“A truly good book…teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint…What I began by reading, I must commence by acting.” —Henry David Thoreau
Mornings dawn on the prairie, cold and wet. After the blizzard that dropped eight inches of snow on the tallgrass last week in the Chicago region…
…the weather suddenly vacillates. Tentative, indecisive. We go to sleep to the pyrotechnics of thunderstorms and tornado warnings; wake to snowmelt in flood.
A downpour and high winds chase the heavy snow cover into memory. The grasses are soggy. Pummeled into submission.
Light dustings of snow follow, turning the Midwest magical.
The sun suddenly illuminates the prairie. Snow melts. Again. All this in the course of a week.
Best way to cope with all this weather indecision?
Time to curl up in your favorite chair with something hot to drink, an afghan, and a good book. What book, you may ask? Read on, and discover some prairie recommendations that will engage your mind and expand your heart.
2018 Tallgrass Prairie Holiday Reading List
As a former indie bookseller, one of my greatest joys was matching the right book with the right reader. Years later, I can’t resist the impulse to recommend a book. Here are a few from my bookshelves to consider for gift-giving or for personal indulgence.
There’s no better introduction to the literature of the tallgrass prairie than The Tallgrass Prairie Reader. In this edited collection of essays from John T. Price, spanning the 19th through 21st Centuries and organized by those time periods, you’ll encounter writings from Charles Dickens who toured the prairies (and wasn’t impressed) to Mark Twain to more contemporary writers such as Benjamin Vogt and Steven Apfelbaum; Mary Swander, Lisa Knopp, and Thomas Dean. Price’s volume includes Louise Erdrich’s essay, “Big Grass,” which is one of the finest lyrical essays written on tallgrass prairie. The Tallgrass Prairie Reader also serves as a springboard to investigating some of the longer works sampled here, such as John Madson’s “Where the Sky Began,” and William Least Heat Moon’s “PrairyErth. History buffs, as well as prairie aficionados, will enjoy this read.
My go-to prairie writer is the late Paul Gruchow. His essays on the rural life and the prairie are a solid introduction to the tallgrass for anyone who enjoys excellent, thoughtful literature or just a darn good read. In Grass Roots: The Universe of Home, Gruchow reminds us of the emptiness of power and money and the power of paying attention.
In another of his books, Journal of a Prairie Year, Gruchow takes us on walks through the tallgrass, month by month, mixing observation with personal reflection. If you enjoy reading observational writing of the seasonal variety, this little book will wear well. I re-read it every year.
One of the most down-to-earth, enjoyable reads about prairie in the past decade is Steven Apfelbaum’s Nature’s Second Chance: Restoring the Ecology of Stone Prairie Farm. Set in Wisconsin, Apfelbaum tells the story of his efforts to restore 80 acres of old farmland to prairie, wetland, and savanna. Don’t miss Chapter 10, “Getting to Know Your Neighbors,” which chronicles a hilarious encounter between the author and a farmer, who wants to rent some of Apfelbaum’s “weedy mess” which he sees as fallow fields. Apfelbaum is principal ecologist and chairman of Applied Ecological Services, a design, consulting, and restoration firm in the Chicago region, so there’s good restoration information throughout, as well as lovely memoir. Warm, personal, and well-written, this is highly recommended. You can see my copy is pretty worn out!
More inspiration: If you live in the Midwest, and enjoy biographies of prairie and natural resource restoration heroes, you’ll find Arthur Melville Pearson’s Force of Nature a powerful read. I had no idea who George Fell, the founder of the Nature Conservancy, was, nor did I know the critical role he played in saving natural areas, especially in Illinois. Critical reading for Midwestern restorationists, or for those who like to immerse themselves in a fascinating biography. Illuminating!
Pearson, a volunteer at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, is currently writing a book about Midewin and his experiences there, which should be a welcome addition to prairie literature. He’s also an excellent speaker and blogger. You can find out more about Pearson here.
And—speaking of Midewin—although The Way of Coyote by Gavin Van Horn is not a book about prairie per se, it includes a lovely essay, “Desire Lines,” about Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL, and Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and the author’s experiences there. Van Horn is the Director of Cultures of Conservation at The Center for Humans & Nature, where he writes compelling about finding beauty in urban landscapes. Hot off the press.
Looking for something different? A unique approach to tallgrass prairie are these booklets by comic artist and PhD student Liz Anna Kozik. A welcome entree in restoration literature, and a great avenue to see prairie in new ways.
Although Kozik concentrates much of her work in Madison, WI, anyone interested in tallgrass prairie restoration will find a treasure trove of information in these slender volumes. Delightful illustrations! Check out more about Liz and her work here.
As a prairie steward, I’m constantly looking for books to help me with specific restoration issues on the prairie. My go-to book is this comprehensive guide from The Tallgrass Prairie Center Guide to Prairie Restoration in the Upper Midwest by Daryl Smith (et al). If you are planting prairie at home, volunteering on a prairie, managing a restoration site, or just want to understand how prairie restoration is done, you can’t do better than this thorough, extensive treatment of tallgrass prairie. The Tallgrass Prairie Center also has some fabulous short downloadable technical guides that should be in every prairie steward’s toolbox. They span topics such as seed collecting to propagating native plants to evaluating stand establishment. Check them out here.
