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5 Reasons to Hike the December Prairie

“Curiosity, imagination, inventiveness expand with use, like muscles, and atrophy with neglect.”  —Paul Gruchow

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December mornings dawn bright and clear. Venus dazzles in the southeast, just before first light.

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Step outside. Brrrrr! Hello, December, with your mercurial weather and often-frigid temps.

It may seem like a daunting month to hike the prairie. After all, there’s not much going on, right?

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Wrong. For those who venture out to the tallgrass, there are wonders to be had.  Here are five reasons to bundle up, get outside, and go take a look.

1. Critters 

Love ’em or can’t stand ’em, you can’t get away from squirrels in December. Despite their inroads on my backyard bird feeders, I’m a bit of a fan. Walk through any prairie savanna or check the trees scattered across the prairie, and you won’t have to look too hard.

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Check out this tree on the edge of the prairie. How many squirrels can you see?

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I counted at least a dozen, possibly more.  A group of squirrels like this one is called a scurry. Perfection, right?  Those leafy nests high up in the trees are the squirrel condos. You can see one in the above photo, on the left. Squirrel homes, and sometimes a squirrel family group, are called a drey or sometimes, dray.

Most squirrels were enjoying a snack. The scritch scritch scritch scritch of so many furballs gnawing on black walnuts was the soundtrack to our prairie hike.

Not a squirrel fan? Walk on… .

2. Ice Capades

Temperature ups and downs on the prairie leave ponds and streams a virtual canvas for weather to paint its delights upon. Crystals, ice shelves, frozen droplets…the scene changes from moment to moment with the rays of the sun.

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Unless you visit the prairie in December, you’ll miss the magic.

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Isn’t it important for us to witness the beauty in the world?

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As Annie Dillard writes, “Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”

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3. Shifts of Weather

Woolly bear, woolly bear, what do you see? Traditionally, the banded woolly bear caterpillar is the foreteller of winter weather. The longer the black stripes, the longer the winter. This little bear looks as if it’s predicting a mild winter, doesn’t it? But it was out in 17 degree weather! And, we’ve already had one blizzard in the Chicago region. Hmmm.

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The woolly bear caterpillar will emerge in the spring as the isabella tiger moth. Woolly bear, you’re cute.  But I might stick to watching meteorologist Tom Skilling’s weather report.

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4. The Splendors of Grass

We think of grass as juicy, green, and supple. But one of the many delights of prairie grass is its winter wardrobe. Nuanced, ranging through metallic tones of bronze, silver, and gold, the tallgrass changes colors with the slant of the sun.

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Sure, the recent snows flattened the tallgrass. Take a look, and see how your perspective on the prairie changes when the grasses and forbs, towering over your head just a month or two ago, no longer obstruct the view. New vistas open up. Grass takes on different role in December.

5. Mindful Hiking

What does the prairie have in store for you in December? Smell the tang of cold air. Feel the hot sun on your face on a frigid day. Listen to the sounds of the winter residents of the prairie and the prairie savanna; woodpeckers drumming along the edges, the rustle of squirrels dashing from tree to tree on the prairie edges. Taste the last dollop of snow. Check out the coyote scat on the trail to see what “trickster” has been sampling. Persimmons? Meadow vole? The fur and seeds tell the story for those who take time to look. Check the ponds and streams and see who is hanging out there.

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It’s easy to get caught up in the baking, shopping, socializing, and other activities of the holiday season. Need a break? A walk on the prairie may be just the thing to clear your head. What are your motivations to hike the December prairie? Please share them in the comment section below.

Because we all need a little extra push to get outside this month.

Happy hiking!

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The opening quote is from Boundary Waters: Grace of the Wild by Minnesotan Paul Gruchow (1947-2004). Gruchow writes compellingly about the rural life and the natural world in his books. If you haven’t read him before, try Grass Roots: The Universe of Home, or A Prairie Journal.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Venus in the dawn sky, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL: little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; eastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) on the edge of the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; three eastern fox squirrels (Sciurus niger) on the edge of the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ice on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: ice crystals on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  ice on author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; ice on the author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; woolly bear (Pyrrharctia isabella) caterpillar on the prairie trail, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; snow patches on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: bridge in December on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blue heron (Ardea herodias) with a few mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), East Branch of the DuPage River Restoration, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

2018 Holiday Prairie Reading List

“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

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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…GEbckyardpr1118WM.jpg

…the weather suddenly vacillates. Tentative, indecisive. We go to sleep to the pyrotechnics of thunderstorms and tornado warnings; wake to snowmelt in flood.

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A downpour and high winds chase the heavy snow cover into memory. The grasses are soggy. Pummeled into submission.

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Light dustings of snow follow, turning the Midwest magical.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.Prairie Read 4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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. Prairie Read 14

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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May your holidays be happier for finding a new book or two to enjoy or to give. Happy reading!

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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.

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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.

Tallgrass Thank You Notes

“…I hear a sound, sometimes a little more than a whisper, of something falling, arriving, fallen, a seed …there is no trace of regret in the sound or in the stillness after the falling, no sound of hesitation on the way, no question and no doubt.” M.S. Merwin

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I’ve been catching up on my thank-you notes this week, nudged by the upcoming holiday that reminds me to be grateful. Ironic, isn’t it? A week in the Midwest in which we dedicate ourselves to be thankful falls in one of the gloomiest seasons of the year.

What if Thanksgiving fell in July? Easy to get in a thankful mood.

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Or May, when shooting star blooms carpet the prairie after a long, cold winter; everything seems bathed in joy and delight. Do I feel thankful then? You bet!shootingstarSPMA51918wm

But November! Well, she makes no apologies for who she is.  November’s given me a lot to be grateful for. So, as I write my thank-you notes to people in my life this week, I figure I should write a few to November as well.

Here goes…

Thanks, November–your gray days are a foil for aspects of the prairie I’d otherwise overlook.  Would I notice the dangling seedpods of white wild indigo if they appeared this way in sunny July? Perhaps not. They seem to take on added charisma on gray, snow-spitting days.  “Prairie bling” of a certain kind.

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I appreciate how some of the less exciting plants get their moment in the spotlight this month, November. Late figwort isn’t a particularly glamorous plant, but this month, it gets a makeover. Without the pops of bright July wildflower color or distractions of butterflies and bees, the eye is drawn to figwort’s kitschy structure. Looks a bit like some management diagrams I’ve seen,  or maybe an organizational flow chart.

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Other flora and fauna of the prairie are worth a second look in November. Carrion flower, which twines its way through the prairie grasses without a lot of fanfare during the warm weather, is a show-stopper this month. (Nope, it’s not edible—unless you’re a bird or a mammal).

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November even gives the humble bison track some seasonal flair. Glitzy!

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Thanks for the unexpected, November. The rhythm of sandhill crane migration through prairie skies is an expected pleasure this month. But November bird life holds some surprises.

John Heneghen's Varied ThrushWM2 111918 Like this little guy, above. Our friends, John and Trisha, had a varied thrush show up this week in their backyard, not far from their prairie patch. The varied thrush is an erratic migrant from the West Coast not normally seen in the Midwest. Its arrival here in the Chicago region is a November serendipity. People drove from around the Midwest to see and add this colorful thrush to their life lists. Who knows what other avian surprises might appear this month?

Hey, November, thanks for teaching me about adapting and surviving.

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The hairs of the compass plant above speak of hard times. Each hair catches moisture and helps retain water, which keeps the compass plant alive through brutal Midwestern droughts. November peels away all the color and glam of a compass plant, and reminds me of how tough some of our prairie plants are. It’s a memo to myself, as well; a reminder that I have cultivated ways to navigate the difficult times of my life.  Survival skills. Adaptations.

November reminds me, “You’ve got this.” 

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Thanks, November for the transition. Change is good, right? Well, maybe. But change is usually difficult. As much as I enjoy the change of seasons, I also have trouble letting go of whatever season I’m in. As I get older, it seems time moves more quickly, with less time to adjust. November, with its segue from autumn into meteorological winter, helps make the transition to the end of the year a little easier.

willowaybrookSPMA118The photo above of Willoway Brook on the Schulenberg Prairie is a study in transitions. Snow has settled around the stream, which is just a breath away from freezing but still runs free and clear. High quality prairie on the left is juxtaposed with invasive reed canary grass along the shoreline, which prairie volunteers battled to a hard-fought draw this season. The partly-dead reed canary grass hangs over the brook, admiring its reflection, perhaps, and—in my mind—thumbing its proverbial nose at us. We’ve decided to let a certain amount of reed canary grass colonize the streambanks as we focus on other restoration activities on the prairie, a decision made simply from a time-management standpoint. The above photo tells many stories about persistence and patience; resistance and acceptance.

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Which reminds me…

Thanks, November, for the people who care for prairie. People like the site managers and volunteers and stewards. People like the prairie donors and environmental activists who make a difference. Those who take a child out to see the prairie. The person who shares a photo of the tallgrass with a friend. People like you—who care about the natural world.

The curtain is coming down on another year in the tallgrass. As it does…

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…I want to say thank you for reading. Thank you for being a part of the work that keeps the tallgrass prairie alive and thriving. Thank you for sharing your love of prairie with others. And, thank you for your part in keeping the tallgrass prairie visible, both in our communities and in people’s hearts and minds.

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What about you? Is there a thank-you note you’d like to write to November? Leave it in the comments section below as a reminder of what we have to be thankful for this month.

Thank you.

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The opening quote is from the poem, Garden Notes, from William Stanley “W.S.” Merwin’s collection, The Moon Before Morning (Copper Canyon Press). Twice a Pulitzer Prize winner, Merwin (1927-) was our 2010-11 United States Poet Laureate, and is known for writing his grief over our destruction of the natural world. Discover more about him at the Poetry Foundation. Click here to listen to him read his powerful and moving poem, Rain Light.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) except for varied thrush as noted: monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), Nomia Meadow Farms prairie, Franklin Grove, IL; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie in May, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) with snowcap, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica) in November, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, carrion flower (probably Smilax lasioneura) in November, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  icy bison (Bison bison) track, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; varied thrush (Ixoreus naevius), photo courtesy John Heneghan, Kane County, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) seedhead, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale Indian plantain seeds (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; snowmelt on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) in November, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; bench on the Schulenberg Prairie in November, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

With grateful thanks to John Heneghen, who shared his varied thrush photo and story with me for this post, and reminded me of another reason to be thankful for the unexpected serendipities of November.

Making Sense of November’s Prairie

“Don’t you know, some people say, the winter is the best time of them all…”–Neil Young

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I like a good challenge, don’t you? So this mid-November, I’m challenging myself to discover what’s lovable about my least favorite month of the year on the prairie.

Can there really be anything good about November? Every where I see signs of loss. Leaves dropping. Days shortening. Temperatures plunging. I’m not going to lie—I’ve been pretty grumpy about the whole change of seasons so far.

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But what I found as I hiked reminded me of why this season has its own charms, its own distinctiveness. Need convincing? Read on….

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The sounds of the November prairieare so different than the sounds of late summer and early autumn. Sound travels farther and more clearly in cold weather if conditions are right; check out this interesting article here. Next time you’re hiking through the prairie on a frosty morning, listen. See if you agree.

 

SPMAbench111218WM.jpg The wildlife noises are also different than the summer orchestra of insect songs and bee-buzz. Woodpeckers suddenly become the stars of the savanna show after hovering in the background most of the summer. They hang out on the edge of the prairie; their sharp calls pierce the cold air and their drumming adds a staccato beat to the gray days. Nuthatches chatter companionably to each other. Their calls remind me of clown bicycle horns (listen here).

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This week in the Chicago region, the sandhill cranes are scrawling their calligraphy across the skies, migrating south. Their appearance signals a seasonal transition.  What are they saying to each other? Arguing over directions, maybe? If you have never heard sandhill cranes bugle from high overhead, it’s an other-worldly sound that speaks of movement and change. Intrigued?  Listen to them here. 

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A touch-y, feel-y kind of season… November is a wonderful time to engage that tactile side of your personality. Consider a compass plant leaf. Rub your fingers across the rough surface.  Notice the texture. The leaf gracefully arcs, bowing to the inevitable, concentrating its energy in the plant’s deep roots for winter.

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Slide your fingers along the big bluestem “stem.” Feel that polished smoothness? It’s said that early settlers found these stems made a great substitute for lost knitting needles. No word on what gauge size.

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Mmmm… those smells!… Go on, inhale. Wakes you up, doesn’t it? These damp, gray days of mid-November have their own particular scent. Earthy. The sharpness of cold. A whisper of plant decay. A tang of the last wild bergamot, which smells of a cross between Earl Grey tea and thyme. When I sniff the gray-headed coneflower seeds, it brings lemons to mind; maybe even a bit of licorice. The hot buttered popcorn scent of prairie dropseed is long gone; the sweet floral smell of the common milkweed is memory.

But November has its own perfumery.

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Tasty!  Ah, the last leaves of mountain mint. You can still find a few green-ish ones, if you look. They aren’t as pliable as they were back in July, but they retain a little minty zing.  The crumbly rosin of compass plant is still pleasant in the mouth; a bit piney and not as problematically sticky.

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And of course, there is plenty to seefor those who look closely.  The first serious snowfall—you know, where there’s actual white stuff on the tallgrass and not just flakes in the air—can’t help but spark delight. Sure, you’ll hear people  moan, “I’m not ready for this,” but seeing the first real snow on the ground is comforting. Despite politics, shootings, wildfires, and global tragedies, the seasons keep rolling along.

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The often-gray skies of November are a foil for the metallic colors of the grasses, which are a backdrop for the silhouettes of spent seedheads

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It’s a different way of seeing at this time of the year. More difficult to find the beauty. But it’s there.

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Don’t forget…as you use your five senses to explore the November prairie, there is “the sixth sense.” Making the connection of the heart to what we experience. November reminds us of our own mortality—of the cycle of great abundance and heartbreaking loss; growth and rest—that we experience during our short time on this planet.  November on the prairie is homely, humble, and quiet. It reminds us, as that great prairie writer Paul Gruchow wrote in Grass Roots: The Universe of Home,the work that matters doesn’t always show.”

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Like all months, November has its own experiences to offer. New things to teach me. A time for reflection.

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If I have the courage to look November squarely in its seasonal face, instead of avoiding it, maybe I’ll learn something.

So. Bring it on, November. I’m really to learn from you, and experience all you have to offer.

What about you?

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The opening epigram is from Neil Young’s song “Little Wing,” from his much-maligned album, Hawks and Doves. Despite mockery from my friends, this is one of my favorite Young albums. It will grow on you. Promise.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) mixed November leaves, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; trail with light snow, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove Park District and The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove, IL; bench overlooking Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis), Schulenberg prairie edge, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  sandhill cranes  (Antigone canadensis) over author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant leaf (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; November grasses and forbs, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) rosin, Schulenberg Prairie,  The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, United States Department of Agriculture/Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Wilmington, IL; prairie cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL;  bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Finding Hope in the November Prairie

“Do not go gentle into that good night…rage, rage against the dying of the light.”—Dylan Thomas

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November, shmo-vember.

Sure, a few hard-core “I love all months of the year” folks out there are going to give a high-five to November. But I’m going to come clean here.

I think November is the toughest month of the year.

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The elections are certainly a part of that.  I despise the mud-slinging, the he-said/she-said, the polarization of the world I find myself in today and the many places where hatred and suspicion are cultivated in public forums. I cast my vote early, feeling a bit like I do when I planted pasque flower seeds on the prairie this season. The odds seem long, but hope was there. The promise of something beautiful. Today, in November, there’s no sign of the pasque flowers.  But I haven’t given up hope. I’m trying to live in “prairie time.” Taking the long view.

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If you live in the Chicago region, our first few days of November have not been promising. Temperatures are cold enough to prompt extra blankets, but not cold enough for a Christmas card-worthy snowstorm.  Rain, desperately needed, came just in time to splash all the (finally) colorful autumn leaves off the trees. High winds decimated most of the rest of the foliage, which lies strewn across prairie trails like discarded party invitations.

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How do you feel about November? Does November give you the blues? If you’re tempted to hang up your hiking boots and sit this month out, here are five reasons to go outside and see the prairie this month. If you feel discouraged by the state of the world—or just discouraged by the month of November and all it brings—this hike’s for you.

1. The Good News About Bison

If you live in the Midwest, chances are you’re within driving distance of seeing bison on a prairie. In the Chicago region, I’m fortunate enough to have bison on three preserves within a two-hour driving distance. There’s something, well, reassuring about their sturdy presence, impervious to cold and rain amid the wind rippling the tallgrass in November. Bison remind me of  strength. Of continuity. Of hope. Here is a species that was almost extinct, and through the efforts of people who care, is now thriving again. We need this kind of inspiration, as the United Nations issued grim news about our natural world that made headlines this week. So hop in the car and drive to your nearest bison preserve. Bring a friend.  Feel your spirits lift?

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2. Encore Performances

Oddly enough, some native plants (and non-natives too!) put on a repeat bloom performance in November. To discover them is a bit of a bizarre scavenger hunt, worth traveling a trail or two to see what you can find. My backyard pond has pops of yellow right now; marsh marigolds which normally bloom in April are hosting a second-run performance. Other late bloomers in my prairie patch, like the obedient plant below, gave a last push of color against its deteriorating foliage this week. You can almost hear them whispering, “Do not go gentle into that good night… .”

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3. Cruising Without Guilt

I always feel a pang of remorse about driving around a natural area. After all, shouldn’t I be on foot, exploring trails, wading through wetlands looking for dragonflies, or sitting on top of a rocky knob, enjoying the breeze? Of course I want to hike this month. But in November, when pounding rain, wind gusts of 30 mph, and temps in the 40s are all in play, I can feel almost virtuous driving through a grassland, enjoying the views, without the shame that might normally accompany my gas-guzzling self. I’m outdoors! Sort of. Braving the elements.

Hey–turn the heater up, will you?

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4. Prairie Plants Take On New Personalities

In November, you can exercise your imagination to describe the familiar prairie plants of summer in new ways. Prairie dock, below, is my November favorite for its transition from flexible sandpaper-y green to a crackled surface. A little like those old decoupaged craft projects we did in the sixties; right down to the tiny beads of “glue.” Maybe you see a prairie dock leaf in November as an aerial view of Death Valley. Or perhaps you see the leaf as the back of an dry, aged hand, with pores, veins and tiny hairs. A mountain range, dotted with snow? Spiderwebs in the rain? Or? Go ahead, your turn!

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Other plants give up the above-ground life in tangled shoelaces slowly draining of color, a virtual jungle of still-green and long-past-the-sell-date leaves.

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And when is a square-stemmed plant not a mint? When it’s a cup plant! After focusing on the signature leaves and flowers of this vigorous, sometimes-aggressive native all summer, we get a good look at the scaffolding. Wonder what tiny critter made that hole?

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5. Those Spellbinding Seeds

It’s  almost worth facing November on the prairie to see how nature plans for the future. Diversity is on display in the form of prairie seeds in all colors, sizes, and shapes.

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Each seed is a possibility. The promise of restoration.

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I need that promise. You too? Of change, of hope, of restoration in the month of November. Especially on an election day, after another week of horrific shootings and dismal headlines. The prairie seeds remind me of all of those who have made a difference in the world. The stewards and site managers who are out there today, as you read this, cutting brush. Collecting seeds. Leading tours of the tallgrass. Painting prairie landscapes.

At the polls, voting to save our natural areas and fund them for the future.

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Doing their part to make sure change happens in the world.  Change doesn’t always come as quickly as we’d like. But the prairie reminds me—keep working toward restoring a  damaged world. It all starts with these small, simple actions that are ours to take.

“Do not go gentle into that good night…rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

You know, November isn’t so bad after all if it brings the opportunity of change—the hope of a better future—with it.  And at this point, I think I’ve talked myself into a hike. You too?

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Let’s go.

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Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) was a Welsh poet, whose lines that open this essay are from a poem of the same name. He told biographers he fell in love with words after learning nursery rhymes as a child. Thomas was a contemporary of T.S. Eliot, who helped bring him to the public’s attention as a very young man. Thomas was a high-school drop-out, an alcoholic, often homeless, hounded by creditors, and frequently cheated on his wife, Caitlin.  He died at age 39 from pneumonia, probably complicated by alcohol poisoning and drug use, and Caitlin was incarcerated for a time in an insane asylum. And yet—out of so much despair and damage—there are these beautiful poems. Click here to hear Thomas read Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom):  Rice Lake-Danada, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Wheaton, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens or Anemone patens) in seed, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; red maple (Acer rubrum) leaves on the path, Kath Thomas’ prairie planting, Hinsdale, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Stone Barn Road, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL: prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) and bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis) seeds, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: rosinweed  (Silphium integrifolium) seeds, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; Remic Ensweiller, prairie manager, leads a tour of the Russell Kirt Prairie at College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Hinsdale Prairie Remnant, Hinsdale, IL.

A Season of (Prairie) Change

“Change is inevitable—except from a vending machine.”  — Robert Gallagher

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When you think of change, how does it make you feel?  Excited? Confused? A sense of dread? Or, perhaps you feel as one of my adult natural history students does. She walked in on the second day of class, saw I had rearranged our seating, and her face fell. Annoyed, she grumbled: “I HATE change!”

Love it, hate it, try to ignore it—-change is inevitable (except as where noted in our opening quote). October smacks us with this fact, then teases us with changes in color and texture, sounds and scents. See-saw temperatures and strange weather phenomena.  Autumn is already flirting with winter here in the Chicago region. Hey, what happened to Fall? Where’s the transition?

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In my backyard, the first freeze of the season—-followed by an unexpected snowfall and high winds, with a side helping of graupel-–has put “paid” to the gardening account for the year.  Basil? Should have gotten out there to pick it last week. Too late now. The only tomatoes I’ll have onward are the ones I threw from my garden into my freezer, ready for chili and spaghetti sauce over the winter.  But I’m not quite ready to trade my iced coffee for hot. My short sleeves for sweaters. My long sunny days for short.

It doesn’t matter what I want.  Change is oblivious to my personal preferences. Ready or not, here the cold weather comes. My backyard prairie patch still sports a sizzle of asters but most of the zing has gone out of them. For the rest of the month, I’ll find pleasures in the structures; the white puffs of silk from Joe Pye weed and little bluestem; the contrasts of stem and seed.

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The rich tapestry of October is already hurtling toward the bleak starkness of November.

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Contrasts, I tell myself. Think about seasonal simplicity. A winter landscape free from distractions like wildflowers, or the dazzle of bright-colored birds in breeding plumage. It’s easier to focus in winter. Worthwhile to consider the forthcoming season as a time to reflect. I’ll catch up on my reading and  make my garden and prairie steward to-do lists for next year. I’ll scribble: Take out the honeysuckle coming into the north side of the prairie. Check pasque flower seeds—did they germinate? Try a new method to get rid of the birds-foot trefoil along Willoway Brook. Issue an ultimatum to the reed canary grass. Plan a teaching display garden at the Prairie Visitor Center. 

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The tallgrass is no stranger to transitions; the prairie dock leaves changing from chlorophyll green to brittle brown remind me of this. Change means possibilities. Gaining new perspectives on old problems. Transition seasons like October keep me  from getting too comfortable, too complacent in my routines. Mostly, this season means moving from doing to observing and reflection.

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Visible life drains from the supple juicy prairie plants, as the leaves crisp into new patterns and textures. The prairie slowly becomes something different. Kind of a Dorothy entering the land of OZ—but in reverse.

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The tallgrass has gone to seed; a blizzard of white silk in a sea of grass. The bison pull on their winter coats as autumnal cues signal winter ahead. As I watch the bison drift across the prairie in strong winds that toss the seedheads and swirl the grasses, I’m reminded, once again, why so much of the prairie literature compares tallgrass to the ocean. Bison NG 10-20-18WM.jpg

The prairie decrescendos. Butterflies? Dragonflies? Bright memories, mostly, although a few linger on.  Now that the last prairie wildflowers are mostly bloomed out, the solitary mated queen bumble bees are looking for their wintering sites, ready to out-last the coming cold until spring.  Just a month ago, the bumble bees amused me as they foraged in the gentians. I miss the bumble bees’ frenetic activity on the prairie. I guess I’ll have to content myself with listening to bumble bee-inspired music until spring.

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Meanwhile, bird activity has stepped up to fill in the insect gaps. Migrating flocks move through, stripping the backyard birdfeeders; invasive starlings perform their choreography each day, schooling across the skies in black particles like those old Etch-a-Sketch tablet drawings. Eerily beautiful.  Pert chickadees rap out their signature songs. Canada geese drag chains of “V’s” across the slanted light of October skies. Everything seems a little surreal; a little otherworldly.

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The warblers have done their autumn clothes shopping and appear at my bird feeders in disguise. Even the goldfinches have taken on the color of olive oil. Remember when they were a dazzling yellow?

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Crows ink their way around the prairie, a welcome sight after the dramatic population decline of a decade or so ago due to West Nile virus.  I never thought much about crows until they disappeared for a few years, then rebounded. The prairie skies were emptier for their absence.

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As the earth tilts toward the winter solstice, the prairie puzzle pieces rearrange themselves into new images. I give myself a pep talk. Change can be positive. Why not invite it in, rather than resist it?

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If nothing else, I can say that the changes October brings keep me on my toes as I try to  pay attention. Notice the change of light; the ebb and flow of the community of the natural world. Listen to the hush of grasses bending in the strong winds, and the tap-tap-tap of the first snowflakes pelting the prairie. Breathe in occasional bursts of the metallic tang of cold prairie air, beginning to replace the scent of autumn decay.

October is a post-it note to myself: Embrace change. Enjoy each moment as it comes. After all, without change, life would be pretty predictable and stale.

And who wants that?

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Robert C. Gallagher, whose quote opens this post, is a sportswriter and author of The Express: The Ernie Davis Story. He lives in Virginia.

All photographs and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) road marking transition from agriculture to prairie, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Franklin Grove, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  tree line and prairie transition at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; skies over the Schulenberg Prairie in October, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) leaf, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bluebird house on the prairie, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison) in October, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Franklin Grove, IL; unknown bumblebee (Bombus) in cream gentian (Gentiana flavida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; goldfinch (Spinus tristis) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; October skies, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Franklin Grove, IL; bison corral gates, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy of Illinois, Franklin Grove, IL.

10 Reasons to Hike the October Prairie

“…I cannot endure to waste anything so precious as autumnal sunshine by staying in the house. So I have spent almost all the daylight hours in the open air.” –Nathaniel Hawthorne

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What do you think of in October? Halloween candy sales? Pumpkins? Fall foliage?

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There’s more this month than squash and sugar going on, or a few maples turning color. Really. October is one of the most satisfying months on the tallgrass prairie. Here’s why you’ll want to go for a hike this week.

#10. Those October color contrasts! So vivid and striking. And how could the seeds of something on the prairie called “carrion flower” be so pretty?

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#9. That sky.  Take a moment, find a comfortable place in the sunshine to lay on your back, and cloud-watch for a while in the tallgrass. Wow.

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#8. Once familiar plants take on a whole new personality in October.  Like this false Solomon’s seal. Worth hunting for.

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#7. Sometimes, the seedheads of prairie plants are  just as interesting as the flowers—or more so. True of this pale prairie coneflower? You be the judge.

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#6. Round-headed bush clover might double as a Pinterest craft project with pom-poms gone awry.

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#5. Each prairie trail promises adventures, just around the corner.

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#4. Step outside in the evening. Glorious sunsets, followed by clear, crystal-splattered starry nights make every October twilight show time.

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#3. If you’re a prairie steward like I am, sumac may be a pain in the neck. So aggressive! But in October, you can’t help but catch your breath at its colors. The lower slant of the autumnal sun backlights them just so. Sumac are the stained glass windows of the prairie cathedral.

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#2. There’s a dreaminess that October brings to the prairie; a sense of other-worldliness in the plants blown out to seed, the changing hues of the grasses. Everything seems a bit unmoored; adrift.

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#1. Seeing the seeds disperse on October breezes offers hope for the future, doesn’t it? Even when it seems that chaos is the order of the day, the prairie goes about its regular business. Just as it has done for thousands of years.

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The days are shortening. October is half over.

If you haven’t hiked the prairie this week, what are you waiting for? Why not go see?

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Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) was a novelist born in Salem, Massachusetts, and the author of such required high school reading as The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables. He was a contemporary of Abraham Lincoln, and when  he died, his pallbearers included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Hawthorne is considered by some to be one of the greatest fiction writers in American literature.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo) patch, Jon-a-Mac Orchard, Malta, IL; upright carrion flower (Smilax ecirrhata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; clouds over Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; false Solomon’s seal (Smilacina racemosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata), Taltree Arboretum/Gabis Arboretum, Purdue Northwest, Valparaiso, IN;  path to the prairie, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset, Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie, Glenview, IL; smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bridge to the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; butterfly weed (Asclepius tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.