Tag Archives: little bluestem

Prairie Tricks and Treats

“You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.” — Annie Dillard

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Mother Nature pulled out her bag of tricks this weekend. First up: tropical storm Olga. She swept into the Chicago region Saturday, washing out roads and flooding creeks. Pools of water stand on the prairie. Wind decoupages the savanna trails with sifted leaves.

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Willoway Brook muscles over its banks, surging and submerging.

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Our resident great blue heron watches the weather unfold from a high bare branch.  Despite the bird’s great size, it weighs only five or six pounds. Why? Its bones are hollow.

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I watch the heron, and wonder. Male? Or female? Cornell, my favorite bird resource, tells me the female heron is smaller; otherwise, males and females look mostly similar.  Huh. Not much help, I’m afraid.

Olga, her temper tantrum spent, moves on and Sunday dawns to a scoured-blue sky. Jeff and I stroll the Belmont Prairie  to celebrate. The storm burnishes the Indian grass and big bluestem to bronze, copper, and golds; puffs of soaked seedheads soften the metallic stalks. The post-storm light so bright it almost hurts. It’s a treat after all that gloom and rain.

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Water-soaked rattlesnake master dries its seedheads in the sunshine.

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Its sharp-spined leaves are as striking as its seedheads, and makes it easy to spot in the tallgrass.

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Signs of recent restoration seed collection are everywhere. Clumps of Indian grass are lopped off. Some forbs show signs of positive pilfering. Belmont prairie volunteers have been busy! However, most thimbleweed seeds are still around, in all possible stages of seed production.

Tight and “green.”

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Q-tip topped.

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A few are full-blown. Ready for collection.

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All at once, or so it seems, the tall coreopsis leaves have turned the colors of a sunrise. A treat for the eyes.

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Tricks of the cold? Or of the shorter days? I’m not sure. I only know that autumn has come calling, and the prairie is transformed.

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Sunday’s sunshine gave way to fog on Monday. The Schulenberg Prairie is wreathed in mist.

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As I hike, the rising sun briefly lights the prairie.

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I watch it pull over the horizon, then sputter to a spark.

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It disappears behind the clouds. Poof! Gone.

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Even without much light, the prairie glows in the fog. Little bluestem and stiff goldenrod thread themselves into an impressionistic tapestry.

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The savanna offers its own colorful morning treats. Sumac. Boneset. Pale prairie plantain.

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Joe Pye weed and woodland sunflowers swirl seed-clouds under the changing leaves.

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Simple pleasures.

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Familiar seedheads, like these tall coreopsis, seem unfamiliar in the fog.

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Tricks of the light.

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The smell of sweet decay after the storm is oddly energizing. In less than a week, rain has soaked the prairie. Sun has baked it. Cold changed its colors. Now, the mist acts as a moisturizer. Fog dampens my skin. There’s a low hum of bird chatter low in the grasses; a nuthatch beeps its toy horn call from the savanna. My jeans are soaked.

I’m fully awake. Fully relaxed. Content.

The prairie at the end of October is a treat for the senses. It’s tough to see the month go.

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Goodbye, October.

We hardly knew ya.

*****

The quote that opens this post is from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. I reread this book every year, and learn something new each time I do so.

*****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom):  leaves on the savanna trail, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook in flood, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; great blue heron (Ardea herodias), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Belmont Prairie at the end of October, Downer’s Grove, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccaolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccafolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; tall coreoposis (Coreopsis tripteris), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie in the morning fog, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  morning fog over bridge, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bridge to the sun, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunrise with tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; little bluestem (Schizochryum scoparium) and stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie Savanna at the end of October, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie Savanna at the end of October, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown sumac (Rhus spp.), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ritibida pinnata) with switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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Join Cindy! Upcoming Speaking and Events

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online wraps up this month! Watch for the next course in March. Registration opens on November 19 here.

Nature Writing continues at The Morton Arboretum, on-line and in-person through November 20. Next session begins March 3, 2020. Watch for registration soon!

Saturday, December 7, 1:30-3 p.m.: Join Cindy and The Morton Arboretum’s library collections manager Rita Hassert for Sterling Stories from the Arboretum Stacks, at the Sterling Morton Library, Lisle, IL.  Register here. A lovely afternoon enjoying little known Arboretum’s stories, and a quiet respite from the holiday hustle and bustle.

Sunday, December 8, 2-3:30 p.m.: Tallgrass Conversations at Prairieview Education Center, 2112 Behan Road, Crystal Lake, IL 815-479-5779 Book signing after the talk! Free and open to the public.

See more at www.cindycrosby.com   

October Prairie Adventures

“What day is it?” asked Pooh. “It’s today,” squeaked Piglet. “My favorite day,” said Pooh. ― A.A. Milne

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The trees blushed into their autumn hues seemingly overnight, delighting leaf-peepers in the Chicago region. Under an onslaught of 35 mph wind gusts and chilly rain on Monday, these same trees gleefully tore loose their red, gold, and copper leaves, sifting them into the streets and sidewalks.

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The rain drizzled to a stop. Sunlight shafted through big-bellied clouds moving fast across the sky.  Light glinted in the swirling leaves, littering the road. It feels like fall at last.

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Suddenly, the birds nests we hunted for all summer are starkly visible. There is the oriole’s nest-purse! Right over my head! And  —So that’s where the squirrel built her drey! Tree branches stand out in start relief, some with miniature worlds to discover.

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In the 1942 book, We Took to the Woods, Louise Dickinson Rich tells of living deep in the Maine forest. She writes that she doesn’t mind the long hike to town to get the mail, as she anticipates visiting with friends. And then — “There are the woods themselves, which I like better in winter than in summer, because I like the type of design that emphasizes line rather than mass,” she writes. “The bare branches of the hardwood trees look exactly like etchings.” In autumn, I feel the same as the trees strip down to silhouettes.

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Woolly bear caterpillars are everywhere, it seems, especially if you have the focus to find them. A good way to “see” them is to take a child with you. I hiked the Schulenberg Prairie this week with my six-year-old grandson Tony looking for the last dragonflies. Only a lone green darner was hanging around, but he found eight Woolly Bears in under an hour.

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Until this October, I didn’t know Woolly Bears climb plants! Tony and I found this one  below, that had “slinky-ed” its way up into a stiff goldenrod plant.

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Later last week, I took a lovely group of women out to collect little bluestem and stiff goldenrod seeds.

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They found at least two more Woolly Bears clinging to the tops of prairie plants, again, mostly stiff goldenrod. Maybe Wilhelm and Rericha’s massive reference work,  Flora of the Chicago Region, will need to add this “insect association” to its list!

Interesting. The Woolly Bear is folklore-famous for its ability to forecast the weather. Of course, its all in fun, but I always like to see if the prediction matches the actual weather that follows. All the Woolly Bears on the Schulenberg Prairie this season seem to have predominately rust-colored bodies, with a bit of black.

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According to Farmer’s Almanac, this means a mild winter. Further reading says the Woolly Bear’s direction of travel is also a factor; if they are moving south, it means a cold winter; north is a mild winter.

No word on what it means when they crawl upwards.

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Jeff and I hiked Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve this weekend, and while we didn’t find any Woolly Bears, we did find some other fauna. Jeff was looking for a map…..

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When he opened the box, there were none. But some enterprising prairie fauna had moved in.

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Sweet! A map mouse house. We carefully closed the lid and left the tiny critters to their naps. The prairie is always full of unexpected surprises.

This was our first time hiking Westchester, Illinois’ Wolf Road Prairie in the autumn, and it was a delight. Entering from the south, you find the celebrated old sidewalks left from the subdivision that was platted and partially laid out, then abandoned back in the late 1920s during the Great Depression.  The savanna breaks into the open prairie, with the city as a backdrop. So many remnants now have this juxtaposition; the urban and suburban with the last pieces of tallgrass untouched by the plow. It’s a celebration of the determined people who saved these precious patches from development.

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As you hike, you’re reminded of the relentless reclamation of nature, when She is given the chance. The sidewalks, now almost 100 years old, are breaking up under the slow pursuit of the grasses and in one spot, the more aggressive roots of a lone cottonwood.

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Everywhere you follow the sidewalks, you see the hard-won efforts of prairie restoration stewards in the diversity of native prairie plants spread out in all directions.

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We stripped some Indian grass of its seeds and took a moment to admire them before scattering them into the prairie.

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The prairie dock leaves showed the transition between the seasons.

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The rusts of little bluestem colored the tallgrass; the late morning sun backlit the seedheads, throwing sparks of light.

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Overhead, a half-moon shadowed us as we hiked back through the savanna to our car.

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The prairie moves from wildflowers to wisps and puffs and kernels of seeds.

Trees transform themselves from welcome shady refuges with blurred edges to stripped down, sharp-cut “etchings.”

I’m embracing the change.

