Tag Archives: Milkweed Editions

Reading the Tallgrass Prairie

“It’s a story that continues to be written, on the page and in the earth.” — John T. Price

The polar vortex has clamped its icy claws on the Midwest.

Monarch Way Station, Cindy’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I find myself humming Christina Rossetti’s gorgeous Christmas poem/carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Snow on snow, snow on snow.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

My hikes have gotten shorter and shorter this week. Even a trip to fill up the backyard birdfeeders…

Hairy Woodpecker (Dryobates villosus) and House Sparrow (Passer domesticus), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

….is Brrrr!...enough to send me back inside to brew a mug of hot lapsang souchong tea, shrug on an afghan, and reach for a book about the gorgeous and—painfully cold this week—natural world.

Robin (Turdus migratorius) on Staghorn Sumac (Rhus hirta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

It’s prime reading weather. Time to investigate some prairie literature.

Let’s pull a few books off the shelf and spend some of this week “hiking” through the pages, immersed in prairie.

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Do you love a good story? A great place to begin a prairie literary exploration is with John Price’s edited volume, The Tallgrass Prairie Reader.

It’s an intentionally accessible nonfiction anthology with, as Price says in his introduction, “a variety of forms, voices, and approaches—including adventure narratives, spiritual reflections, literary ethnobotany, animal portraits, ‘personal’ natural history, childhood memoir, travel writing, humor, and reportage.” These are stories, rather than how-to restoration essays. Price groups the readings in three sections—19th, 20th, and 21st Centuries. You can skip around and dip into different readings, or, as he suggests, start at the earliest reading (Black Dog’s “Sun and Moon” creation story) and read it straight through to get a sense of how people at different points in history experienced the tallgrass prairie. Absorbing reading.

If you’re looking for more of a comprehensive natural history (from glaciers to present), one of the classic narratives of the tallgrass prairie is John Madson’s Where the Sky Began.

Madson’s dry wit, his encyclopedic facts narrated in lovely prose, and his passion for prairie make the 340 pages of this book fly by. Where the Sky Began was published in 1982; Madson passed away in 1995. When my new prairie volunteers ask me what book to read to understand what a prairie is and how it came to be, Madson’s book is the first one I recommend. A classic.

Memoir and prairie make good companions, and one of my favorites remains Nature’s Second Chance by Steven Apfelbaum.

After moving to Juda, Wisconsin, where he purchased an old 2.7 acre agricultural homestead, Apfelbaum began restoring it to health. Apfelbaum is founder and chairman at Applied Ecological Services, and has an expert knowledge of what it takes to create tallgrass prairie where it has been obliterated. His story tells how he gained an education in what it means to do so in a community where ecological restoration isn’t well understood. Chapter 10 is my favorite: “Getting to Know the Neighbors.” It will make you smile! This book is a great companion for frigid February evenings when you want a non-fiction prairie book that’s personal, and reads with the flowing narrative of a good novel.

For the same reasons, I love Paul Gruchow’s Journal of a Prairie Year ….

…and Gruchow’s Grass Roots: The Universe of Home.

Both books are collections of thoughtful essays on prairie, rural living, and the natural world. Grass Roots won the 1996 Minnesota Book Award, and contains an essay, “What the Prairie Teaches Us,” that I use in my tallgrass prairie ecology classes. Journal of a Prairie Year is arranged seasonally, and as Milkweed Editions (Gruchow’s publisher) notes, it is “both equal parts phenology and philosophy.” I read portions of Gruchow’s books all year round to remind myself to pay attention to what’s unfolding all around me.

Most prairie wildflowers and grasses are battered or buried under a foot of snow this week. Some are almost unrecognizable at this time of year. I’ve found that a great way to deepen my relationship with plants is to browse some of my ethnobotany books—discovering how people have used these native plants throughout history. Learning the plants’ stories, and how their stories are part of the human story, is an engaging way to pass the winter hours indoors.