At 120 pages, its companion guide, the slim but equally lengthy-titled The Tallgrass Prairie Center Guide to Seed and Seedling Identification in the Upper Midwest has helped me navigate the mysterious world of prairie seedlings and seeds and their ID—invaluable in the early spring, when prairie plants are coming up, or in the late autumn, after seed collecting. I’m not gonna lie: when those early prairie grasses are first emerging, I still struggle with distinguishing big bluestem from switchgrass. This book is helping me work on strengthening my grass seedling ID. Fingers crossed.
More than two decades old—but still packed with excellent restoration information—is another technical guide edited by Chicago region restoration guru Stephen Packard and Cornelia Mutel. The book takes you through the nuts and bolts of planning a prairie restoration, monitoring wildlife, and conducting controlled burns, plus much more. This classic belongs on every prairie steward’s bookshelf.
If you want to dig deep into just one aspect of prairie, woodland, and savannas–such as the world of sedges—it’s difficult to do better than Dr. Andrew Hipp’s Field Guide to Wisconsin Sedges: An Introduction to the Genus Carex. Filled with Hipp’s approachable writing and Rachel Davis’ excellent drawings, it’s been invaluable to me as I’ve navigated the confusing world of sedges with my prairie volunteers this past summer. The sedges are difficult. This book makes learning sedge ID seem feasible.
If you’re looking for an overview of the tallgrass prairie: its history, its ecology, and its management, the seminal book to read is John Madson’s “Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie.” It was the first book I read on the tallgrass prairie that grounded me in understanding what a precious landscape it is. From glaciers to fire to Madson’s beautiful reflections, this is an enduring read.
At more than 350 pages, Madson’s book is a deep dive into prairie, which delights some of us, but is a barrier from those who are time-crunched. With this in mind, I wrote The Tallgrass Prairie Reader: An Introduction specifically for those new to prairie, or those who wanted a book they might give a friend or family member who didn’t understand why they were so excited about the whole “prairie thing.”
At about 140 pages, it’s a quick window into understanding what a prairie is, and why it matters. It’s also been a good starting point for new volunteers, or those who move to the Midwest and are unfamiliar with prairie and want to understand its importance, or achieve a basic grasp of prairie restoration vocabulary.
There are some good regional books which are of interest, no matter where you live, in broadening our view of the tallgrass. This autumn, Joel Sheesley, Artist in Residence for The Conservation Foundation in Illinois, has published a stunning collection of his plein air paintings and essays on the Fox River and the prairies, wetlands, and woodlands that surround it.
This would be a superb gift for that hard to buy for person who lives in the Chicago Region. A visual treat, as well as a thoughtful read.
And a little further to the north, co-authors Ryan O’Conner, Michael Cost, and Joshua Cohen’s Prairies and Savannas in Michigan: Rediscovering our Natural Heritage, combines lovely photography and thoughtful essays on some of Michigan’s beautiful natural areas.
Want a more exhaustive regional volume? Joel Greenberg’s 500-plus page A Natural History of the Chicago Region covers everything from prairies to wetlands; mussels to bison; glaciation to fire. It’s a must-read for anyone who lives in the Chicago region. Warning: Greeenberg’s book, with its extensive overview of so many natural history subjects, will send you on rabbit trails of additional reading as well as sparking myriad trips to prairies, beaches, and woodlands in the region.
And of course, if you want to make a prairie restoration fan’s holiday memorable—or treat yourself—dig deep into your pocketbook and splurge on Dr. Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rericha’s Flora of the Chicago Region (about 1400 pages, color and b&w illustrations, $125). As a prairie steward, I find it’s an invaluable reference in understanding the plants of my region and their insect associations.
It would be difficult to talk about prairies in the Midwest without mentioning bison. One of the most fascinating books on this topic is Dan O’Brien’s “Buffalo for the Broken Heart: Restoring Life to a Black Hills Ranch. Vegetarian warning: O’Brien came to bison by way of cattle ranching, and his dream is to blend conservation and a viable ranching business. A poignant, thoughtful read! Find out more about O’Brien’s conservation efforts and bison ranching here.
It’s difficult to stop! But-but-but–What about the prairie field guides? Books on prairie ethnobotany? And—Cindy—you didn’t mention the large format prairie coffee table books? Children’s books?
As the old saying goes, “So many books…. so little time.” I’ll leave the rest on my bookshelves for now for a future post, as well as the books on my Christmas wish list, such as Benjamin Vogt’s A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion for an Uncertain Future. This holiday, season, please support your local bookstores by putting a few of these prairie and natural history books on your bookshelf–or someone else’s bookshelf—for the new year. It’s a gift that you can open again and again!
Still looking for just the right prairie book and didn’t see it here? Have a prairie book to recommend? Please leave a note in the comment section at the end of this post so we can all enjoy more prairie book recommendations and learn from each other.
May your holidays be happier for finding a new book or two to enjoy or to give. Happy reading!
Henry David Thoreau (1817-62) was a leading transcendentalist, philosopher, poet, essayist, and abolitionist. He’s best known for his book, Walden, and his natural history writings. One memorable quote from Walden: “Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.” He is also famous for his essay known as Civil Disobedience. You can read more about Thoreau here.
All landscape photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): blizzard hits the prairie patch, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; snowmelt on the prairie pond, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; flattened prairie patch, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; rural Illinois farm with a light snow cover next to Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; sunset, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.