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Playwright and novelist A.A. Milne (1882-1956), whose quote opens this post, was a British author who penned the wildly popular Winnie the Pooh children’s books. He and his wife, Dorothy, had a son named Christopher Robin, who resented the Pooh books. The rift ended in his estrangement from his parents. The real-life Milnes are chronicled in the 2017 movie, Goodbye Christopher Robin.  Disney eventually acquired all rights for the Winnie the Pooh books and characters for $350 million in 2001. In 2005, Winnie the Pooh generated $6 billion dollars for Disney.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Unknown tree along the East Side route at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; road through the trees, East Side Route, Lisle, IL; mosses and fungi on an oak branch, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bison (Bison bison) at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (photo taken in 2017); chasing dragonflies, Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; woolly bear caterpillar (Pyrrharctia isabella) on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; seed collecting on the Schulenberg Prairie in October, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; woolly bear caterpillar (Pyrrharctia isabella), Schulenberg Prairie path, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; map box, Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; mouse family (maybe Peromyscus leucopus), Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; skyline behind the Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; sidewalk and eastern cottonwood tree (Populus deltoides), Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; blazing star (Liatris spp,), Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) seeds, Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; Jeff walks the sidewalks of the Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; half-moon over the savanna at Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

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Thanks to Robert Helfer for connecting me to the weather.gov article on Woolly Bears! I really enjoyed it.

Thanks to the Save the Prairie Society, who has worked so hard to care for the precious Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve community. What an accomplishment!

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Cindy’s upcoming classes and speaking events:

Saturday, December 7, 1:30-3 p.m.: Join Cindy and The Morton Arboretum’s library collections manager Rita Hassert for Sterling Stories from the Arboretum Stacks, at the Sterling Morton Library, Lisle, IL.  Register here. A lovely afternoon enjoying little known Arboretum’s stories, and a quiet respite from the holiday hustle and bustle.

Sunday, December 8, 2-3:30 p.m.: Tallgrass Conversations at Prairieview Education Center, 2112 Behan Road, Crystal Lake, IL 815-479-5779 Book signing after the talk! Free and open to the public.

October Prairie Wonders

“The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.” — Sherlock Holmes

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A whisper of frost is in the air, with the hard slam of a freeze not far behind.

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Cold weather’s scythe hangs over the prairie. In response, the tallgrass flings itself into October, showcasing all the delights that autumn has to offer. So much to explore. So much to discover.

Let’s go look.

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The tallgrass hums along, closing up shop, its seed production mostly complete.

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Smooth Solomon’s seal leaves cling to their bright green draining away. Their fruits show the turn of the season.

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Lichens colonize the metal bridge which leads to the prairie, splotching it with color.

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Nodding ladies’ tresses orchids,  latecomers to the seed production party, throw out their final blooms. Their mild fragrance has vanished into the cold.

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Big bluestem and Indian grass stitch the prairie with slender threads of subtle color.

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Pale prairie plantain trims the landscape with seed lace and leaf rickrack.

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Lashes of goldenrod’s foamy seeds decorate the edges.

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Late figwort throws its seed pearls into the mix.

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Little bluestem launches its colorfest; you can find swatches of it patching the prairie in a rust-hued blur.

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Pincushions of pasture thistle send silky seed-notes into the air.

 

 

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Joy in the aggregate; beauty in the singular.

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Dragonfly season is mostly shot. That said, six green darners hover overhead, delayed, perhaps, in joining the migration masses. A lone American rubyspot damselfly clings to reed canary grass over Willoway Brook. Despite the name, this particular insect is mostly colorless on a gray, windy, October day.

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The sounds of the season have gradually changed from summer to autumn in the Chicago region.

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Walking Fermilab’s interpretive trail in high winds this weekend, I hear the scraping of prairie dock leaves, still morphing between juiced and brittle. The hiss of big bluestem and Indian grass; rusting leaves and switchgrass stems rubbing together. The sound is rain patter on a roof, or hot oil in sizzling in a skillet. What do you think?

This prairie dock leaf’s venation stands out like a topo map; all mountains and rivers and ridges.

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Nearby, the rosette galls are October’s last bouquet; beauty in the face of rampant decay.

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Even the Queen Anne’s lace takes on a new persona in October. I hesitate to say it’s “beautiful” as we prairie stewards and volunteers work so hard to eradicate Queen Anne’s lace from our natural areas. And yet…

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Among the lone trees that sprinkle the tallgrass, I hear unaccustomed chirps — the sounds of warblers moving south and sheltering here for a few hours. “Those confusing fall warblers” — an understatement, if ever there was one. Today, a few invasive starlings show up with the warbler crowd. These—at least—are easy to ID.

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Although I’m not much good at identifying fall birds, I can identify a pair of sandhill cranes wading through a nearby wetland at Fermilab. Hard to miss.

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Regal and comical at the same time. Seemingly impervious to the cold winds.

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There’s so much to see in October on the prairie. So much grace and color. So many simple wonders.

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So much to love.

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It’s waiting for you.

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Sherlock Holmes, whose quote kicks off this post, was a fictional detective penned by British physician turned writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930). “Holmes” first appeared in print in the late 1880’s. Doyle also wrote poetry, science fiction, fantasy, plays, and romance.  Oddly enough, he also dabbled in architecture and designed a golf course and redesigned a hotel. Doyle, who had five children, died at 71; his last words were to his wife: “You are wonderful.” Now that’s sweet.

*****

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby except photo of children on bridge (courtesy Jennifer Buono): (top to bottom): stormy October skies over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  exploring the prairie, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (Jennifer Buono, photographer);  Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; smooth Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum commutatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown lichens on the bridge over Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; nodding ladies’ tresses orchids (Spiranthes cernua), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; probably Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) and pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasture thistles (Cirsium discolor), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Prairie Interpretive Trail in October, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; video of wind on the  Prairie Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Prairie Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; goldenrod gall rosette, Prairie Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), Prairie Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; European starling (Sturnus vulgaris), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis),  Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; woodland sunflower (Helianthus spp.), Interpretive Prairie Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; possibly American hog-peanut vine (Amphicarpaea bracteata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bench on the Schulenberg Prairie in October, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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Cindy’s nature writing class (online and in-person) begins Wednesday, October 16! Tomorrow is the last day to register —check it out here.

See more of Cindy’s speaking events and classes at www.cindycrosby.com

6 Reasons to Hike the October Prairie

“October is a fine and dangerous season in America . . . a wonderful time to begin anything at all.”  –Thomas Merton

*****

I hear them before I see them. Shielding my eyes against the afternoon sunshine, I scan the skies. Three sandhill cranes. A small wave headed south. Their chatter echoes long after they are folded into the deep blue sky and disappear.

More follow. They come and go throughout the afternoon.

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It’s bittersweet. Sandhill cranes moving south are a signal of change. Summer is gone,  and autumn, it seems, already passes too quickly. Seeing the first waves of cranes reminds me to open my eyes. Pay attention. To intentionally not miss a moment of the month. October is a time for walking the prairies and savannas slowly. For looking carefully. For soaking up whatever sunshine we can before cold weather hits.

Soon, October will be a dim but cherished memory.

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The woodlands are a magnet for paparazzi in October; visitors shooting photos of  the sugar maples aglow. Hickories and sweet gums change their green leaves to bright colors. But the prairie has its own autumnal palette.

Turn away from the woodlands for a moment, and consider six reasons to hike the tallgrass in October.

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1. Goodbye, Butterflies

In my backyard prairie patch and garden, the painted lady butterflies flutter wildly—drunk on nectar—-but not prepared to stop gorging themselves. Only frost will cut them off. Butterflies pile up, two to a bloom, jostling for the best positions, battling skippers and bees. The occasional monarch still floats across the prairie, but not in the numbers seen in September.

If you’re lucky, you’ll find some New England asters still in bloom as I did, with a few butterflies working the flowers. This cabbage white butterfly is a common one I see all summer on the prairie—and late into the fall. I love its pale, gold-dusted contrast with the  purple fringes of the aster.

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2. That Prairie Fragrance!

Breathe deep the newly-crisped air with its fragrance of cool damp earth and sweet decay.  Bee balm, Monarda fistulosa, still gives up its delicious fragrance when its leaves are broken. So does mountain mint. When I taste the leaves of both, the oils are a bit bitter and harsh in my mouth.  I content myself with rubbing the leaves between my fingers. Gray-headed coneflower seed heads, crushed in my hands, are my favorite fragrance of all. After a hike on the prairie, rubbing leaves, I’m scented with “the outdoors” for the rest of the day. Nature’s own prairie perfume.

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3. Seed Diversity

Walk the prairie and the prairie savanna this month and you’ll be astounded by the variety of seeds.

Pale Indian plantain, with its fluffy pinwheels.

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Tall compass plants, with their unique seedheads, bring the Statue of Liberty to mind, don’t you think?

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False Solomon’s seal brightens the prairie edges.

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Carrion vine’s mostly-inedible fruits will hang half-hidden in the Indian grass and big bluestem until almost spring.

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This week, I searched until I found the  quirky seeds of white turtlehead, almost invisible in the prairie now unless you know where to look. We don’t have very many turtleheads, so the seeds give me hope for more of this wildflower in the future.

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4. Structure 

Without the ka-POW of bright bloom colors blanketing the prairie, structure takes center stage.

Bottlebrush grass, with its skeletal spikes.

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You can see it it shares a Genus with Canada wild rye. They are both graceful and needle-like.

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5. Textures

Feel the rubbery leaves of pale Indian plantain.

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Then contrast them with the sandpapery surface of a compass plant leaf.

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6. Fall Color

The sumacs, woven into the prairie grasses, are touched with reds and chartreuse.

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Little bluestem sparks its seeds as its stems color up from greens to reds to rusts. The tallgrass prairie in October is just as startling and gorgeous in its own way as the colorful woodlands. Maybe better.

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Why not go see?

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Who knows who you’ll meet on your hike.

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It’s worth a trip to the tallgrass to find out.

*****

Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was best known for his spiritual memoir, The Seven Story Mountain (1948), the title of which refers to Purgatory in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Merton was an English literature teacher turned Trappist monk, who joined Kentucky’s Gethsemane Abbey. There, he wrote more than 50 books and promoted interfaith understanding. My favorite of Merton’s books is The Sign of Jonas.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken this week at the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, unless noted otherwise: Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) over author’s backyard prairie patch (this photo taken in 2016), Glen Ellyn, IL;  October in the savanna; prairie path; Small white butterfly or “cabbage white” (Pieris rapae) on New England aster  (Symphyotrichum novae-anglia), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL;  gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) with spider web; pale Indian plantain seedhead (Arnoglossum atriplicfolium); compass plant seedhead (Silphium terebinthinaceum); false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum); probably upright carrion vine (Smilax ecirrhata); white turtlehead (Chelone glabra) in seed; bottle brush grass (Elymus hystrix); Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium); compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); sumac (Rhus spp.); little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium); bridge in the October tallgrass; great blue heron (Ardea herodias).

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Join Cindy for a Nature Writing Workshop, online and in-person, through The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL. Click here for registration information. Or see http://www.cindycrosby.com for more classes and events.

Cindy’s forthcoming book is Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History with Northwestern University Press, illustrated by the talented Peggy Macnamara, artist-in-residence at The Field Museum, Chicago. Look for it in Spring, 2020.

The Rambunctious September Prairie

“Shall I not rejoice also at the abundance of weeds whose seeds are the granary of the birds?” — Henry David Thoreau

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September is in full swing. From my ring-side seat on the back porch overlooking the prairie, garden and pond,  the backyard is a jungle. I’ve been forbidden to pull weeds for the past four weeks (doctor’s orders), and I have another four weeks to go. The rambunctious garden is beautiful in its own way, I tell myself. Yup. Sure it is.

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The invasive sweet autumn clematis vines riot across the perennials—a remnant from a bad gardening decision I made years ago before I veered toward native plants. I’ve pulled out the vines each year and kept them in check. Until now. This season, the clematis has taken full advantage of their temporary reprieve.

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Hopefully, I’ll be green-lighted to weed in time to pull the clematis before it goes to seed. Until then, I breath in its wonderful fragrance and try not worry about the zillions of potential offspring it promises next season. Instead, I distract myself with the morning glories, which have gone rogue in purples and whites and blues. And are those asparagus fronds? Yes–presumably seed-dropped by the birds utilizing the feeder and looking quite healthy.

The overall effect is more impressionist than orderly; more Monet than Modrian.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” There’s a lot of undiscovered virtue here.

My tallgrass prairie, which borders the back edge of our suburban lot, soldiers on without needing much attention from me. Or so it seems at first glance. Joe Pye blooms, soaring over my head to eight feet tall, make the turn from flowers to seeds. Later this fall, the prairie patch will be covered with the feathery seed puffs of grasses, asters, and goldenrods.

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Cardinal flowers linger on, scarlet exclamation marks in the recesses of my backyard prairie grasses. Some flowers have gone to seed, but others flourish in this cooler weather. My fingers itch to pull the weeds which have crept in around the red blooms; give them some elbow room, open up space for the cardinal flower’s future progeny.  I resist the urge. Instead, I brush the petals with my fingertips. Good luck.

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Goldenrod limns the back edges of the yard with splashes and arches of mustard yellow, a nice foil to the prairie cordgrass and Culver’s root going to seed. The blazes of goldenrod are a filling station for monarchs migrating south.