Wildflowers of the Tallgrass Prairie: The Upper Midwest by Sylvan Runkel and Dean Roosa is now in its second edition with a new cover and much better photographs than my first edition shown above. The authors include fun snippets of information about the scientific names of more than 100 plants, and stories of how Native Americans and newcomers to the Midwest used native prairie plants medicinally, as groceries, and even for veterinary purposes. It’s easy to pick the book up for a few minutes and renew my acquaintance with a prairie grass or wildflower’s stories—then put it down. This suits my short attention span this month (which I blame on the pandemic). Read about a plant or two each day, and by the time warm weather and prescribed fire have readied the prairie for another growing year, you’ll be all set to greet the first spring wildflowers.

Bumblebee (Bombus sp.) on Wood Betony (Pedicularis canadensis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Kelly Kindscher’s two seminal works on Kansas prairie plants, Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie and Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie include many stories of grasses and wildflowers native to my area of Illinois as well as further west. Drawings like these below are included, rather than photographs.

Illustration from Kelly Kindscher’s Edible Wild Plants of the Tallgrass Prairie.

Kindscher’s writing is lucid and enjoyable, and a deep dive into a plants ethnobotanical story. And, if these three books on prairie plants whet your appetite for more, immerse yourself in the doorstopper encyclopedic Native American Ethnobotany by Daniel Moerman (shown above with the other three books), a fairly exhaustive compilation of native plant use by specific Native American tribes in North America. It’s an amazing reference book no serious prairie enthusiast should be without.

Now that you know more about the prairie plants’ stories, wouldn’t it be nice to go see a few? Winter is a good time for planning visits to all the prairies I hoped to visit during warmer weather—but didn’t get around to. These three books below stimulate a lot of dreaming about road trips. The Prairie Directory of North America by Charlotte Adelman and Bernard Schwartz is an out-of-print oldie, but goodie. My first edition, published in 2001, has valuable lists of small, off the beaten track types of prairies in the United States and Canada. See if you can find a used copy of either the first or second edition. The directory has been the springboard for many of my prairie hikes.

Exploring Nature in Illinois by Susan Post and Michael Jeffords, while not focused solely on prairies, has some excellent destinations including Goose Lake Prairie State Park, Nachusa Grasslands, Kankakee Sands, and more. Hiking Illinois by Susan Post includes great prairie trips such as Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, McHenry County Conservation District’s 26-mile “The Prairie Trail,” and Winnebago County’s sand prairies.

So many books! So little time. As a former independent bookseller, I’d love to pull each of my prairie books off the shelf and tell you why it’s earned a place there.

Then, you could share your favorites with me (and please do so below in the comments). There are more books than I can name, or show in the photo above, or describe here. Books on prairie restoration, plant ID, bison, birds, blooms; coffee-table photography tomes and books of prairie spiritual reflections. And I have many more prairie books on my wish list. You, too?

Of course, reading about the prairie is no substitute for the prairie itself.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

But when the wind chill drops to minus 20 degrees, and winter storms close many of the roads to the tallgrass preserves, “hiking” through the pages of these prairie books is the next best thing to being there.

Happy reading!

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John T. Price (1966-) earned his M.F.A. in Nonfiction Writing and Ph.D. in English from University of Iowa. He is the author of Daddy Long Legs: The Natural Education of a Father (2013) and Man Killed by Pheasant and Other Kinships (2008) and Not Just Any Land: A Personal and Literary Journey into the American Grasslands (2004). Price is Professor of English at the University of Nebraska.

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Join Cindy in 2021 for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a complete list of virtual offerings. Need a speaker? Email me through my website. All classes and programs with Cindy this winter and spring are offered online only. Join me from your computer anywhere in the world.

February 24, 7-8:30 p.m. CST: The Prairie in Art and Literature– Online. The tallgrass prairie is usually thought of for its diverse community of plants, animals, and insects. Yet, it is also an inspiration for a creative community! In this interactive online talk, natural history author and prairie steward Cindy Crosby will explore historical and contemporary writers and artists, musicians, and other creatives working in the prairie genre: from Neil Young to Willa Cather to graphic comic artists, quilters, and jewelers expressing the prairie through their work. See the prairie in a new light! Come away inspired to appreciate and express your love of the tallgrass as you enjoy learning about this prairie “community.” Offered by The Morton Arboretum: Register here.

