls.” They’re pretty common on my prairie walks.
But — wow —so many in one place! The galls are everywhere in front of me for yards and yards — the largest group I’ve ever seen.
I wonder what caused this vast profusion? I know the flower-like “gall” itself is made by a tiny fruit fly, Procecidochares atra (check out the link for a good guide to various goldenrod galls). But why are there so many of these rosettes in one place? They look like a winter prairie “wildflower” garden.
On the edge of the prairie where it melds into woods, I spy the still-green leaf of wild ginger. I had forgotten wild ginger keeps its foliage through the long season, unlike its spring ephemeral wildflower counterparts. Prairie Moon Nursery notes that it is a good native ground cover choice for that reason.
I’ve tried to grow it in my backyard, but without luck. So, I look forward to it on my walks. Seeing it at this time of year is a welcome surprise.
There’s always something unexpected on the prairie.
Who knows what other astonishments the first week of winter will bring?
Why not go see?
The opening line is from Mary Oliver’s prose poem “Winter Hours” in her poetry collection, Upstream. Oliver (1935-2019) paid close attention to the natural world; she ends the poem with these words: “For me, the door to the woods is the door to the temple.” I wonder what she would have thought of the prairie?
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at the East Prairie and Ecological Study Area, College of DuPage (COD), Glen Ellyn, IL, unless noted otherwise (top to bottom): prairie grasses and forbs; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum); forgotten seedling pots; Park’s rainbow blend radish (Raphanus raphanistrum subsp. sativus): horseweed (Conyza canadensis); trail through the COD prairie; common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum); beebalm or wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa); beebalm or wild bergamot (Monada fistulosa); prairie grasses (mixed); Indian hemp or dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum); COD East Prairie and Ecological Study Area; rosette or bunch gall on Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis); rosette or bunch galls on Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis); wild ginger (Asarum canadense reflexum); Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum) unknown thistles (possibly pasture thistle, Cirsium discolor).
Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization in 2021.Email Cindy through http://www.cindycrosby.com.
THIS FRIDAY!Literary Gardens Online: Friday, Dec.4, 1-2:30 p.m. CST– Take a break from the news and 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 by Thursday here through The Morton Arboretum.
Just in time for the holidays — Save 40% when you order directly from Northwestern University Press — use Code HOLIDAY40! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History (and also The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction).
Cindy Crosby is the author, compiler, or contributor to more than 20 books. Her most recent is "Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History" (Northwestern University Press, 2020). She teaches prairie ecology, nature writing, and natural history classes, and is a prairie steward who has volunteered countless hours in prairie restoration. See Cindy's upcoming online speaking events and classes at www.cindycrosby.com.