Tag Archives: migration

September Spins Its Prairie Stories

“To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee… .”–Emily Dickinson

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The prairie thumbs through September’s pages, already more than halfway through this 2021 chapter. The month is going so quickly! Blink, and you miss something—a wildflower blooming, a redstart heading south. Every trail has a surprise.

Nachusa Grasslands in September, Franklin Grove, IL.

But—where is the rain? Take a step, and it’s like walking on Rice Krispies cereal: Snap! Crackle! Pop!

Rocky knoll at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

And yet. So much happens in September, rain or no rain. I don’t want to miss a moment. It’s the reason that I drink my coffee on the back porch this month, listening to the cries of the Cooper’s hawk stalking the bird feeders. Or sprawl in the backyard hammock, watching the sky for migrating birds and dragonflies silhouetted against the clouds. It’s why I stroll through the garden, hike the prairie trails. I want to see what shows up.

iNaturalist tells me this is the fork-tailed bush katydid (Scudderia furcata), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Indoors, I think about the outdoors. What’s happening that I’m missing? Is it a migrating warbler, or a lone red saddlebags dragonfly that has a tendency to show up in my yard at this time each year? Or even something as simple as the slant of light on the prairie, percolating through the haze across the grasses and goldenrod?

The Schulenberg Prairie in September, Lisle, IL.

In the garden, I find half-eaten tomatoes on the porch; a relic of a chipmunk’s breakfast. It’s okay. We’ve had a surfeit of Sungolds, and Sweet Millions—it’s difficult to grudge the wildlife a few. Zucchini pumps out green cylinders; I’ve run out of recipes as squash turns to baseball bat-sized vegetables overnight.

Monarchs drift over my backyard. I see them everywhere on the prairie as well, about one every five minutes, pausing to sip from the blazing star…

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on blazing star (Liatris aspera), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

… and nectar at the sunflowers.

Monarch (Danaus plexippus) on sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Not all the butterflies choose wildflowers. These viceroys prefer scat.

Viceroy butterflies (Limenitis archippus) on scat, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

What? Yes, you heard me right. They enjoy a heapin’ helpin’ of amino acids and salts from ….er, dung…that they can’t get from plants. Sometimes they “puddle” on minerals and salts in the soil, like this puddle club of eastern-tailed blues.

Eastern tailed-blue butterflies (Cupido comyntas), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

I hike the trails, touching the sandpaper-rough compass plant leaves, inhaling prairie dropseed’s hot buttered popcorn fragrance. The scent follows me home on on my clothes, as if I’ve been in a movie theater. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. Everything is so dry. Dust and grasshoppers spray up as I step on the parched ground. So many grasshoppers!

Red-legged grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum) on sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Chinese mantis turn up in unexpected places, on the look-out for prey. I admire their stealth.

Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

This lucky eastern forktail damselfly enjoys a mid-morning snack. You can tell she’s a mature female by her powdery-blue coloration.

Eastern forktail female damselfly (Ischnura verticalis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Only a few steps away, an autumn meadowhawk dragonfly basks in the morning sun. The meadowhawks have been few this season, and I’m not sure why. Not enough rain, maybe? Whatever the reasons, I’ve missed them.

Autumn meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Grasshopper. Mantis. Damselfly. Dragonfly. Any of these might be lunch for the northern leopard frog, which is looking for its next meal.

Northern leopard frog (Lithobates pipiens), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

September is a month of eat-or-be-eaten in the tallgrass. Although I’d love to take off on a wind current like a monarch, bound for the south; or spring-jump like a grasshopper into the little bluestem, I’m grateful to be human. Insects see the prairie from a much different perspective than I do.

Alongside all the tension of who will eat who, is the continuing jazz festival of fall gentians. I memorize their deep blue, knowing they are a fleeting pleasure that will be gone all too soon.

Prairie gentian (Gentiana puberulenta), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

I want to remember September. Soak up the bright lemon evening primrose.

Evening primrose (Oenothera biennis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Delight in the juxtaposition of sneezeweed and great blue lobelia along a prairie stream.

Common sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) and great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

I store away these colors, scents, and sounds of autumn for the winter.

Heath aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

There are stories here to be read. To listen to these stories, I have to show up. To be there. As the writer Annie Dillard tells us, it’s the least we can do.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

What about you?

Will you be there?

*****

I’ve always enjoyed the opening quote for this week’s blog, from the poet, Emily Dickinson (1830-1886). I use the poem in its entirety at the start of a chapter in The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction on “What is a Tallgrass Prairie?” However, as a prairie steward, I would have loved to have sat down with Emily in her room in Amherst and ask her a few followup questions. When she said “clover,” just what clover species was she referring to? Dalea candida? Or, Melilotus officinalis ? Ditto on the bees. Honey or native? And Emily—have you ever seen a tallgrass prairie? Or did you write your poem from the accounts you read from others, in the reclusive solitude of your room? Read her complete poem here. It’s an easy one to memorize, and one that will stick with you as you hike the prairie. Regardless of that “clover” species.

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Join Cindy for a program or class!

IN PERSON September 27, 7-8:30 p.m.–-“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.

ONLINE –Nature Writing Workshop 2 (through the Morton Arboretum): Deepen your connection to nature and improve your writing skills in this  online guided workshop from The Morton Arboretum. This interactive class is the next step for those who’ve completed the Foundations of Nature Writing (N095), or for those with some foundational writing experience looking to further their expertise within a supportive community of fellow nature writers. Please note: This is a “live” workshop; no curriculum. For details and registration, click here. Online access for introductions and discussion boards opens October 12; live sessions on Zoom are four Tuesdays: October 19, October 26, November 2, and November 9, 6:30-8:30 pm.

For more classes and programs, visit Cindy’s website at http://www.cindycrosby.com. Hope to see you soon!

The Many May Delights of Prairie and Woods

“Let all thy joys be as the month of May”—Francis Quarles

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Is there a more beautiful time in the Midwest than mid-May?

It’s been a week for the birds. Migrating birds, that is. In the woods, the great crested flycatcher calls. Such a distinctive voice!

Great crested flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus), Norris Woods Nature Preserve, St. Charles, IL.

I’ve read that the great crested flycatcher weaves unusual items into its nest: snakeskin, cellophane, plastic wrappers. Wouldn’t I love to spot one of those nests! This is the first great crested flycatcher I’ve ever seen. How did I miss it all these years? Likely I was busy looking down, not up: at the wildflowers.

Twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphyllagone) with seed capsule, Norris Woods Nature Preserve, St. Charles, IL.

Seeing the flycatcher is one of the wonderful benefits of hiking with knowledgeable birding friends. If I had been hiking alone, I would have been looking at wildflowers, and likely missed it.

Probably white baneberry or doll’s eyes (Actaea pachypoda), Norris Woods Nature Preserve, St. Charles, IL.

In his poem The May Magnificant, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote: “Question: What is Spring–Growth in everything–Flesh and fleece; fur and feather; Grass and green world altogether… .” As we hike through the green, green, green woods, we discover a single, random feather. Our birding friends tell us it may be a young owlet’s. I would love to know how it came to be here along the trail.

Young owlet feather, Norris Woods, St. Charles, IL.

High in a tree, an indigo bunting surprises us. I love Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s description of the bunting; “a scrap of sky with wings.”

Indigo bunting (Passerina cyanea), Norris Woods Nature Preseve, St. Charles, IL.

Most of the “blues” I see in the bird world belong to the blue jays that stop by my feeder. This past week, there’s been the color orange as well—the Baltimore orioles who love the grape jelly and orange halves we put out for them.

Baltimore oriole (Icterus galbula), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

This weekend, while I listened to the birds at the feeders, I dug newly-purchased prairie seedlings into my prairie patch. White wild indigo.

White wild indigo (Baptisia alba), Cindy’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Meadow rue.

Meadow Rue (Thalictrum dioicum), Cindy’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Prairie coreopsis. Great angelica. Prairie smoke. Anise hyssop. So many plants! When I ordered earlier this season, where did I imagine I could put them all? At the end of the day—a lonnnnng planting day—every plant had a seat in the prairie. Now it’s up to them and the weather.

As I turned on the hose to wash the dirt from my hands, I heard the first American toad of the year in our little pond. I turned the water back off to listen. Have you ever heard the American toad? No? You can hear it here. At night, when we crack open our bedroom window for the breeze, the sound can be deafening. In the forest preserve wetlands, lakes, and ponds, the American toad trillllllllll is a warm weather soundtrack for our hikes.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Birds! Toads. Plants. Wildflowers. The writer Ellis Peters wrote, “Every spring is a perpetual astonishment.” It’s difficult to know where to look. So much is happening on the prairies and in the woodlands. How can I choose where to hike? And so much is happening, right under my nose, here in my yard!

Near my prairie patch, the pawpaw tree is in bloom. Such an unusual flower color! That brownish-maroon reminds me of wild ginger blooms. For fun, I try to match the flower color to a lipstick shade. The closest I find is “Cherry Cocoa” or maybe, “Love in Maroon.” What do you think?

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) tree in bloom, Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Butterflies pass me as I examine the pawpaw flowers. Cabbage white butterflies showed up early this spring, stopping to lay a few eggs on my overwintered kale and kohlrabi. I don’t grudge them a few leaves. Especially since this year’s overwintered crop is a bonus. A gift to share.

Overwintered kale (Brassica oleracea, Acephala group) and kohlrabi (Brassica oleracea, Gongylodes group) going to seed, Cindy’s garden, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I saw my first tiger swallowtail last week, and a few friends have reported monarchs. Pearl crescent butterflies pass through the prairies and savannas, taking a moment to pause and let me admire their bright colors. They’re a common sight, and will continue to be throughout the summer. But no less delightful, for being so ubiquitous.

Pearl crescent butterfly (Phyciodes tharos), Norris Woods, St. Charles, IL.

The pearl crescent butterflies enjoy a wide variety of flowers. There are plenty of blooms to choose from in the middle of May. Wild geraniums are still going strong on the prairies and in the woodlands. Is it my imagination, or are they lingering longer this year? Maybe it’s the cool weather?

Wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2017)

I’m grateful, whatever the reason.

Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum), Norris Woods Nature Preserve, St. Charles, IL.

Prairie, woodland, and savanna spring wildflowers are best seen up close.

Examining the wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Then, when something unusual comes along, you’ll have a ringside seat.

Nessus Sphinx Moth (Amphion floridensis) on wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), Norris Woods Nature Preserve, St. Charles, IL.

And—you’ll thank your lucky stars—so grateful and glad that you went for a hike in the middle of May.

*****

The opening quote is by Francis Quarles (1592-1644), an English poet. One of his descendants was the poet Langston Hughes (1901-1967), a celebrated poet and author.

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Join Cindy for a program or class!

The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden Online: June 2, 7-8:30 p.m. Illinois’ nickname is “The Prairie State.” Listen to stories of the history of the tallgrass prairie and its amazing plants and creatures –-from blooms to butterflies to bison. Discover plants that work well in the home garden as you enjoy learning about Illinois’ “landscape of home.” Presented by Sag Moraine Native Plant Community. More information here.

Literary Gardens Online: June 8, 6:30-7:30 p.m. Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby for a fun look at gardens in literature and poetry. From Agatha Christie’s mystery series, to Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Mary Oliver, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver,  Lewis Carroll–and many more! See your garden with new eyes—and come away with a list of books you can’t wait to explore. Registration through the Downers Grove Public Library coming soon here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie: Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.

Thanks to Tricia Lowery and John Heneghan for the afternoon hike, the gift of the prairie plants, and help with spotting wonderful flying critters this week.

The Prairie Skies in March

“Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them.”–Aldo Leopold

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High winds. First green growth. Warm sunny days, alternating with blustery snowstorms. It’s migration season.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) and a sun halo over Cindy’s backyard prairie this weekend.

This week, Jeff and I walk the Belmont Prairie in Downers Grove, Illinois, a 10-acre remnant hemmed by homes, soccer fields, highways and railroad tracks.

More than 300 species of plants and animals are found here. We go to see what emerges in the warmer temperatures of mid-March. At a glance, the prairie looks much as it did all winter. No prescribed burn has touched it yet.

But look closely. The first weedy black mustard’s emerald leaf florets lie flat against the prairie soil. An insect flies low and slow. Too quick for me to slap an ID on. Blue flag iris spears through the muddy waterway that winds through the dry grass and spent wildflowers. Signs of spring.

Blue flag iris (Iris virginica shrevei), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

I browse online to find more about the prairie and encounter this on the Downers Grove Park District’s site: “… in April of 1970, Alfred and Margaret Dupree presented a photograph of a rare prairie wildflower to an expert at the Morton Arboretum, as they were interested if it represented possible remnants of a native prairie. Upon inspection, it was found that the field had numerous native prairie species, and with the help of The Nature Conservancy, the owners were tracked down and the land was purchased. After officially becoming a part of the Park District, it was named an Illinois Nature Preserve in March, 1994.” I love it that two people paid attention to this remnant—and took time to investigate. It makes me wonder what we’ll see, if we look closely.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

So much to discover under our feet. But today, the real action is over our heads. The clouds sail fast across the horizon.

A breeze ruffles my hair. The melancholy whistle and the clickity-clack, clickity-clack, clickity-clack of a nearby train fills the air. But there’s another sound vying with the wind, train, and traffic noise. A high pitched babble. Look! There they are.

Riding on the winds above us are the sandhill cranes. Thousands and thousands of sandhills. Chasing a memory of somewhere north where they have urgent business to conduct. Each wave seems louder than the next. They are high—so high—in the sky.

Sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2019)

The sun is merciless; so bright, we often lose them in its glare. The cranes wheel and pirouette; now flashes of silver overhead, now vanished.

All the obligatory words rise to my lips: Prehistoric. Ballet. Choreography. Dance. None seemed sufficient for this performance in the theater of the sky. The cranes assemble into a “V”, then slip into a sloppy “S”. Now they kettle, swirling and twirling. I’m reminded of my old “Mr. Doodleface” drawing board from childhood, where I dragged a magnet across black shavings to put hair and a beard on a picture of a man. The cranes seem like black shavings pulled through the sky in intricate patterns. Circles and lines and angles and scrawls. Changing from moment to moment. But always, that heart-breaking cry.

At home, I page through my field guides and bird books, then check online for more about cranes. I read that they are about four feet tall, the size of a first grader, with a wingspan of more than six feet.

Sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL (2019)

The newer scientific name since 2010 for sandhill cranes is Antigone canadensis. My birding guides, all a dozen years or more old, still have the previous genus name, Grus. The common name “sandhill” refers to this bird’s stopover in the Nebraska Sandhills, a staging area for the birds.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area, Medaryville, IN (2016)

Sandhill cranes can be found in North America, all the way to the extremes of northeastern Siberia. Three subspecies live in Cuba, Mississippi, and Florida year-round, according to Cornell University. These cranes are omnivores, changing their diet based on what’s available. Small amphibians, reptiles, and mammals may be on the menu one day; grains and plants the next.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Horicon Marsh, WI (2019)

The sandhills mate for life, or until one of the pair dies. Then, the remaining crane seeks a new partner.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL (2019)

Although gray, the sandhill crane has a rusty-colored wash on its feathers, caused by the bird rubbing itself with iron-rich mud. The birds have a distinctive scarlet patch on their foreheads.

Sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis), Green Lake, WI (2019)

The form of the crane is one of the first origami shapes many of us learned to make. According to a Japanese legend, if you make a thousand origami cranes the gods will grant you a wish. As I watch them fly over Belmont Prairie, it’s easy to think of what to wish for in the coming year.

As we leave, I find a single bird feather, caught in the tallgrass.

Unknown feather, Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

A crane’s? Probably not. But a reminder of the connection of birds to this prairie remnant.

Later that afternoon, we hang my hammock on the back porch and I swing there with a book, pausing each time to look as the cranes pass overhead.

Crane watching, Glen Ellyn, IL.

A sun halo appears.

Partial sun halo, Cindy’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Magical! How does anyone ever say they are bored when there are clouds, and cranes…and marvels all around us?

Sun halo, Cindy’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The thousands and thousands of sandhills migrating this weekend were barely ahead of Monday’s winter storm.

Snowstorm, Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Snow powdered the prairie with fat flakes and turned our world to white.

Crocus (Crocus sp.) Cindy’s backyard prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I wonder if the cranes knew the storm was coming? Prescient sandhills. Smart birds.

Welcome back.

*****

Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) is best known for A Sand County Almanac, from which the quote that kicks off this post was taken. His book was published shortly after his death and has sold more than two million copies. If you visit New Mexico, you can drive through the miles of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness in the Gila National Forest, named for him in 1980. Driving it, you’re aware of the solace of vast and empty spaces, and the importance of conservation. Find out more about Leopold here.

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Join Cindy for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a full list of upcoming talks and programs.

A Brief History of Trees in America Wednesday, April 28, 7-8 p.m. Sponsored by Friends of the Green Bay Trail and the Glencoe Public Library. From oaks to sugar maples to the American chestnut: trees changed the course of American history. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation as you remember and celebrate the trees influential in your personal history and your garden. Registration here.

Virtual Wildflower Walks Online: Section A: Friday, April 9, 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. CST Woodland Wildflowers, Section B: Thursday, May 6, 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. CST Woodland and Prairie Wildflowers. Wander through the ever-changing array of blooms in our woodlands and prairies in this virtual walk. Learn how to identify spring wildflowers, and hear about their folklore. In April, the woodlands begin to blossom with ephemerals, and weeks later, the prairie joins in the fun! Each session will cover what’s blooming in our local woodlands and prairies as the spring unfolds. Enjoy this fleeting spring pleasure, with new flowers revealing themselves each week. Register here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie: Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm. CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Register here.

The Prairie Whispers:”Spring”

“The afternoon is bright, with spring in the air, a mild March afternoon, with the breath of April stirring… .”—Antonio Machado

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It’s 63 degrees. I leave my heavy winter coat, gloves, and scarf in the closet and pull out my windbreaker for the first time in months.

Treeline in bright sun, East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Winter hasn’t quite let go. No mistake about it. But the five senses say a shift in seasons is underway.

Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) and Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), Dick Young Forest Preserve Prairie, Batavia, IL.

In between the prairie dropseed planted along the edges of my backyard patio, the crocus and snowdrops have emerged from their dark sojourn underground.

Crocus (Crocus sp.) , Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

When I dug them in last October, the pandemic seemed to have gone on forever. Vaccination was only a dream. Spring seemed a long way off. Today, I count the flowers—10, 20, 40… . Look how far we’ve come.

Crocus (Crocus sp.) ,Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Cardinal song wakes us in the morning. The windows are cracked open to take advantage of the smell of clean, laundered air.

Tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

On the prairie trails I see a honey bee, flying low to the ground, looking for something blooming. Not much. Warm temperatures and hot sun have brought the earliest prairie fliers out today. My ears catch the buzz—a sound I haven’t heard in months. Soon, I won’t even register it when the pollinators are out in numbers. Today, that “buzz” is still new enough to catch my attention.

Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Dick Young Forest Preserve, Batavia, IL.

In the afternoon, hundreds of sandhill cranes pass overhead, their cries audible even inside the house. We stand on the back porch, eyes shielded against the bright sun, watching.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Cindy’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Waves upon waves upon waves. Heading north to the top of the world. Flying determinedly toward something they only dimly remember.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Dick Young Forest Preserve, Batavia, IL.

On the prairie, ice still slicks the trails where shadows lie. We pull on knee-high rubber boots and slosh through slush.

Trail through Dick Young Forest Preserve prairie, Batavia, IL.

In spots the paths are springy like a mattress. The trail gives unexpectedly and I tumble down, sprawling, laughing. It’s like sinking into a pillow– although a cold, muddy one. In spring, there are so many new sounds and scents it’s easy to forget to watch your step.

Bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Burdock burs, grasping at their last chance to hitchhike a ride, catch our clothes. We spend a few minutes pulling them off. Ouch! I’d forgotten how sharp they are. Years ago, I remember our collie getting into a big patch of burdock. Impossible to remove. I spent a good long while with the scissors, cutting the burs out.

Dick Young Forest Preserve prairie blues, early March, Batavia, IL.

All around me are the last seeds of 2020; those that remain uneaten by voles, undisturbed by winter storms. Seed dispersal is so varied on the prairie! Wind and animals; people and birds—we all have a role to play in the continuing life of plants. Even now, the vanishing snow is filtering the fallen seeds into the soil, ready for a new life.

Indian hemp or dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Inhale. The smell of damp earth. Not the scent of fall’s decay, but something similar.

Goldenrod (Solidago sp.) “bunch gall”, East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The fragrance teases my nose. Tickles my memory. It’s the spring’s “prairie perfume.”

The sky begins to cloud with tiny popcorn cumulus. The warmth of the day takes on a bit of a chill. These are the last days of tallgrass.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Any day now, fire will come to these prairies. Smoke-plumes will rise in the distance. The old season will be burned away.

After the prescribed fire, Fermilab Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL. (2018)

Until then, the brittle grasses and battered wildflowers wait, tinder for the flames.

Nachusa Grasslands, prescribed fire on Big Jump Prairie (2016).

Today, spring seems like something exotic, something new.

Cattails (Typha sp.), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

It’s not a shout yet. It’s barely a whisper.

Wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Dick Young Forest Preserve prairie, Batavia, IL.

But listen.

Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Can you hear it?

*****

The quote that opens this post is by Antonio Machado (Antonio Cipriano José María y Francisco de Santa Ana Machado y Ruiz) (1875-1939) from Selected Poems, #3. Machado is regarded as one of Spain’s greatest poets. Reflective and spiritual, his poems explore love, grief, history and the landscape of Spain. A longer excerpt (as translated by Alan Trueblood), reads: “The afternoon is bright, /with spring in the air, /a mild March afternoon,/with the breath of April stirring,/ I am alone in the quiet patio/ looking for some old untried illusion -/some shadow on the whiteness of the wall/some memory asleep/on the stone rim of the fountain,/perhaps in the air/the light swish of some trailing gown.”

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Join Cindy for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a full list of upcoming talks and programs.

Virtual Wildflower Walks Online: Section A: Friday, April 9, 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. CST Woodland Wildflowers, Section B: Thursday, May 6, 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. CST Woodland and Prairie Wildflowers. Wander through the ever-changing array of blooms in our woodlands and prairies in this virtual walk. Learn how to identify spring wildflowers, and hear about their folklore. In April, the woodlands begin to blossom with ephemerals, and weeks later, the prairie joins in the fun! Each session will cover what’s blooming in our local woodlands and prairies as the spring unfolds. Enjoy this fleeting spring pleasure, with new flowers revealing themselves each week. Register here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie: Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm. CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Register here.

Prairie Burn Paradox

“How we spend our days, is of course, how we spend our lives.” — Annie Dillard

*****

I’ve been re-reading Annie Dillard’s books this week and mulling over her words, like the ones that open today’s blog post. Thinking about how to spend my time wisely. It’s a challenge, isn’t it?

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Walking the prairie after the burn, I’m reminded of time, and seasons of time, and our perception of it. As I hike, I’m surprised at the volume of sound. You’d think there would be silence on a charred landscape.

 

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But the prairie is bustling and noisy. A killdeer cries its name as it sweeps across the ruins, looking for a place to build its nest. A just-burned prairie is exactly right. I hunt for the killdeer’s nests each spring, but they are such expert camouflage artists I’ve never found one. Maybe this will be my year.

Robins chatter, hopping along the banks of Willoway Brook, sifting the ashes for something good to eat. Overhead, waves and waves of sandhill cranes move high in the air, migrating north. So many! Thousands and thousands.  This weekend was host to the largest movement of cranes I’ve ever seen at one time in the Chicago region. Pelicans were migrating, too! Check them out.

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Elation! Then I look around me. Such desolation. I always have mixed feelings after the burn. A prescribed fire on the prairie  leaves you with a sense of loss. Everything you knew written on that particular prairie slate is wiped clean. Close the book. Open a blank journal and begin a new season.SPMA32019WMburnWM.jpg

There is also a sense of relief. All my mistakes of the last year as a steward, writ large in reed canary grass growing vigorously by the brook, or the sneezeweed missing in action in the swale, are swept away.  This season, I can start fresh. Daunting? Yes. And challenging.

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The fire leaves me with a sense of hope. That thicket of brambles? This will be the year we finally knock it back. We can seed in missing milkweeds; repair a deteriorating trail, add an interpretive sign or two.

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Day by day—week by week—stewards, staff, and volunteers will write a new seasonal story together. Every pulled garlic mustard plant makes room for a new shooting star wildflower to bloom. Remove invasive buckthorn and open space and light for bee balm wildflowers to flourish.

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Rain, sunshine, snow—-they’ll all help write the new seasonal prairie story. Deer, coyotes, dragonflies, the mink who swims the creek—-they’ll each have a paragraph or two.

The just-burned landscape is prelude to the most exciting time of the year on the tallgrass prairie. New growth. The first blooms.

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The red-winged blackbirds sing me along the trail as the sun sets.  In the old, fire-damaged hawthorn tree, they mingle with brown-headed cowbirds whose lispy “clink! clink! clink!”  calls are percussion to the blackbirds’ brassy song. I try to count the birds—how many do you see?

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Annie Dillard once wrote about a “Tree of Lights” —a tree full of blackbirds. I think about her story as I watch the birds settle in for the night.

Then, another sound. Coyotes! A pack. The coyotes are invisible. but their calls are close by. Their wails and yips are both mournful and excited.

 

 

 

Exactly how I feel as I walk the burned prairie tonight.

The visible and the invisible. The old and the new. The past and the present. The coyotes announce the passing of one chapter in the prairie’s story; the beginning of a new one.

Time to turn the page.

*****

Annie Dillard , whose quote opens this blog, won the Pulitzer Prize for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974).  Read the full passage the quote was taken from here. One of my favorite sentences on her view of the way the world works: “It’s a hell of a way to run a railroad.” On writing: “Spend it all…do not hoard what seems good for (later).” Read the whole quote here. Wise woman. Wise words.

****

All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom):  bench on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie after the burn, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American white pelicans ( Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) migrating, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; Schulenberg Prairie after the burn, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown species of moss on a burned-out log along the Schulenberg Prairie trail, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bramble (Rubus species unknown) and bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) singed by fire, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; trail through the burned Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; 19 red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus)and brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater)  in a hawthorn tree (probably Crataegus mollis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; coyotes (Canus latrans) calling on the Schulenberg Prairie at sunset, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

*****

More from Cindy:

Just released last week! Available at your favorite bookstore or online.

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New Podcast!

Thanks to Shannon at Take A Hike Podcast in Los Angeles! Click  here for the interview. Caution! Explicit dragonfly reproduction content in this podcast. 🙂

Cindy’s classes and speaking this week:

Nature Writing (online and in-person) continues this week at The Morton Arboretum. April 1–Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden and Prairie’s Frequent Flyers: LaGrange Garden Club, LaGrange, IL. (closed event). See more classes and events at http://www.cindycrosby.com.

Under the Prairie Ice

“To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”–Aldo Leopold

*****

Polar Vortex! In the Illinois prairie region, all the chatter is about the week’s forecast: wind chill temperatures of 50-plus degrees below zero. Brrr! It’s a good time to dream a little bit about the summer to come.

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One of my favorite tasks as a prairie steward is monitoring dragonflies.  People often ask me in the winter, Where are the dragonflies now? How do they survive the brutal cold? 

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Some, I tell them, like the green darners and black saddlebags, have migrated south to reproduce. Later generations journey back north again, much like the well-publicized monarch butterfly. But most of our dragonflies are still here—in the nymph stage—under the surfaces of streams, ponds, and pools of prairie wetlands, waiting for spring and warmer temperatures. Under the prairie ice.

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Dragonflies and their population changes tell us a lot about our water quality. Dragonfly responses to climate also help us understand what we see happening in the see-sawing temperatures and weather changes in the world around us. Good reasons to care! With this in mind, citizen scientists monitor dragonflies of all species, tracking their numbers each year.

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We need our dragonflies. I’ve spent a lot of time kayaking and looking for dragonflies and damselflies on Silver Lake at Blackwell Forest Preserve in Warrenville, Illinois, just for fun.  But now, in this January cold, the lake is full of ice fisherman.

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Just across the preserve, not far from the ice fishing houses, is my destination—the Urban Stream Research Center. Here, one of our most vulnerable insect species, the Hine’s emerald dragonfly, is being reared.

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Some people dream of meeting sports heroes. Others, their favorite rock star. Me, I dream of seeing the Hine’s emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora hineana) winging its way through a prairie preserve. It’s our only federally-endangered dragonfly. Finicky? Yes! It has a lot of special requirements, including shallow flowing water and time spent in burrows made by the devil crayfish. 

During the winter months, I pore over my favorite dragonfly field guide by Kurt Mead part of the North Woods Naturalist Series

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… and open it to the Hine’s emerald dragonfly spread. Then, I think what it would be like to see the real thing.

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Today, I’ll get part of my wish.

Heading up the project in its third year in the Chicago Region is DuPage County Forest Ecologist Andrés Ortega. His enthusiasm for dragonflies and passion for the project are evident from the first moment of my arrival at the center.

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Andrés reaches into a refrigerator, and pulls out a dozen vials of tiny Hine’s emerald dragonfly nymphs.

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The dragonfly nymphs are in “diapause,” just as nymphs are outdoors. These nymphs enjoy cool refrigerator temps of about 40 degrees Fahrenheit;  their normal overwintering temperature, Ortega tells me.

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The eggs were gathered from gravid female dragonflies at known breeding sites in DuPage and Cook Counties, Andrés tells me.  Once netted, the tip of the female dragonfly’s abdomen is dipped into water—a process that simulates ovipositing—causing her to release her eggs. After the eggs are harvested, they are taken to a research laboratory in South Dakota. Here, they hatch and are cared for through their first months or even years of nymph life.

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Then, they are driven to Illinois and hand-delivered to Ortega at the Urban Stream Research Center.

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These are ferocious little critters. Andrés tells me they keep similar-sized nymphs with other similar-sized nymphs, as larger ones will enjoy the smaller ones for dinner if thrown together. Cannibalism! It’s a bug-eat-bug world out there. Staff carefully control the water quality (which should not be too clean) and water temperature.

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In the spring, the nymphs will be released into the research center’s indoor raceways. These are long pools that mimic stream-like conditions. The temperature of the water in the raceways is carefully calibrated to reflect the rising temperatures outdoors.

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Raceways are custom made by employees expressly for the dragonfly rearing. Sand, rocks, frayed rope pieces, and plastic aquarium plants offer hiding places for the nymphs. In about mid-May, the nymphs will begin feeding from a menu that includes small crustaceans and midge larvae. The screens and netting will keep midges from escaping and interfering with other research work at the center, such as mussel propagation.

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It will take the dragonfly nymphs about four to five years to reach maturity, from the egg stage to the beautiful creatures of the air I see in my field guide. When ready to emerge, they will be released into suitable nature preserves in the state.

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Ortega tells me that less than one percent of the Hine’s emerald dragonfly nymphs survive in the wild. Pretty slim odds, aren’t they?  I’m grateful to people like Andrés Ortega. He is one of our unsung heroes, doing the hard work of keeping part of the natural world from vanishing forever.

The next time you see a frozen prairie stream or pond this winter, think of the many different species of dragonflies waiting to emerge, just underneath the surface. Who knows? This might be the year we see more of the Hine’s emerald dragonflies, cruising through prairie wetlands. I’m planning to show up and look.

How about you?

****

The Aldo Leopold quote that opens this essay is from Round River. Leopold is often referred to as the father of wildlife ecology and the United States’ wilderness system. Please visit The Aldo Leopold Foundation’s website to learn more about Leopold and his work, which is carried on today.

*****

Grateful thanks to Andrés Ortega for his tour of the Urban Stream Research Center; his patient answers to all my questions;  his reading and suggested edits for this blogpost (all remaining errors are my own); and his terrific work with dragonflies. Contact him at aortega@dupageforest.org.

Many thanks to super nice guy Kurt Mead, author of Dragonflies of the North Woods, Third Edition (2017), and Sparky Stensaas, co-owner of Kollath+Stensaas Publishing, who approved using the cover and pages with the Hine’s emerald dragonfly for this post (and also thanks to photographer Troy Hibbitts whose Hine’s emerald images (thehibbets.net) appear on those pages. If you are interested in dragonflies, you should own this beautiful guide–it is indispensable for Midwestern dragonfly chasers, even if you live a little further south of the North Woods (I live in Illinois).  Order from your favorite local bookseller, or online here.

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Mt. Hoy, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; cold day at Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL; hundreds of Canada geese (Branta canadensis) on open water of Springbrook Creek at Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL;  male calico pennant (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL:  ice fishing shacks on Silver Lake, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; Cover of Dragonflies of the North Woods, Third Edition, by Kurt Mead (2017), courtesy Kollath+Stensaas Publishing and Kurt Mead; interior spread, Dragonflies of the North Woods, Third Edition, by Kurt Mead (2017), courtesy Kollath+Stensaas Publishing and Kurt Mead. Andrés Ortega (Homo sapiens), ecologist, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; vials of Hine’s emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora hineana) nymphs, Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; Hine’s emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora hineana) nymph, Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; Hine’s emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora hineana) nymph,Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; Hine’s emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora hineana) nymph, Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; water system, Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; raceway system, Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; life support system, Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; Fox River, Geneva, IL.

Of Birds and Bison

“Bird migration is the one truly unifying natural phenomenon in the world, stitching the continents together in a way that even the great weather systems, which roar out from the poles but fizzle at the equator, fail to do. It is an enormously complex subject, perhaps the most compelling drama in all of natural history.” — Scott Weidensaul

***

It’s a cold, drizzly day. As much as I’m tempted to curl up on the couch with a good book, plans are underway for a birding outing. Along with six of our friends, my husband Jeff and I head out of the Chicago suburbs and to the famed Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area in Indiana, two hours southeast. This is the big weekend. Thousands of migrating sandhill cranes will be passing through.

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This fall, we saw thousands of migrants from the western flyways gathering in southern New Mexico, at Bosque del Apache National Refuge. On the ground, the cranes look almost prehistoric.p1020795

Those red caps! Those rusty feathers! How do they get their bulky bodies airborne? Cranes remind me of the mysteries of flight, and of migration. Why do large groups of birds travel from one place to another, sometimes tens of thousands of miles from their starting point? No one has completely been able to explain  this rhythmic dance. And perhaps, that’s part of the joy in watching them. We don’t fully understand. So we marvel, instead.

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The cranes fly over the Chicago suburbs during November and December. Their high pitched cries often pull me out of the house, shielding my eyes against the sun, to watch them move southeast.

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In the Jasper-Pulaski refuge, I’ll get a chance to see these same cranes that fly over my house congregating en masse on the ground, a little farther along on their journey. But first, a stop at Kankakee Sands, a more than 7,000 acre mosaic of prairie, savanna, and wetland in northern Indiana.

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Kankakee Sands introduced bison to their prairie this fall, and we’re looking forward to seeing how they’ve settled in. There’s a bison viewing area where I have an excellent up-close-and-personal meeting with the shaggy all-stars.

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I wonder if the bison consider this place a “visitor viewing area;” a chance to see people behavior. This one kept an eye on us.

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A few brown-headed cowbirds hung out on bison backs, giving us a sense of the difference in sizes. A study in contrasts.

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While watching the bison, my friend John suddenly shouts– “prairie falcon!” A first for me. Although prairie falcons are usually found out west, occasionally they pop up in Illinois and Indiana. So quick!

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The sun moves toward the western horizon. We leave the bison and birds and drive the short distance to the Jasper-Pulaski refuge. The viewing platform is thick with binocular-wielding birders and the giant scopes of photographers.

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Anticipation. A few cranes have already straggled in.We find our places on the platform. In the fields, there is a loud rumble of distinctive crane chatter.Then…. a clamor in the distance. The crane cries rise to a crescendo.

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They’re coming! Waves and waves of sandhill cranes. The air froths with cranes; boils with birds. Swirling and tilting in every direction in the last light.

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I think of a line from Mary Oliver’s poem, The Wild Geese: “…the world offers itself to your imagination…”.

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I imagine these cranes in the morning, taking off to continue their flight to the southern coasts. Why will they go? I don’t fully know. But it gives me a sense of peace and happiness to think about the rest of their journey. To know that this rhythm of nature–these migrations–will continue.

And that for one small part of one evening, I was witness to it.

****

The opening quote in this essay is by Scott Weidensaul, author of Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds, a finalist for the 2000 Pulitzer Prize in Nonfiction. Weidensaul captures the magic, mystery, and science of migration in this memorable book which still remains one of my favorites in nature writing.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis), Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area, Medaryville, IN; sandhill crane duo (Grus canadensis), Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, San Antonio, NM; wading sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis), at sunrise, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, San Antonio, NM; sandhill cranes  (Grus canadensis),over the author’s prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie grasses in November, Kankakee Sands (The Nature Conservancy), Newton County, IN: bison (Bison bison) grazing, Kankakee Sands (The Nature Conservancy), Newton County, IN; bison (Bison bison), Kankakee Sands (The Nature Conservancy), Newton County, IN; bison (Bison bison) and a cowbird (Molothrus ater), Kankakee Sands (The Nature Conservancy), Newton County, IN; prairie falcon ((Falco mexicanus), Kankakee Sands (The Nature Conservancy), Newton County, IN; watching for cranes, Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area (DNR), Medaryville, IN; crane fly-in (Grus canadensis), Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area (DNR), Medaryville, IN: swirl of sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis), Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area (DNR), Medaryville, IN; sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis), Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area (DNR), Medaryville, IN.

Giving Thanks in the Tallgrass

“Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.” – attributed to Kurt Vonnegut

***

Why would anyone walk the prairie in November? Come and find out.

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See the sandhill cranes, headed south, as they have done from time out of mind. They tell us one season is done; another is unfolding. Are you listening?

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Marvel at the curve of a dried compass plant leaf, which once took its directions from the sun.

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Enjoy the sweep of prairie sky over the bleached grasses. So much contrast!

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Watch the seeds of many different plants lift and float on a breath of wind.

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Others drop and scatter. So many different types of seeds on the prairie! Imagine where they will land…

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…and what each seed might become.  Think about how one seed may eventually give life to other living things.

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Marvel at the spiky rattlesnake master seedheads. So much diversity! It’s what makes the prairie rich and interesting.

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Even the polished spheres of goldenrod galls each hold a tiny insect inside. The humblest prairie plant does its part to provide a home and nourishment for the winter for a prairie creature.

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Miraculous, isn’t it? The world holds wonders. So much diversity; all working together. Everything moving forward.

Take time to look. To  remember. Then, to give thanks.

****

The opening quote is sometimes attributed to Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007), shared with me by Carolyn McCready. Vonnegut was a prisoner of war during the bombing of Dresden (1945) and lost many of the people he loved to various tragedies, including divorce, suicide, and cancer. Yet, he still believed the world was a beautiful place.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), St. Stephen’s Cemetery PRairie, Carol Stream, IL; sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) over author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; dogbane or Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; seedheads in the tallgrass at St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; fritillary butterfly (Speyeria spp.) on wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; goldenrod gall, St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL.

Prairie in Unlikely Places

“It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.”–Arthur Conan Doyle

***

When you think of “nature,” do you picture large, sprawling preserves or national parks in other regions, filled with wildlife and unusual plants?

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Yes, these are beautiful destinations. But, the most inspirational places in the natural world aren’t always parks and preserves in other parts of the country. Sometimes, it’s the little places where people are caring for nature that move us the most.

You never know where you’re going to find a small patch of planted or remnant prairie. Like these tallgrass plants, hanging out by a graffitied underpass in Bloomington, Indiana.

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Or prairie plants scattered along old railroad tracks, like these grasses in northern Indiana.

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Recently, I visited the St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie in Carol Stream, Illinois; a tiny prairie remnant off the beaten path. It took me three tries to find it. The view around the prairie might be a clue as to why. Not exactly “pristine” or “untrammeled” nature, is it?

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The forbidding entrance — a gravel road through a cement plant, the road lined with buckthorn — echoed the fortress-like feel of the cemetery. Because of vandalism, the cemetery is surrounded by a high, chain-link fence lined with barbed wire.

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When you look through it, you can see the prairie. Like the cemetery, it’s also surrounded by a high, chain-link fence.

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Bob Jacobsen, the 85-year-old volunteer caretaker for the prairie and cemetery, offered me a short introduction to the tallgrass here. The two acres, he said, were originally purchased and intended to be part of an 1852 German Catholic Church’s cemetery expansion. The cemetery stayed small. The little piece of expansion ground, full of prairie plants, escaped the plow that destroyed most of Illinois prairies when this portion of the state was settled.

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This little remnant is hanging on — but just barely. Jacobsen reminisced about the dilapidated state of the prairie during the 1970s. Moped riders and motorcyclists used the prairie as a racetrack, he told me. The fence he put up offers protection from people who don’t recognize the prairie’s value.

He has a vision for this little two-acre remnant.

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That it might hang on, despite the build-up all around it. That it will continue, despite the odds. He burns it, weeds it, and hopes for others to carry on the legacy of caring for this little prairie patch in an unlikely place.

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“Nature” — and tallgrass prairie remnants like this one– don’t always have the wow factor of a large, protected refuge, vast open spaces, and innumerable wildlife inhabitants.

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But sometimes, it’s the small, carefully-protected tiny remnants or surprising mini-restorations in someone’s backyard that give me the most hope. They are a spark in the dark. A match, which may strike interest, then kindle love and appreciation for the prairie in those who don’t know it well. Learning to understand and nurture the small places are a stepping stone to greater appreciation and care for the big tracts of land we need in our world that are also irreplaceable.

These small patches are unlikely survivors in a harsh environment. Light, in the darkness.

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Long may those like Bob Jacobsen continue to do their best to keep these small places with original prairie alive and flourishing. And may these remnants and other little prairie reconstructions continue to inspire us to continue our work with prairie. To prompt us to  care for the natural world in the large scenic places. To care for those nooks and crannies full of “nature” in our communities. And, perhaps most importantly, to care for the natural world in our own neighborhoods and backyards, no matter how small they may seem. Paying attention. Making a difference.

***

The opening quote is by Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), the author who created the  Sherlock Holmes detective series.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): snow geese and sandhill cranes, Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, San Antonio, New Mexico; prairie plants and graffiti, Bloomington, IN:  prairie plants along the railroad tracks, northwestern Indiana; cement plant, Carol Stream, IL; warning sign, St. Stephen’s Cemetery, Carol Stream, IL; St. Stephen’s Cemetery tombstones with prairie in the background, Carol Stream, IL; Indian hemp or dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum), St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; wild asparagus seed (Asparagus officinalis), St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; sunset, Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, San Antonio, New Mexico; unknown aster, St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL.

Finding Our Story in the Tallgrass

“Owning our story can be hard, but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it.” –Brene Brown

***

October is a good month for reflection.

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As I walk the two prairies where I monitor dragonflies, it’s quiet. A few common green darners still buzz drowsily about, but they are the exception. Most of the dragonflies–eastern amberwings, prince baskettails, blue dashers– have migrated south or laid eggs and finished out their brief lives in the tallgrass. The sky and creek banks seem emptier without them.

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At home, I collate my monitoring reports, doublecheck photos against ID’s, rejoice over new species added, and wonder why some of the dragonfly species I expected didn’t show up this season. Or was it me that didn’t show up to see them at the right time? Tough to know.

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I make plans for next year.

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Soak up the satisfaction of another year almost wrapped up, with all the joys and disappointments that it contained.

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It’s not just me that’s evaluating the year. At Nachusa Grasslands,  bison are assessed at an annual round-up this month. The rest of the 364 days, they are free to roam in the tallgrass.

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A round-up is a chance to check-in on their well-being; to count shaggy heads, and to vaccinate bison against potential diseases.

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The bison don’t care for the process much, but monitoring their health and taking a little preventative action ensures they have a more stress-free future. Sure, it takes time and energy to do these assessments –but in the long run, it pays off.

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In October, I find the prairie is a good place for personal reflection; a little self-assessment. Alone in the tallgrass, without the distractions of my cell phone, laptop, or work to be completed, my mind quiets. I think about how the year has unfolded so far. Look with more perspective at the rest of 2016 to come, with its busy rounds of holidays, family, and year-end tasks.

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The hot and sweaty hours I’ve spent on the prairie this season managing weeds, cutting brush, and putting in new prairie plants comes to fruition in the wash of color and foaming of seedheads across the tallgrass in October. The hours I’ve walked, and looked, and written down species and numbers of dragonflies, are finished. I begin wrapping up some projects, and plan what is next.

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What would I choose to do differently, if I could? What do I find difficult to change? What brought me joy?  Did I risk enough? Was I present when I needed to be? Did I show up?

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The seeds I’ve collected and the sheets of dragonfly data are a reminder of what I’ve accomplished…and didn’t accomplish.  How do I want to move forward into the next season?

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It’s easy to let life happen to us, instead of being intentional about life. Each year brings new joys, disappointments, and opportunities. There is so much more ahead.

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I want to be thoughtful about how I embrace each coming day.  Intentional. But open to whatever unfolds. Most of all, I want to be present. To show up.

*****

The opening quote is by Brene Brown (1965-) a research professor and the author of “The Gifts of Imperfection.” The full quote includes this line: “Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky, but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy–the experiences that make us most vulnerable.” Well said.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sunrise, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum) in big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) , Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum)  Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison) roundup, Nachusa Grassland, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison) roundup, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; great blue heron (Ardea herodias) watching for a fish, Fox River, Geneva, IL; October at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; upright carrion flower (Smilax lasioneuron), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; volunteers heading back to the barn with seeds, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bridge at Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.