Readers, I hope you’ll “hunker down” this winter with my book, The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction and my book with awesome co-author Thomas Dean, Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit during this cold spell! Don’t forget your independent bookstores when you order Thanks for reading about and supporting prairie.

February Prairie Joys

“The season was…caught in a dreamy limbo between waking and sleeping.” — Paul Gruchow

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And so, February slogs on. We slip on ice, shovel the driveway, or shiver as cold slush slops into our boots. The sky alternates with bright sun and scoured blue skies to gray sheets of clouds that send our spirits plummeting. It’s difficult to not wish February gone. And yet, there is so much February has to offer. So much to enjoy! Hiking the Schulenberg Prairie and savanna after the snow on Valentine’s Day Friday, I was reminded of this.

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It’s 14 degrees Fahrenheit.  Brrr! There’s something comforting about water running under the ice in Willoway Brook.

In other parts of the prairie stream, the water looks like a deep space image, complete with planets, asteroids, and other star-flung matter.

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Wrinkles of ice form on the surface, like plastic wrap on blue jello.

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This slash of blue stream owes much of its color to the reflected February sky. Bright and sunny. So welcome after a string of gray days!

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However, to say the brook is blue is to overlook its infinite variations in color. Leaning over the bridge, I knock a drift of powdered snow loose. It sifts onto Willoway Brook and sugars the ice.

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The prairie is quiet. Roadway noise from a nearby interstate is an ever-present current of background sound, but the “prairie mind” soon learns to filter it out. My “prairie steward mind” notes the numbers of Illinois bundleflower seedheads along the stream, a mixed blessing here. We planted this native as part of a streambank rehab almost 20 years ago. Now, the bundleflower is spreading across the prairie in leaps and bounds and threatening to become a monoculture. What to do, what to do.

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For today, I’ll just enjoy its unusual jolt of shape and color. Wait until spring, bundleflower. I’ll deal with you then. Meanwhile, I enjoy some of the less rowdy members of the prairie wildflowers. Bee balm with its tiny pipes, each hollow and beginning to decay, shadowed in the sunlight. It’s easy to imagine hummingbirds and butterflies  sipping nectar here, isn’t it? Its namesake bees love it too.

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The February prairie is full of activity, both seen and unseen. A few sparrows flutter low in the drifts. Near the bee balm, mouse tunnels and vole holes pock the snowbanks.

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Coyote tracks, their shamrock paw prints deeply embedded in the slashes of snow, embroider the edges of the tallgrass.

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The remains of prairie plants have mostly surrendered to the ravages of the season.

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Carrion flower, a skeleton of its former self, catches small drifts. Such a different winter look for this unusual plant!

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Pasture thistle stands tall by the trail, still recognizable. This summer it will be abuzz with pollinator activity, but for now, the queen bumblebees sleep deep under the prairie. Waiting for spring.

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The Schulenberg, a planted prairie, and Belmont Prairie, a prairie remnant, are less than five miles apart but feel very different.  On Sunday, Jeff and I drove to Downer’s Grove and hiked the Belmont Prairie. The bright sun and warming temperatures—44 degrees! —-also made Sunday’s hike a far different proposition than my Friday hike at 14 degrees on the Schulenberg Prairie.

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The shallow prairie stream at Belmont glistens with ice fancywork.

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The prairie plants here—what’s left of them in February—display infinite variety as they do on the Schulenberg. Nodding wild onion.noddingwildonionbelmontprairie21620WM.jpg

Rattlesnake master, its seedheads slowly disintegrating.

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Rattlesnake master’s yucca-like leaves, once juicy and flexible, are torn into new shapes. The textures are still clearly visible.