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As I look more closely at my prairie patch, I see inroads from a host of weeds. Tiny maple tree sprouts lurk in the shade of the grasses, ready to make a break skyward. Queen Anne’s lace has woven its way into the edges, unnoticed until now. And what’s that? A tree is growing in here! Camouflaged in the cup plants. Goldfinches work the cup plants for seeds….cupplantCODprairie9719WM.jpg

…then get a drink from rainwater deep in the “cup” formed by the joined leaves.

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We have a saying in my prairie work group: “Friends don’t give friends cup plants.” A great prairie native, but in the home garden, cup plants often become thugs and bullies. I count the number of cup plants which have multiplied this summer and sigh.  A few months from now, I’ll be digging some out—and perhaps foisting them on another unwary gardener friend. Or putting a few in the compost pile. A native prairie plant—sure! But also potentially invasive in my home garden and prairie.

I’ll deal with it all at the end of October, I promise myself. Until then, I’ll try to relax and enjoy the show.

A newcomer to the prairie patch this season is devil’s beggarticks. What an unprepossessing name!  This weedy native must have ridden in with some of the new prairie plugs I planted this spring. Hmmm. I wonder how much it will spread? I guess I’ll find out.

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It’s not the only newcomer. Garlic chives appear throughout the garden; insidious, silent—and pretty. It turns out they are a magnet for pollinators. Who knew? Each bloom is busier than a runway at Chicago O’Hare International Airport.  The smaller bees and flies work the flowers overtime. Peck’s skippers (shown below) and fiery skippers, whose population has exploded this September, seem to love it.

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The name “skipper” is perfect for them. A perky word for a jaunty butterfly,. It fits these small fall fliers.  Their cousins, the silver-spotted skippers, love to nectar on my heirloom zinnias—welcome non-native flowers from Mexico—which are excellent for attracting pollinators and always have a place in my backyard.

I’ve never noticed skippers much before, but now I see them everywhere: along the sidewalks of the neighborhood when I take my short walk each day, or in the garden and prairie patch.  Is it a just a good year for them? Are some of the “weeds” I’ve let grow attracting them? Or am I just paying more attention to my own backyard?

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Some of our native prairie plants are a little rambunctious—perhaps a bit too rambunctious. I’m reminded of this when I go for a short hike five minutes from my house at College of DuPage’s beautiful Russell R. Kirt Prairie. Jeff drives me there for my sanctioned 10-minute walk one day this week on their wide, mowed paths.

It’s so good to be on the prairie again. I soak up everything I can. Even when it is right on the edge of the path, brushing my sleeves, the Illinois bundleflower’s diminutive flowers are easy to overlook.

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You can see from its leaves how it gets the nickname “Illinois mimosa” or “sensitive plant.” Looks like a mimosa, doesn’t it? (The plant, not the beverage!) This legume’s unusual seed pods are show-stoppers.

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The self-pollinating plants reproduce by seeds. On the Schulenberg Prairie, where I’m a steward, it is quickly taking over whole areas.  It supposedly has a poor tolerance for fire, and the Schulenberg Prairie is burned yearly. An enigma! Why is it doing so well? We don’t know. My prairie team picked the seeds defensively for a few years to keep it from spreading, but for this season, we’re letting the plants do their own thing. Two members of the team are tracking their movements to see what will happen. Will an animal, insect, or plant disease arrive to keep the bundleflowers in check? Or will we have a big showdown with a “bundleflower monoculture” in a year or two? We’ll find out. And make corrective decisions as we go.

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Illinois bundleflower is not supposed to be a “rambunctious” native plant. Go figure. Sometimes, plants have their own ideas about how they want to behave.

The September prairie palette at College of DuPage is whites and golds; rusts and tans. Indian grass is in full flower; each seed head drips with yellow petals.

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There’s a bit of chartreuse and burgundy in the prairie dock leaves turning from emerald to the color of crisp chocolate.

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Off trail, there’s a hint of pink in the gaura, a funky tall wildflower and prairie native.

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Illinois tick trefoil is bloomed out, but its Velcro-like seed pods, called “loments,” find their way onto my shirt, my pants, and my socks.  Tiny hooked hairs help the seeds hitchhike across the prairie—and into my laundry room.

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Most of the summer wildflowers are done for the season. Prairie cinquefoil seeds are ready for collection, like small brown bouquets.

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Big bluestem and Indian grass dominate, mixing in glorious disarray.

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September has arrived, with all its unruly, rough-and-tumble, rambunctious charm.

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Whether its the riot in the backyard garden and prairie “jungle”, or the fall free-for-all on the bigger local prairies, I’m glad to have a front row seat. I can’t wait to see what will happen next this month. You too?

