“It is easy to underestimate the power of a long-term association with the land, not just with a specific spot but with the span of it in memory and imagination, how it fills, for example, one’s dreams…”–Barry Lopez
“There’s nothing much happening on the prairie now…right?” a long-time nature lover asked me recently. Here is what I want him to know.
To develop a relationship with a prairie, you will want to experience the spring burn.
Learn the names of the summer wildflowers.
Marvel at the fall colors.
But don’t forget hiking the winter prairie, no matter how cold and gray the days may be. Because part of any good relationship is simply showing up.
The joys of a winter hike include the thimbleweed’s soft cloud-drifts of seeds. Like Q-tips.
Or, the way prairie dock’s dotted Swiss leaves, brittle with cold and age, become a vessel for snow and a window into something more.
Don’t miss the deep grooves, sharp spikes, and elegant curves of rattlesnake master leaves, swirling in and out of focus in the grasses. How can a plant be so forbidding–yet so graceful?
In winter, you’re aware of the contrasts of dark and light; of beaded pods and slender stems.
The goldenrod rosette galls are as pretty as any blooms the summer offers.
The colors of the end-of-January prairie, which splatter across the landscape like a Jackson Pollock painting, are more subtle than the vivid hues of July. But no less striking, in their own way. The winter prairie whispers color, instead of shouting it.
On your hike, you may bump up against signs of life, like this praying mantis egg case.
Or be dazzled by the diminutive drifts of snow crystals, each bit of ice a work of art.
All of the flowers –and most of the seedheads–are gone. Many of the birds have flown south. Hibernating mammals sleep away the cold. But as life on the stripped-down prairie slows…
…there is still much to see and to learn. And, isn’t slowing down and waiting an important part of any relationship?
Yes, there is a lot happening on the winter prairie right now. But only for those who take time to look.
Why not go for a hike and see?
Barry Lopez (1945-), whose quote begins this essay, won the National Book Award for his nonfiction book, Arctic Dreams. His “Of Wolves and Men” won the John Burroughs Nature Writing Medal (1978). Lopez graduated from Notre Dame University, and is currently Visiting Distinguished Scholar at Texas Tech University. He has been called “the nation’s premier nature writer” by the San Francisco Chronicle, and writes compellingly about the relationship of people and cultures to landscape. Another memorable line from Arctic Dreams: “The land is like poetry: it is inexplicably coherent, it is transcendent in its meaning, and it has the power to elevate a consideration of human life.” Well said. Lopez lives in Oregon.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): spring burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blue vervain (Verbena hastata) and pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; autumn on the prairie, Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy and Indiana DNR, Newton County, IN; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; wild senna (Senna hebecarpa), St. Stephen’s Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; goldenrod (probably Solidago canadensis) gall rosette (sometimes called “bunch gall”), St. Stephen’s Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; tallgrass, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL (Thanks to Charles Larry for the Jackson Pollock reference); praying mantis (Mantis religiosa) egg case, St. Stephen’s Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; snow crystals, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; empty seedhead, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; tallgrass, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL.