Tag Archives: mary oliver

Prairie Violet Variables

“Oh, violets, you did signify, and what shall take your place?” — Mary Oliver

*****

It’s an exciting time in the Chicago region to be outdoors. From the hefty bald eagles, weighing up to 14 pounds, nesting and raising their young….

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…to the tiniest blue-gray gnatcatchers, weighing in at a quarter of an ounce, hunting for nesting spots, the life of the skies is packed with surprises no matter where you look.

This past week, however, I’m mostly looking down at the prairie’s newly sprouting surface, trying to find violets. They were a favorite of my maternal grandmother, who left me her fine china, covered with the deep purple flowers. I walk the prairies daily through rain, snow, and heat—-a bizarre spring, even by Illinois standards—to see if I might find some. And I think of her as I walk.

On last Tuesday, I hiked with some of my prairie volunteers up to the savanna, where we looked closely at the savanna floor to find “harbinger of spring” in full bloom. Such a infinitesimal little wildflower! We eyeballed one up close for our educational and plant inventory needs, and left the rest of the 20 foot square large population remaining in peace.

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I enjoyed the stroll on the savanna and prairie in the sunshine while it lasted. On Saturday, my marsh marigolds, ringing the tiny backyard prairie pond with gold, were shell-shocked by a sudden winter storm that dropped five inches of white stuff on us in 12 hours. The gold was beautiful in a whole new way for being under heavy snowfall. Just a different way of seeing them.

No word on how the chorus frogs felt about it.

 

By Sunday afternoon, the snowmelt had painted my backyard and the local prairies a bold, crisp green. It’s astonishing to see snow disappear so fast on the burned areas, and linger in the mowed or unburned sections. I went to shoot a photo of the contrast between burned and unburned prairie a few hours later. The snow was completely gone. So much changes from moment to moment, hour to hour, day to day, in April on the prairie. You have to be there, it seems, 24/7, to capture everything the tallgrass has to tell you.

The snow had fled by Monday, but bastard toadflax, which I adore,  was coming into full bloom.

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It was the first prairie wildflower name I ever learned.  Twenty years ago or so, an older woman, Marge, was weeding sweet clover next to me as we volunteered on the prairie. “What’s this?” I asked her. “Oh that—bastard toadflax!” she told me. I was enchanted. Marge has since passed away, but I’ll never forget her taking time to help “the new kid” learn the name of a common prairie wildflower. I think of her whenever I see it.

Other bloomers I find on my hike are less common. As I walk the western suburban prairies in my area, a friend points out the prairie buttercup, a threatened species sparking its waxy gold in the sunshine. It’s a first for me!

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This week, a more common flower—the wild strawberry—-is up, salting the emerald grasses with white. The strawberry blooms poke through the crevices of the paver path, rubbing shoulders with…the violets. Can you ID this violet? (Hint: It’s not the common violet!) If you aren’t sure, read on….

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Of course there are the common violets. The blue violet, Viola sororia, is our state flower. Often, when I teach prairie wildflowers, a student will see violets and say—Hey, I’m trying to weed those out of my yard! Common violets can be a nuisance to some. But to me, they are beautiful, if only for the association with my grandmother. The common violets have lovely heart-shaped leaves and add a welcome splotch of purple to the prairie when not much else is in bloom. The leaves and flowers are edible. High in Vitamin C!

violetseedlingsMAEW41218WM.jpgI love seeing the variations in color—from white to yellow to blue to purple— but  distinguishing between the violets is difficult for this naturalist. Lumpers and splitters, those taxonomists who decide what we call each species, further muddle the issue for me. Supposedly, there are eight kinds of blue violets in our state, depending on who you read. And it doesn’t help that the violets love a good party, and many hybridize without any compunctions about taxonomy.