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Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) is best known for his book, Walden and his essay, Civil Disobedience, which argues a government should not make its citizens commit acts of injustice. Thoreau’s contemporary, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), is also quoted in this post.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): wild lettuce (Lactuca canadensis), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; invasive sweet autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; rambunctious garden, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium fistulosum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; monarch (Danaus plexippus) nectaring on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; devil’s beggarticks (Bidens frondosa), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; corrected to Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius) on garlic chives (Allium tuberosum), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; video of silver spotted skipper butterfly (Epargyreus clarus) nectaring on cut-and-come-again heirloom zinnias (Zinnia elegans), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL: Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL: biennial guara (Guara biennis), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Illinois tick trefoil (Desmodium illinoense), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) with spiderweb, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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Join Cindy online for Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online beginning September 17.  It’s a work at your own pace class, available through the Morton Arboretum. Registration is here.

Cindy’s other speaking events and classes will resume October 5. Check them out at www.cindycrosby.com.

A Prairie Ice Age

“Love life first, then march through the gates of each season; go inside nature and develop the discipline to stop destructive behavior; learn tenderness…; listen to the truth the land will tell you; act accordingly.”–Gretel Ehrlich

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This week, it was anyone’s bet what the day would bring. Ice storm. Snow storm. Rain. Sleet.

Did I mention a day of almost 50-degree temps? When you live in the prairie states, there is never a lack for conversational topics. Nod, smile, comment on the weather. It’s one of the superficial daily trivialities I missed when I lived briefly in the South. The lack of weather chat there—that prattle I’d taken for granted as a Midwesterner—made me long for my roots and brought me back home.

This week, an ice storm shellacked prairies with a half inch of crystal coating. Everything glittered for  two days. Magical. Even under gray skies.

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When the sun came out, things really sparkled, suspended in time and place.

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The snow was mirrored in the sky. Clouds trailed white scarves across the blue.

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Switchgrass, shorn of much of its beauty since autumn, suddenly attained new glamour.

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Plants turned alien under the ice.

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Grasses glinted gold-foil metallic. Bent and broken under their arches of ice, they wait  for the coming fires of the prescribed burns, less than a month away.

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Squirrels, suspended in space, paused in their wild scrambles on impossibly-thin branches to consider the mercurial goings on of February.

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Trails glowed.

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Bur oaks? The stuff of fantasy.

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Each prairie plant, dipped in ice, bowed under the drippy weight.

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As I hiked the prairie, my mind kicked into glassy overdrive.  Glisten. Crystalline. Shimmer. The words kept coming—tumbling over and over in my head. None of them seemed adequate to describe what I saw. So much extravagance!

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Even the praying mantis egg case in its frozen luster merited a second look.

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Abrupt changes of weather offer fresh shots of paying attention. A reminder of how quickly things change. A memo of how beautiful the world can be. You think that was amazing? Look at this! Each freeze/thaw brings new delights. Each snowstorm causes me to catch my breath, and not just from shoveling.

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Each change of weather causes me to reconsider the familiar.

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I live, slightly on the edge of expectation, wondering what Mother Nature will throw at us next.

You too?

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The opening quote is from nature essayist and poet Gretel Ehrlich’s (1946-) The Future of Ice: A Journey into the Cold. Her 1985 debut (and my favorite of her works) is The Solace of Open Spaces, in which she chronicles her time spent working on a Wyoming ranch.

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Preorder Now! Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit by Cindy Crosby and Thomas Dean releases on April 22. $25.95, hardcover, full color photography.  Pre-order at The Morton Arboretum Store or through Ice Cube Press.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): ice storm video, Glen Ellyn, IL; bridge at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, close to prairie plantings, Downer’s Grove, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Schulenberg Prairie and savanna at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown ice-covered vine, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; trail through prairie plantings at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL;  bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bridge over Willoway Brook tributary seen through savanna at Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Chinese praying mantis (Tenodera sinensis) egg case, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; icy grasses at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ice storm at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL.

Join Cindy at Upcoming Events and Classes This Week:

Wednesday, Feb.20, 1:30-3:30 p.m.: Wisconsin Wetlands Association Science Conference, Middleton, WI: Don’t Talk Like a Scientist! Registration here.

Thursday, Feb. 21 &28, 6:30-9 p.m. A History of Wilderness in America, at The Morton Arboretum. We’ll be discussing Wilderness and the American Mind and how our ideas about wilderness have changed through history. Still time to register here.

Saturday, Feb. 23, 11-11:45 a.m.: Wild Things  Conference: The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Shop: Donald Stephen’s Convention Center, Rosemont, IL. Register here.

