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January Prairie Dreamin’

“The bumblebee consults his blossoms and the gardener his catalogs, which blossom extravagantly at this season, luring him with their four-color fantasies of bloom and abundance.” — Michael Pollan

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This week is brought to you by the color gray.

Backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL.

January gray.

Prairie Cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

As I hike the prairie this week, I find myself humming “California Dreamin'”; —All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray… .

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

Gray is trendy. Pantone made “Ultimate Gray” one of its two “Colors of the Year” for 2021.

Even on a blue-sky prairie hike, the gray clouds aren’t far away.

Pretty or not, all this gray is dampening my spirits. The seed suppliers know how those of us who love the natural world feel in January. And they are ready to supply the antidote.

2021 seed catalogs

Every day—or so it seems—a new seed catalog lands in my mailbox. Within its pages, anything seems achievable. After thumbing through Pinetree or Park or Prairie Moon Nursery, when I look at the backyard, I don’t see reality anymore…

Kohlrabi and Kale, backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL.

… I see possibilities. This year, my raised vegetable beds, now buried under snow and ice, will overflow with beautiful produce. Spinach that doesn’t bolt. Kale without holes shot-gunned into it from the ravages of the cabbage white butterflies. Squirrels will leave my tomatoes alone. No forlorn scarlet globes pulled off the vine and tossed aside after a single bite. I linger over the catalog pages, circle plant names, make lists, and dream.

As for my prairie patch! I have so many plans.

Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa), backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

This will be the year I find a place in my yard where prairie smoke thrives.

Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum), Prairie Walk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Big bluestem, which has mysteriously disappeared over the years from my yard, will be seeded again and silhouette itself against the sky.

Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Hinsdale Prairie, Hinsdale, IL.

The unpredictable cardinal flowers will show up in numbers unimaginable.

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) Nomia Meadows, Franklin Grove, IL.

I see the spent pods of my butterfly weed…

Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…and remember the half dozen expensive plants that were tried—and died—in various places in the yard until I found its happy place.

Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos) and Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Now it thrives. The monarch caterpillars show up by the dozens to munch on its leaves, just as I had hoped.

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) caterpillar, backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

As I walk the prairie trails, admiring the tallgrass in its winter garb, I plan the renovation of my backyard garden and prairie patch this spring. I dream big. I dream impractical.

Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

And why not? Any dream seems possible during the first weeks of January.

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The opening quote is by Michael Pollan (1955) from his first book, Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education. Pollan is perhaps best known for The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Botany of Desire but his debut is still my favorite. I read it every year.

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

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

February 24, 7-8:30 CST: The Prairie in Art and Literature Online. The tallgrass prairie is usually thought of for its diverse community of plants, animals, and insects. Yet, it is also an inspiration for a creative community! In this interactive online talk, natural history author and prairie steward Cindy Crosby will explore historical and contemporary writers and artists, musicians, and other creatives working in the prairie genre: from Neil Young to Willa Cather to graphic comic artists , 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.

Prairie Discovery and Recovery

“There is the nature we discover and the nature we recover. There is wildness and there is wildness. And sometimes, our own wholeness depends on the nature we attempt to make whole.” –Gavin Van Horn

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What does it mean to restore a prairie?

Is it seeding an acre of degraded ground with golden Alexanders?

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Planting milkweeds in our backyard, in hopes a monarch butterfly will drop by?

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Delighting in the discovery of a monarch egg, dotted on a leaf?

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Is it showing up to witness coneflowers pushing out petals?

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Making time to walk the tallgrass trails when the short-lived blooms of spiderwort follow the whims of the weather?  Open and close. Open and close.

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Or watching the first wild quinine buds appear, cradled by prehistoric leaves. Like dinosaur’s teeth, aren’t they?

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What will happen to us when we make room for the simple pleasure of pure white anemones?

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Or as we bask in the blast of sunshine from hoary puccoon?

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What does it mean to discover the oddball plants, like green dragon in bloom?

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Or porcupine grass, threading its needles of seed.

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And wild onion, unknotting itself; that graceful alien, with its kinks and curls.

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All of this in June. And the creatures, too.

From the ordinary—

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—to the iridescent and extraordinary.