The two I can ID with certainty are special. It’s the prairie violets (Viola pedatifida) that I see in profusion  on the Schulenberg Prairie where I’m a steward, and on the Belmont Prairie remnant not far away. I tip each flower face up and look for the hairy white interior that says: prairie violet. This is also the one on the paver path shown above, with the wild strawberries. Bet you guessed it right.

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Occasionally, I see the brilliant golden orange anthers of birdfoot violet (Viola pedata), which I encounter at Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL, about 90 miles west. I look at the leaves to help make the ID. Deeply lobed; birdfoot violet. Less lobed, prairie violet. The birdfoot violet leaves do look like little bird’s feet, don’t they? This bloom has a tiny pollinator.

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We’ve lost the birdfoot violets over the past few years on the Schulenberg Prairie. I’ve spent part of my April trying to find a local seed source within 30 miles to jump start a new population. (Any help appreciated! Leave me a comment.) Every missing species is a piece of the prairie puzzle. Lose one species, and the picture seems incomplete.

And who would want to lose one of the violets? My grandmother has been gone now for more than a decade.  I think of her when I show my six grandchildren a violet, or help them ID a bird, or we catch a dragonfly together. It’s her work I’m passing on—her love for the outdoors, which she handed on to my mother, who ensured it was instilled in me. When I drink from one of grandma’s violet patterned teacups, I think of the strong women in my family and their legacy of learning to pay attention to the natural world. It’s their gift to me.

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Now, it’s my turn to share.

*****

The opening lines are from the lovely poem, Violets, by Mary Oliver (1935-2019) in her poetry collection, Evidence (Beacon Press, 2009).  She passed away in January. If you haven’t read Mary Oliver, consider beginning with New and Selected Poems Volume 1. 

*****

All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) nesting, Chicago region; a prairie steward examines harbinger of spring (Erigenia bulbosa), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  video clip of marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) in the snow, author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie buttercup (Ranunculus rhomboideus) , DuPage County, IL; wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana) and prairie violets (Viola pedatifida) in the paver path, Belmont Prairie Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; common violet (Viola sororia), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  prairie violet (Viola pedatifida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, birdfoot violet (Viola pedata), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL, nest (possibly a robin’s? ID help welcome!), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Thank you to Paul Marcum of Illinois Botany for help on the prairie buttercup ID.

Cindy’s Classes and Speaking (see more at http://www.cindycrosby.com)

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online continues (through the Morton Arboretum) this week. Registration for the June 26 class is here.

Saturday, May 4– Spring Woodland and Early Prairie Wildflower Walk, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (Sold Out)

Thursday, May 9–Dragonflies and Damselflies: Frequent Flyers of the Garden, Hilltop Garden Club, 10-11 a.m., Oswego Public Library, 32 West Jefferson Street, Oswego, IL. Free and Open to the Public.

A Prairie Valentine

How important it is to walk along, not in haste but slowly, looking at everything and calling out Yes!”– Mary Oliver

*****

Ask for their top 10 list of February destinations, and most of my friends would tell you “anywhere warm.” I agree. Toward the end of a Chicago region winter, I’m  ready to shed the shivery cold for a few days and escape to some far-flung beach down south.

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But the beach in February is not my number one destination. I include walking trails through prairie remnants in winter a little higher on my list.

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Tonight, Jeff and I are walking the Belmont Prairie in Downer’s Grove, Illinois. It’s small, as prairies go, but as a remnant—part of the original Illinois tallgrass prairie which escaped development and the plow—it’s special.  Writer John Madson wrote in Where the Sky Began that his “feeling for tallgrass prairie is like that of a modern man who has fallen in love with the face in a faded tintype. Only the frame is still real; the rest is illusion and dream.” Remnants remind me of those “faded tintypes.” Ghosts.

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Very little of our original prairies have survived; about 2,300 high quality acres are left in Illinois. Another reason to be grateful for Belmont Prairie’s 10-acre remnant.