Saving Prairie

“Let us go on, and take the adventure that shall fall to us.” — C.S. Lewis

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Wolf Road Prairie! How could anyone resist visiting a nature preserve with a name like this one? It seems ripe with possibilities for adventure.

The sunshine over the 80-acre preserve is welcome, although the wind makes the temperature seem colder than the high 20s.

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Jeff and I drive around the preserve, unsure where where the trails are. We can see prairie plants, so we know we’re in the right place. Hmmm.

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Time to ask directions. A helpful member of the  “Save the Prairie Society” is shoveling snow, getting ready for an open house at the historical structure on the property. He greets us warmly, and shows us where the trails begin.

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We see right away we’re not alone on the prairie. Look at those tracks! Rush hour.

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Little critters have left their imprints, like sewing machine stitches, across the prairie.Who made the tracks? We wonder. Prairie voles? Mice? Difficult to tell.

We cross through a wetland…

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…and see other signs of the preserve’s inhabitants.

A nest of a bird, long flown.

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I’m puzzled by the interesting galls on the sunflowers. My gall knowledge is limited. Sunflower crown gall, maybe?

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There’s a goldenrod bunch gall–sometimes called a rosette gall—I recognize on the other side of the trail. Like a dried out winter flower of sorts.

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I make a mental note to refresh my gall knowledge—at least of the goldenrod galls! There’s so much to learn while hiking the winter prairie. Always something new, something different. Later at home, I’ll chase down different bits of information, based on our hike. Crown gall. Bunch gall. Adventures of a different kind.

As we hike the south-side prairie savanna remnant…

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…we find sidewalks, left over from a pre-Depression Era time when this acreage was slated for a housing development. The contractors got as far as putting in the sidewalks before the project was scrapped. Jeff, who’s a history buff, is delighted.

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I’m excited, too. According to an excellent article by the Salt Creek Greenway Association, the preserve was threatened again by a proposed housing development in the 1970s. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources and Forest Preserve District of Cook County were able to acquire the acreage and save the fine examples of savanna and black soil prairie remnant.  What a success story!

In January 2019, the story continues. Although the cooler palette of Wolf Road prairie in winter tends toward white, brown, and blue, with bits of pale yellow…

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…little bluestem warms up the tallgrass with reds and golds. Its last clinging seeds sparkle in the sunshine.

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Winter on the prairie brings certain plants into focus. Little bluestem is only one example.

In the summer, I appreciate pale purple coneflowers for their swash of pink-purple color across the grasses. In January, I find myself focusing on a single plant’s structure.

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Culver’s root, bereft of summer pollinators and long past bloom, takes on sinuous grace and motion in stark relief against the snow.

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Even the rough and tumble goldenrod assumes a more delicate beauty in silhouette.

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I imagine what this prairie, savanna, and wetland preserve will look like in a few months. Covered with wildflowers. Limned with birdsong. Full of diverse color and motion. Still, seeing Wolf Road Prairie under a layer of snow in the sunshine has its own beauty.

We almost lost this prairie. Twice.

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I’m grateful to hike it today.

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In a time when so many of our natural areas are threatened, Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve stands as an example of what can happen when people care. What other prairies or natural areas should we speak up and protect today, which might otherwise be lost, underfunded, or developed? These are adventures in caring. Adventures in making a difference.

Somewhere, a new prairie adventure is waiting.

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The opening quote is from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, a book in the series “The Chronicles of Narnia,” by C.S. Lewis. I love this series, and read it out loud to my adult children when they were growing up.

All photos this week are from Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sky over the wetland; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) in the prairie display garden; hiking the north side of Wolf Road Prairie; small mouse or vole tracks in the snow; cattail (Typha latifolia, Typha angustifolia or Typha x glauca); unknown bird’s nest; possibly sunflower crown gall (a plant disease); goldenrod gall bunch or rosette—made by a goldenrod gall midge  (Rhopalomyia solidaginis); prairie savanna with bur oaks (Quercus macrocarpa); old sidewalk under the snow in the savanna; snow shadows on the prairie;  little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium); pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) seedhead; Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum); goldenrod (possibly Solidago canadensis); sign for Wolf Road Prairie; trail headed south with little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), a rusty orange haze along the trail and in the distance.

Thank you to the members of the Save the Prairie Society and Heritage Project Committee who so generously pointed out trails, gave us a tour of The Franzosenbusch Prairie House Nature Center and Museum, and were warm and welcoming on our visit there. Check out their Facebook page and other social media.