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“There is wildness and there is wildness.”

In recovery is discovery. We discover more—then we  long for more.  We think of what has been. And what could be. We work toward wholeness. Restoration.

It changes us.

Why not go see?

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Gavin Van Horn’s quote that opens this post is from his essay, “Healing the Urban Wild.” It’s part of his new edited volume, Wildness: Relations of People and Place (with John Hausdoerffer) from University of Chicago Press. Gavin is the Director of Cultures of Conservation for the Center for Humans and Nature in Chicago, and also editor of City Creatures: Animal Encounters in the Chicago WildernessCheck out Gavin’s books and also the blog at Center for Humans and Nature.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): golden Alexanders (Zizea aurea), Prairie Pondwalk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle Park District, Lisle, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) laying eggs on common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; monarch egg (Danaus plexippus) on common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ohio spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; meadow anemone (Anemone canadensis) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canenscens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; green dragon (Arisaema triphyllum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: porcupine grass (Hesperostipa spartea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild onion (Allium canadense), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; mallard duck (Anas platyrhynchos), Prairie Pondwalk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle Parks, Lisle, IL; ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus or Rana catesbeiana),  Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Special thanks to Bern Olker, volunteer for Tuesdays in the Tallgrass, who showed me the place where the green dragon grows.

Prairie Bloom, Doom, and Zoom

“All things seem possible in May.” –-Edwin Way Teale

The dickcissels sing a coda for spring; on its way out. But so much more is on the way in.

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Something big has been set in motion. No stopping the cycle now.   Even as the first spring blossoms wither, something new opens each day to take their place. The prairie overflows with wildflowers.

Wild columbine hangs its blooms wherever it can find an open spot.

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Insects emerge. Bumblebees zip and zoom. Close up, the wild columbine serves as a landing strip for hover flies.

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The genus name for columbine is Aquilegia from the Latin Aquila which means “eagle.” Named for the talon-like petal spurs on the flower. It does seem to embody flight, doesn’t it?

Panic grass—an awesome name!–staccatos itself across the prairie.

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Zoom in a little closer and—hoverflies again! They find the panic grass a great place for a romantic tryst.

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Shooting stars fizzle and form seeds.

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Prairie smoke signals the end of its bloom time with a Fourth of July-ish fireworks finale.

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Common valerian finishes fuzzy, sparking seeds. Its stems gradually turn bright pink, making it more noticeable a month after flowering than during its bloom time.

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Meadow rue loosens its grip on its tight-fisted buds, ready to throw out its tasseled blooms.

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The first flush of prairie phlox whirligigs across the prairie…

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…and deep in the leaves, the odd little flowers of wild coffee open. Some call it “tinker’s weed, “feverwort,” or “horse gentian.” Which nickname do you prefer?

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The beautifully-named springwater dancer damselflies emerge.

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While the more plain-Jane-named prairie ragwort begins to bloom.

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Beardtongue dazzles. Hirsute-ly hipster.

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May is over. Finished. Done. Kaput.

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June is ready to launch, full of surprises.

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Will you be there to see them?

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Edwin (Arthur) Way Teale (1899-1980), whose quote opens this essay, was born in Joliet, IL, not far from where these photos were taken. He was a naturalist, photographer, and staff writer for Popular Science for many years. Teale’s book, “Near Horizons,” won the John Burroughs Medal (1943) for distinguished nature writing. One of his non-fiction books,  “Wandering Through Winter,” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1966.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): dickcissel (Spiza americana), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), Prairiewalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle Park District, Lisle, IL; wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) with hoverfly (Toxomerus spp.), Prairiewalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle Park District, Lisle, IL; panic grass (Dichanthelium spp.), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; panic grass (Dichanthelium spp.) with hoverflies (Toxomerus spp.), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), Prairiewalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle Park District, Lisle, IL; common valerian (Valeriana ciliata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum) , Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild coffee, feverwort, horse gentian, or tinker’s weed (Triosteum perfoliatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: springwater dancer damselfly (Argia plana), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;   prairie ragwort (Packera plattensis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; hairy beardtongue (Penstemon hirsutus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: sunset, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL.