“…I have meandered, like the drifts of snow, across the wide prairies.” —Paul Gruchow
It transformed the prairie.
Then, it melted.
But in the brief time it was here, it was magical.
On Sunday, the first significant snowfall in…well, a while here…cast its spell on the gray, gloomy January landscape. It turned wearisome weather into wonder.
The mallards sailed through slush, tracing their way through the prairie pond.
It’s been unusually warm for a snowfall. You can feel the unresolved tension between freeze and thaw.
After days of hiking muddy trails under platinum skies, the white stuff falling lifts my spirits. Snowflakes touch each wildflower’s winter remains with brightness.
Grasses tremble under their frosty loads.
Last summer’s leaves, freed from their job of churning chlorophyll, become works of art.
Seed pods have jettisoned most of their loads.
Almost before we can finish our hike today, the snowfall is over.
But the enchantment will stay with me.
I wish you would have stayed longer. But I’m grateful for your presence on the prairie today.
The opening quote is from Paul Gruchow’s Journal of a Prairie Year (Milkweed Editions). There isn’t much written about the prairie in winter, and Gruchow (1947-2004) does a fine job describing his January hikes. He was one of the prairie’s best writers.
Join Cindy for a class or program in February!
Nature Writing Workshop— Four Thursday evenings (February 2, 9, 16, and 23) from 6-8:30 p.m. Join a community of nature lovers as you develop and nurture your writing skills in person. Class size is limited. Hosted by The Morton Arboretum. Masks are optional. For more information and to register visit here.
Winter Prairie Wonders — Tuesday, February 7, 10-11:30 a.m. Discover the joys of the prairie in winter as you hear readings about the season. Enjoy stories of the animals who call the prairie home. Hosted by the Northbrook Garden Club in Northbrook, IL. Free to non-members, but you must register by contacting NBKgardenclub@gmail.com for more information.
Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Fliers –— Wednesday, February 8, noon-1:30 p.m. Hosted by Countryside Garden Club in Crystal Lake, IL. (Closed event for members)
The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Charm Shop— Thursday, February 9, 12:30-2 p.m. Hosted by Wheaton Garden Club in Wheaton, IL (closed event for members).
Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers— February 20, 7:15 p.m-8:45 p.m. Hosted by the Suburban Garden Club, Indian Head Park, IL. Free and open to non-members. For more information, contact Cindy through her website contact space at http://www.cindycrosby.com.
Bell Bowl Prairie in Rockford, IL, needs your help! Find out more on saving this threatened remnant prairie at SaveBellBowlPrairie.
“In the book of the earth it is written:nothing can die.”—Mary Oliver
“Have you noticed?”
In her poem, “Ghosts” the late poet Mary Oliver wrote compellingly about our native bison and their disappearance from the world.
Have you noticed? she asks, then continues: “In the book of the Sioux it is written: they have gone away into the earth to hide/Nothing will coax them out again/But the people dancing.“
Have you noticed? In 2016, the “dance” at the Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands in Morocco, IN, began with 23 bison brought to the preserve. Today, the herd has grown to around 90 animals, a few of which are barely visible this afternoon in the freezing mist.
At the bison viewing area, I hike to a slight rise in the landscape for a better look.
My hands quickly grow numb in the raw, moist air. Along the trail, mist-scattered diamond droplets cling to every plant.
A wet prairie’s colors in December are intensified. Especially under an aluminum sky.
Little bluestem’s rusty red glistens.
The soft pads of great mullein sparkle in the damp.
Wild saplings drip, drip, drip.
I notice the way the mist changes the prairie. Sharp edges: blurred. Horizons: hazed.
I notice the way the mist changes how I feel.
Which is…a deep melancholy. A sense of loss.
A loneliness that many explorers encountering prairie for the first time in their travels hundreds of year ago wrote about in their journals, and mentioned in their letters back home. It’s a December feeling; a pensiveness I rarely feel on the prairie in spring or summer.
The loss of tallgrass prairie in the Midwest is incalculable. It’s not only the disappearance of rare plants. It’s the loss of a whole community that vanished. How can we not feel grief in the midst of this knowledge?
And yet… I feel hope here at Kankakee Sands, as well as loss. I know the dance of restoration is not one of instant gratification. But a new future is being written for prairie. It’s not a clear future, and there will be plenty of obstacles along the way. I’m inspired, however, by those who care enough to make it happen.
The mist muffles the sound of traffic just off the prairie on U.S. Highway 41; obscures the farmland beyond the preserve’s borders. I can almost imagine I’m hiking with those early explorers or the Native Americans who once called this area home; encountering the vast expanses of tallgrass prairie that once blanketed the Midwest.
Under the slate-gray afternoon sky, lost in the mist, the prairie seems like a dream. The dream of a future where the tallgrass prairie community is vibrant and healthy again.
With the help of people, it’s a dream that is slowly coming true, right here at Kankakee Sands.
Have you noticed?
The opening quote and poetry excerpts (Have you noticed?) are from Mary Oliver’s “Ghosts”, included in her poetry collection American Primitive (1983). Read more about this late great poet (1935-2019) here.
All photos in today’s blog were taken at Kankakee Sands, a Nature Conservancy site in Morocco, IN. If you find yourself in northwestern Indiana, or are looking for a delightful day trip from the Chicago Region, I can’t recommend this preserve highly enough. For more information, visit the website here.
Join Cindy for a Class or Program this Winter!
The Tallgrass Prairie in Popular Culture—Friday, January 20, from 10-11:30 a.m. Explore the role the tallgrass prairie plays in literature, art, music—and more! Enjoy a hot beverage as you discover how Illinois’ “landscape of home” has shaped our culture. Offered by The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL; register here.
Nature Writing Workshop— Four Thursdays (February 2, 9, 16, and 23) from 6-8:30 p.m. Join a community of nature lovers as you develop and nurture your writing skills in person. For more information and to register visit here.
Illinois Prairie needs you! Visit Save Bell Bowl Prairie to learn about this special place—one of the last remaining gravel prairies in our state —and to find out what you can do to help.
“Even then, I sensed that the buffalo signaled something profound….”–Dan O’Brien
We followed the sandhill cranes south this weekend…
…as we traveled to central Indiana. The morning skies were an ever-changing source of awe, from the moment we started our drive at sunrise…
…to the beautiful morning cloud formations over the corn fields of the northwestern corner of the Hoosier state.
And a lunar eclipse! Still to come.
A favorite stop when we travel this way is Kankakee Sands in Indiana’s northwest corner. This past Saturday, we celebrated “National Bison Day” honoring our official United States mammal, so it seemed like a no-brainer to carve out a few extra miles to see if we could get a glimpse of this charismatic megafauna.
Kankakee Sands is a beautiful mosaic of wetlands and prairie, part of a greater conservation effort that includes about 20,000 acres. Within its acres are 86 rare, threatened, and endangered species.
We don’t always see the bison when we stop, but this time, we were in luck.
What awe-inspiring creatures! Two young bison stuck close to their mama, while keeping an eye on us.
We watched another part of the herd run by in the distance. Bison can attain speeds of up to 35 mph. How can animals that can weigh more than 2,000 pounds move so quickly? What made them hurry to the other end of the prairie?
No idea. But they were fun to watch.
We took a few moments to walk the hiking trail at less-than-bison speed…
…and stretched our legs after the long car journey. From the trail, we could observe some of the prairie plants in their full fall glory.
Little bluestem is at its peak.
What a glorious grass! Those rust hues. Those seeds, which spark the sunlight! It’s a lovely grass for home plantings, as well as on the larger landscape of the tallgrass prairie. I was reminded that I have three little bluestem plugs still waiting to be planted at home, sitting on my porch. Ha! Better get those in soon.
Tufted thistle swirled its seeds into the wind as we watched.
The wind had also broken off mullein’s tall spikes…
The native—but weedy—seedheads of evening primrose swayed in the breezes.
On the hill at the end of the trail, a tall tree, denuded of most of its leaves, loomed in the dying light. Very November-esque.
In the distance, white tailed deer mingled with the bison. They seemed content to share the prairie. Although we didn’t hear birdsong, we saw evidence of birds that were long gone south.
And then suddenly…a northern harrier cannonballed out of the grasses. Wow!
We watched it soar over the prairie; a fast-moving blur. It was quickly lost in the dying light.
While we were startled by the owl-like northern harrier, the mama bison and her young ones placidly grazed in the tallgrass. For them, it was just another part of a normal evening on the prairie.
What a peaceful scene, yet full of surprises. I felt myself relax. The prairie has a way of reminding me what contentment feels like.
The most difficult part of going to Kankakee Sands is making the decision to leave, and face the last leg of traffic entering Chicago. So much beautiful prairie here, all around. What an worth-while place to stop for a hike.
On the drive home, closing out our Sunday, we watched an almost-full moon rise over the 34-acre Biesecker Prairie as we waited at a stoplight for the light to change in St. John, Indiana. The prairie is right at the intersection.
It was worth setting the alarm for. Pretty spectacular.
Bison. A lunar eclipse. Prairies. What a wonderful way to begin the week. Who knows what other treats are in store?
I can’t wait to find out.
The opening quote is from Buffalo for the Broken Heart by Dan O’Brien (1966-). The New York Times notes O’Brien has a “keen and poetic eye” as he writes about his struggles to raise bison on a Black Hills ranch. Read more about his life and work here.
Close out 2022 by Joining Cindy for a Class or Program
Saturday, November 12, 2022 (1-2:30 p.m.) Add a Little Prairie to Your Garden, hosted by the Antioch Garden Club, Antioch, IL. In-person. Free and open to the public, but you must register. For information and to inquire about registering for the event, visit the garden club’s website 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. In-person. Register here.
A very happy birthday to Trevor Dean Edmonson, site manager at Kankakee Sands, whose birthday is today! Thank you for the work you do!
“There was still a little green in the grasses, and the dry tops of the fall grasses genuflected in the wind.” —Paul Gruchow
It’s the last Tuesday in October on the prairie. What an incredible week it’s been! No tricks. Lots of treats.
Let’s go for hike and see.
I’m hiking close to a planted prairie kame, a mound of gravel and sand deposited by the glaciers.
Prairie kames seem to pop up lately, wherever I hike. Earlier this month, it was a kame in Kane County. (Try saying that three times fast). Today, it’s a kame here at the DuPage County Forest Preserve.
Two kames in one month? A welcome occurrence.
The trails by the prairie are lined with tree color.
It would be a shame to walk quickly, and not take time to admire the leaves. Look at that sumac! It’s a jeweled kaleidoscope. Change your point of view and watch the light play with the colors and patterns.
Beautiful? You bet. This sumac is native but a bit aggressive, so a mixed blessing on the prairie. Speaking of which…look at those tints and tones; shades and hues.
Smooth blue asters, a pop of color.
So many asters here that I struggle to identify! My iNaturalist app says to choose between common blue wood aster, Drummond’s aster, and a few others on the aster in the photo below. I’m still unsure; there’s a little “taxonomic instability”—as Illinois Wildflowers notes—between some of the species.
New England asters pump purples. At least there is one aster species easily identifiable!
More sumac glows, as beautiful as any flower.
And the grasses! Let’s talk about the grasses. Look at the little bluestem…
…paired with “spook-tactular” switchgrass.
Bewitching big bluestem.
Sideoats grama—the state grass of Texas and an Illinois native—are all at peak.
The seeds of rosinweed mimic the recent flowers, now spent.
Everywhere, the prairie wildflowers have gone to seed. A sea of fluff.
The winds and rain will put paid to the glorious autumn foliage this week.
I’ll keep the images of hiking this prairie trail tucked away in my mind to delight in this winter. When the snow flies, I’ll close my eyes and remember the colors…
…and be haunted by the memories…
…of this glorious autumn day in the prairie.
The quote that kicks off this blog post is by Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) from his essay “Autumn” from Journal of a Prairie Year. His prairie essays are among my favorites, especially “What the Prairie Teaches Us” from Grass Roots: The Universe of Home. Both books are published by Milkweed Editions.
Upcoming Programs and Classes
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.
“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)
“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.
“I can stop what I am doing long enough to see where I am, who I am there with, and how awesome the place is.” —Barbara Brown Taylor
Sandhill cranes cry high above the prairie, scribbling indecipherable messages in the sky. They’re on the move south.
I’ll scan the skies the next few weeks, admiring them as they leave. The prairie skies will be emptier this winter when they’re gone. Months from now, I’ll see them again, heading north in the spring. What will the world look like then? It’s impossible to know.
I hike the prairie, deep in thought. It’s so easy to focus on what is being lost. November, with its seasonal slide into long nights and short days, seems to invite that. I have to remind myself to pay attention to what is in front of me. What the season offers. Seeds. Everywhere, the prairie is an explosion of seeds.
Seeds like pom poms.
Seeds born aloft, in spent flower heads, like so many antenna.
Seedheads are skeletal. Architectural.
Seeds are impressionistic.
Seeds flying high in the prairie sky.
Seeds caught in mid-fall. Almost there. Almost.
The pandemic has dragged on and on. Just when I thought we’d turned a corner—almost!—it feels like we’re headed in the wrong direction again. Seems we’re not out of the woods yet.
It’s easy to get distracted, worrying about the future. Sometimes my mind turns over my fears in a relentless cycle. Reading the newspaper over breakfast just fuels the fire. I forget to remind myself of all I have to be grateful for.
Family. Friends. Food on the table. A roof over my head. This prairie to help care for.
It helps me to list these things. And then, to remind myself what’s good and lovely in the world.
I’m thankful to see the prairie seeds.
They remind me that another season has passed.
A new season is just months away. Seeing the prairie give its energy to creating life through its seeds fills me with hope. Such a cycle! What a marvel.
Here, in the tallgrass, I see a world full of color. Motion. Sound. Beauty. The only tallgrass headlines are “Wow!”
How wonderful it is to be alive.
I walk, and I look, and I walk some more. How amazing to have the luxury of going to a beautiful place, with time just to think. How grateful I am to have a strong knee now, to take me down these trails that just three years ago gave me tremendous pain to hike.
How overwhelmed with thanks I am that my body is cancer-free, after two years of uncertainty and fear. How grateful I am for this reprieve. There are no guarantees. We can only, as the late writer Barry Lopez wrote, keep “leaning into the light.”
Your list of worries is probably different than mine. So, I imagine, is your list of what you’re thankful for. I hope this week finds you in a good place. I hope you have your own list of what brings you joy, in the midst of whatever you are dealing with.
This week I’m going to put aside my worries about the future. I’m going to focus on joy. There’s a lot to be thankful for. The prairie reminds me of this. I hope you can go for a hike, wherever you find yourself, and be reminded, too.
All photos this week unless otherwise noted are from the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.
The opening quote is from Barbara Brown Taylor’s (1951-) An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. She is also the author of Learning to Walk in the Dark and many other books.
Join Cindy for a program or class!
Winter Prairie Wonders: Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass!Dec. 3 (Friday) 10-11:30 am (Central): Make yourself a cup of hot tea, snuggle under a warm afghan, and join prairie steward and writer Cindy Crosby virtually for this interactive online immersion into the tallgrass prairie in winter. See the aesthetic beauty of the snow-covered grasses and wildflowers in cold weather through colorful images of winter on the prairies. Follow animal tracks to see what creatures are out and about, and see how many you can identify. Learn how birds, pollinators, and mammals use winter prairie plants; the seeds for nourishment and the grasses and spent wildflowers for overwintering, protection, and cover. Then, listen as Cindy shares brief readings about the prairie in winter that will engage your creativity and nourish your soul. This is scheduled as a Zoom event through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.
Please visit your local independent bookstore (Illinois’ friends: The Arboretum Store in Lisle and The Book Store in Glen Ellyn) to purchase or order Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spiritfor the holidays. Discover full-color prairie photographs and essays from Cindy and co-author Thomas Dean.
Save Bell Bowl Prairie! Visit the website to find out how you can help keep this critical remnant from being bulldozed in Illinois. One phone call, one letter, or sharing the information with five friends will help us save it.
“Earth teach me quiet, as the grasses are still with new light.”–Ute Prayer
Goodbye, summer. I’m not sad to see you go.
I’m ready for less humidity. More cool breezes.
Less chaotic headlines. More peace and stability.
I’m ready for change.
Meteorological summer draws to a close on the tallgrass prairie today. The signs of autumn are all around us, from the sheets of goldenrods….
… to the fringed swirls of deep purple New England asters, to the pale amethyst obedient plant spikes.
You can feel autumn nearing in the slant of light. The air is pixelled, a bit grainy. Mornings dawn later and cooler, a little less of the “air you can wear” humid.
…is a hummingbird magnet, both on the prairies and in my backyard prairie planting. When the hummers finish nectaring at the hyssop, they bounce from the cardinal flowers to the zinnias, then over to the sugar-water feeder. According to Journey North at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, ruby-throated hummingbirds eat between one-and-a-half to three times their weight in food each day. Imagine if we did that! (Hello, ice cream!) This time of year, they are in a state known as hyperphagia, in which they fuel up for migration.
Journey North, which tracks hummingbird migration sightings, notes that the males may have already left for the south by the end of August. Females and young ones will follow this week and next. Each one migrates alone. I wonder what it feels like, flying so far, looking for flowers to nectar at along the way?
On my prairie hikes this week, I see insects. So many insects! Wasps. Praying mantis. Grasshoppers. Robber flies.
Robber flies are so bizarre! This one is a Billy Gibbons look-alike. Robber flies ambush other insects in flight, then land and suck the juices out of them. There are stories of robber flies preying on wasps, bees, and even hummingbirds! Their nickname is “cannibal fly” because they snack on each other. Yikes!
Although robber flies are strange looking, skunk cabbage seedpods may get my award for “most bizarre late summer find” this year. I was out with Dr. Elizabeth Bach at Nachusa Grasslands on a dragonfly monitoring run this past week, and we waded into a boggy area. I recognized skunk cabbage immediately.
But not the seed pod. She was kind enough to point it out.
Cool! I would have thought it was some type of fungi. In the same wet area, we found the cream of the late summer wildflowers. A small stand of turtlehead…
…virgin’s bower, twining among the false buckwheat at the edge of the woods…
…and lots of swamp betony (or “swamp lousewort” or “marsh lousewort” as it is sometimes called).
August is also bloom time for one of my favorite wildflowers: the great blue lobelia. Love that eye-popping color! I find this wetland native at Nachusa Grasslands, and I also have it around my backyard pond.
The name “tallgrass prairie” is apt for this last day of August. Off the trail, it’s tough hiking through the curtain of grasses. Big bluestem, switchgrass, Indian grass, and cordgrass, are in all stages of flowering and seed. Little bluestem in seed reminds me of July Fourth sparklers.
When I leave the prairie, I’m powdered with pollen from a hundred different blooms. As I brush off my shirt, I think of September. So close I can feel it. This has been a summer full of truth-is-stranger-than-fiction happenings; a savage season of tornadoes and drought; and a summer of a continuing pandemic that just won’t quit. I won’t miss these things.
It’s also been a summer of knock-out wildflowers….
…beautiful sunsets and cumulus clouds like whipped cream; blue moons and butterflies; tiger beetles and tiger swallowtails; and a host of wonders free for the viewing—if we take time to pay attention. It’s these everyday miracles of the natural world that sustain me amid the chaos seemingly all around.
Thank you for these bright spots, summer.
And now….Welcome, fall.
The opening quote is from a Ute Prayer, given here in its entirety from the Aspen Institute:Earth teach me quiet, as the grasses are still with new light. Earth teach me suffering ~ as old stones suffer with memory. Earth teach me humility, as blossoms are humble with beginning. Earth teach me caring, as mothers nurture their young. Earth teach me courage, as the tree that stands alone. Earth teach me limitation, as the ant that crawls on the ground. Earth teach me freedom, as the eagle that soars in the sky. Earth teach me acceptance, as the leaves that die each fall. Earth teach me renewal, as the seed that rises in the spring. Earth teach me to forget myself, as melted snow forgets its life. Earth teach me to remember kindness, as dry fields weep with rain. The Ute were an indigenous tribe that once lived in what is present day Utah and Nevada. Very few Utes survive to the present day.
Join Cindy for a class or program this fall!
September 9, 9:30-11 am– in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Oswego Hilltoppers Garden Club, Oswego Public Library. Please visit the club’s Facebook page for guest information, event updates pending Covid positivity in Illinois, and Covid protocol. Masks required for this event.
September 27, 7-8:30 p.m.–in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Arlington Heights Garden Club. Please visit the club’s website here for guest information, event updates pending Covid positivity in Illinois, and Covid protocol.
If you enjoy this blog, please check out Cindy’s collection of essays with Thomas Dean, Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit. Order from your favorite indie bookseller, or direct from Ice Cube Press.
“There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.”—Barry Lopez
And so we come to the last days of 2020. Hope glimmers dimly on the horizon, but the darkness is still with us.
As we step through the shadows into 2021…
…we’re reassured by the orderly progression of the seasons. On the prairie, little bluestem paints patches of red and rust.
I think of the novelist Willa Cather’s words: “I wanted to walk straight on through the red grass and over the edge of the world, which could not be very far away.”
We marvel at ordinary pleasures as simple as sunlight bright on an ice-filled stream.
We welcome back the longer daylight hours—more of an idea now than a reality, but gradually becoming noticeable.
No matter what twists and turns lie ahead…
…there is solace in the beauty of the natural world.
As we hike the prairie for the last time together in 2020, I wish you good health.
Freedom from fear and anxiety.
A long-awaited reunion with friends and family—-when it’s safe to do so.
And—a renewed capacity for joy and wonder. No matter the circumstances. No matter what is in the news each day. Despite the challenges the new year will bring.
Keep paying attention.
Happy New Year!
The opening quote is by author Barry Lopez (1945-2020), who passed away on Christmas Day. If you’ve not read his books, a good one to begin with this winter is Arctic Dreams, which won the National Book Award in 1986. He wrote compellingly about wolves and wilderness. Read more about him here.
Please note: As of this week, I’ve moved all photo identifications and locations to captions under the images. Enjoy!
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.
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 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.
” … that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.”—Willa Cather *****
As I scanned the “On this date in history” in the newspaper Monday, there she was. Novelist Willa Cather was born Dec.7, 1873. Her writing explored life on the western prairies, and also, the desert Southwest.
For those of us who love any prairie—-tallgrass, mixed grass, or shortgrass—several of her passages are inseparable from the way we see the landscapes we walk through, prairie or otherwise. These sentences stay with us, as the best writer’s words do, surfacing when the winds riffle the tallgrass or the broad sweep of a prairie sky stops us in astonishment.
The original prairie has largely disappeared since the days of Willa Cather. In Oh Pioneers! she wrote, “The shaggy coat of the prairie…has vanished forever.”
I wonder what she would have thought about the tallgrass prairie of Illinois?
In honor of Willa Cather’s birthday this week, let’s hike the prairie together and view it through her writing.
“I was born upon the prairie, where the wind blew free, and there was nothing to break the light of the sun.” — Oh Pioneers!
“There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm.” — The Song of the Lark
“As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea.” — My Antonia
“The red of the grass made all the great prairie the color of wine stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.” —My Antonia
“I wanted to walk straight on through the red grass and over the edge of the world, which could not be very far away.” — My Antonia
“Trees were so rare in that country, and they had to make such a hard fight to grow, that we used to feel anxious about them, and visit them as if they were persons.” — My Antonia
“Success is never so interesting as struggle.”–The Song of the Lark
The light and air about me told me that the world ended here: only the ground and sun and sky were left…
… and if one went a little farther there would only be sun and sky, and one would float off into them, like the tawny hawks which sailed over our heads making slow shadows on the grass.” — My Antonia
“The landscape one longed for when one was far away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!” –Death Comes for the Archbishop
The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.”–Oh Pioneers!
“There was nothing but land; not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.”–My Antonia
The land and all that it bore they treated with consideration; not attempting to improve it, they never desecrated it.” –Death Comes for the Archbishop
What prairie writers will you think about when you walk the tallgrass trails this week? Leave me a comment below, if you’d like to share your favorites.
The blog quotes today are from various works of Willa Cather (1873-1947), who won the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours (1923). After graduating from University of Nebraska, she lived in Pittsburgh and New York City. Death Comes to the Archbishop was recognized by Time as one of the 100 best novels between 1923-2005. The opening quote is from My Antonia, and is engraved on Cather’s tombstone in Jaffery, New Hampshire.
All photos taken at College of DuPage’s Russell R. Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL unless tagged otherwise (top to bottom): Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis) compass plant (Silphium lacinatum); Prairie Parking sign; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum); prairie pond; the prairie in December (college in background); little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) under ice, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL (2/19); trail to the trees; unusual rosette gall (Rabdophaga rosacea); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) over the prairie; sky over the prairie; fasciation on common evening primrose (Oenothera biennis); December on the prairie (college in the background); common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).
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.