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The grasses are weather-bleached and flattened now. You can imagine how references to the prairie as a sea came to be. Walking the trails here, amid the waves of winter tallgrass, can leave you unsteady on your feet, a little like wading through the surf and sand.belmontprairiegrasseswaves2919WM.jpg

A creek glistens. Puddles of snowmelt glow.  I’ve been re-reading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series this winter, and the creek puts me in mind of Galadriel’s silver elvish rope that helped Frodo and Sam continue their quest to darkest Mordor. Magical. A tiny sliver of creek is also iced in on the right—can you see it in the grasses? Barely visible, but the setting sun sets it alight.

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As we hike, Canada geese begin to settle in, pulling their V-string necklaces across the twilight overhead.

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Geese have a bad rap here in the Chicago suburbs, but I admire their sense of direction, their seamless ability to work as an aerial team, their perfectly spaced flight pattern. Their confidence in knowing the way home.

Honk-honk! The soundtrack of dusk.

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A crescent moon scythes its way across the burgeoning gloom.

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Still enough light to see. The reflections of ice spark the last light.

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Poke around. In the mud and snow pockets, trapped in north-facing crevices, there are signs of spring to come. A few spears of green. Water running under the ice.

BelmontPrairiesnowmelt21019WM.jpgLook closely, and you may find a few tracks. Mammals are out and about in the cold. Birds.  In my backyard, close to the prairie patch, we’ve been feeding the birds extra food during the bitter temperatures, and they, in turn, have graced us with color, motion, and beauty.  As I scrubbed potatoes before having some friends over for dinner this weekend, my mundane task was made enjoyable by watching the interplay at the feeders outside my kitchen window. Scrubbing potatoes became meditation of sorts. Outside were squabbling sparrows.  The occasional red-bellied woodpecker. Juncos–one of my favorites–nun-like in their black and white feathered habits. The occasional burst of cardinal color.  Darting chickadees. Nuthatches, hanging upside down, zipping in for a peanut or two. Downy woodpeckers, like this one.

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The seeds on the ground attract  more than birds. There are gangs of squirrels, well-fed and prosperous. If I wake early, I might spot a large eastern cottontail scavenging seeds, or even a red fox, whose antics with her kits have delighted us in the neighborhood over the years (and kept the resident chipmunk herds in check). Once in a while, over the years, we’ll surprise her on our back porch.

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Another backyard visitor through the year is the opossum, who finds the seeds under the bird feeders a nice change of diet.

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The opossum’s face looks a bit like a heart, doesn’t it? It reminded me that Valentine’s Day is Thursday. Time to find or make a card, and perhaps shop for a book or two for my best hiking partner. Speaking of him….

As Jeff and I head for the parking lot at Belmont Prairie, the great-horned owl calls from the treeline that hems the tallgrass. I hear the soft murmur. Who-Who- Hoooo.

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Jeff and I once found a great horned owl here—perhaps this very one— in daylight, high in a tree on the edge of the grasses. I owl-prowl sometimes through the woods, hunting for bone and fur-filled scat pellets under trees. Find a pellet under a tree, look up, and you’ll occasionally get lucky and see an owl.

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I think about Mary Oliver’s poem, “Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard,” which begins….”His beak could open a bottle… .” As someone who teaches  nature writing in the Chicago region, I love to read this poem to my students. The sounds of Oliver’s word choices  (“black, smocked crickets”), her contrasts of terror and sweet, and her descriptions  (“when I see his wings open, like two black ferns”) remind me of the joy of words, images, and our experiences outdoors.

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Oliver’s poem about the owl ends; “The hooked head stares from its house of dark, feathery lace. It could be a valentine.”

The owl calls again. I think of the people and prairie I love. And, the joy that sharing a love of wild things with others can bring.

It’s a happiness not quite like any other. Try it yourself. And see.

*****

Mary Oliver (1936-2019), whose words from Owls and Other Fantasies opens this blogpost, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet (1984, American Primitive) and winner of the National Book Award (1992, New and Selected Poems). Her admonition, “Pay attention. Be astonished! Tell about it.,” is some of the best advice I know. She died in January.

.***

All photographs copyright Cindy Crosby, from Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL, unless noted (top to bottom): beach umbrellas, Sanibel Island, Florida; sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus); Canada rye (Elymus canadensis); parking lot at sunset;  grasses on the prairie;  creek through the prairie; Canada geese (Branta canadensis) heading home; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) at sunset; crescent moon over the tallgrass; ice in the grasses; creek ice with new growth; downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; red fox (Vulpes vulpes), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; sunset over the prairie; Belmont Prairie treeline;  treeline at the edges of the prairie; Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) with common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pappus.

Three Minutes of Hope on the Prairie

“Truly we live with mysteries too marvelous to be understood.”–Mary Oliver

***

Forget politics for a moment. Take three minutes to walk with me. Focus on the wonders of the tallgrass prairie in November.

I need a hike where it’s quiet today — don’t you?

November’s Indian summer sighs, then turns and marches toward the cold. Little bluestem throws its confetti of seeds across the tallgrass  in an extravagant last hurrah; a marvel of color and light.

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Look at the sky, a kaleidoscope of clouds forming and reforming in different patterns.

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It’s an ever-changing painting, so easily taken for granted. Put there…for what? For our joy? For our amazement? The least we can do is take time to look.

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Lose yourself in the architecture, colors, and texture of a prairie dock leaf. It is one unique leaf in an infinite number of leaves in the tallgrass, in an infinite number of prairies. Each is its own work of art. Does your mind boggle at the artistry so lavishly displayed?

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Old tree stumps have stories to tell, weathered by the rains and sunshine of thousands of  days. But you have to stop for a moment. Take time to read. And to listen. What story will they tell you?

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In November, the prairie does a strip tease, shedding seeds and leaves. What’s left are the essentials for the perennials to survive the winter, much of their life invisible underground. The seeds promise hope for the future.

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Even the fuzzy caterpillars that slouch and slinky their way through the tallgrass remind us of future transformation. Moth, you wonder? Or butterfly?

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In November, plant structures are more evident, bleached of their summer and early fall colors.

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Trees silhouette themselves against the sky. You admire them, shorn of the distraction of colorful leaves.

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It may feel lonely in the tallgrass in November. You’re aware of your smallness in the grand scheme of the universe.

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The shaggy bison look tough and well-suited to the coming chill. We, however, sometimes feel fragile wondering what the world may have in readiness for us.

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Listen. There is the sound of water. The prairie creek rushes headlong on its way to some far-flung sea. Everything is connected. We’re not alone.

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Under the surface of the cold water, the drab, beetle-like dragonfly nymphs wait for warmer weather. They listen for the signal to stretch out their wings; don their dazzling array of bold hues. The signal for change is months away, so they concentrate on growing. Soon enough all will be warmth and light.

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When we shake our heads over the state of the world, remember. These prairie skies, this grass, the wildflowers, the seeds, those large shaggy creatures and small flying winged ones–and furry ones, too–are also the world.

And what  a beautiful and hopeful place the world can be.

****

The opening quote is from Mary Oliver’s “Mysteries, Yes.” The next lines of the poem read as follows: “Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous to be understood/How grass can be nourishing in the mouths of the lambs/How rivers and stone are forever in allegiance with gravity/ while we ourselves dream of rising.” Mary Oliver (1935-)  is winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and writes extensively about the importance of paying attention to the world around us. The complete poem is included in her book: Evidence: Poems.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie in November, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; old tree stump, Fame Flower knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seed pod, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; great leopard moth (Hypercompe scribonia) caterpillar, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; silky aster (Symphyotrichum sericeum) in November, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  trees in November, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  Clear Creek, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; white faced meadowhawk (Sympetrum obtrusum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.