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Soft arcs of prairie brome…

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…are echoed by curved whips of white vervain nearby.

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The compass plant leaves bow into the snow, slumped, like melted bass clefs.

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I can identify these plants. But then the fun begins. What is this seedhead, knee-high by the trail? Such a puzzle!

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Without plant leaves, ID becomes more challenging. But the usual suspects are still here. A chorus of tall coreopsis…

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…and the wild quinine, now devoid of its pungent summer scent.

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Soft Q-tips of thimbleweed are unmistakable.

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As is the round-headed bush clover silhouette; a burst of February fireworks.

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February is flying by. There’s so much on the prairie to see before it ends.

Why not go look?

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Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) penned the opening quote to this post, taken from the chapter “Winter” from Journal of a Prairie Year (Milkweed Editions, 1985). Gruchow remains one of my favorite writers; his treatises on Minnesota’s tallgrass prairie and rural life are must-reads.

All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Schulenberg Prairie and prairie savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook in ice and thaw, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ice on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ice on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ice on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; vole tunnel (may be a meadow vole or prairie vole, we have both!), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; trail through the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; carrion vine (likely Smilax herbacea) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; skies over Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; stream through Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; nodding wild onion (Allium cernuum), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL;  rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie brome (Bromus kalmii), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; white vervain (Verbena urticifolia), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; unknown, possibly purple or yellow meadow parsnip (Thaspium trifoliatum/flavum), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL.

Thanks to Illinois Botany FB friends (shout out Will! Evan! Paul! Duane! Kathleen!) for helping me work through an ID for the possible native meadow parsnip.

Join Cindy for a class or event!

Nature Writing and Art Retreat, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, February 22 (Saturday) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Cindy will be facilitating the writing portion. Sold Out. Waiting list –register here.

The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction– February 29, Saturday 10-11 a.m.,  Aurora Public Library,  101 South River, Aurora, IL Open to the public! Book signing follows.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26.  Details and registration here.

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum. For details and registration, click here.  

See more at http://www.cindycrosby.com   

The Trouble with “Leave No Trace”

Perhaps, you will absorb something of the land. What you absorb will eventually change you. This change is the only real measure of a place.”–Paul Gruchow

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We are taught to “leave no trace” when we visit a natural area, such as the prairie. Pack out our trash. Stay on the path. Respect what we find. Yet, there is another side to this simple saying.

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Hike the prairie early in the new year. Look carefully. In the shady hollows, there are transitory marvels. Rock candy sticks of ice linger until the sun strikes. Then…vanish.

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The old is finished.

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The past months melt away.

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There are lingering signs of the life of the prairie to come.

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To hike a prairie is to be prompted to want to know more about it. Paying attention is one way to grow more deeply in understanding the tallgrass. Helping restore it with others is another.

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When we care for a place, we are more “careful” of that place. But familiarity sometimes breeds carelessness. So… How do we break out of the same patterns of thinking?

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How do we become less rigid in the ways of “knowing?”

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How do we open ourselves to seeing and thinking about prairie in new ways?

Come with me, and surf the grasses; ride the waves of the prairie in January. Admire the tweediness of the grass colors, bleached and burnished.

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Follow a path not taken before; explore in all directions. Who knows where you’ll end up? What might be found on the other side?

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It might not all be softness and light. The prairie can be harsh, unforgiving.

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No surprise. It’s a landscape that must be burned again and again to become strong.

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Through beauty and terror–and even, the ordinary–the prairie imprints itself on the heart.

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It reminds us of our insignificance in the big scheme of things.

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And yet.

It also whispers: “One person who lives intentionally can make a difference in the bigger life of a community.” Even if only a trace.

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Yes, if you’re careful and pay attention–stick to the trails, carry out your trash, speak softly, admire the blooms but don’t pick them– you may “leave no trace” in the tallgrass. If you give back to the prairie–learn the names of its community members, help gather its seeds, pull weeds —you may leave traces on it of the best kind.

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But be warned. The trouble with “leave no trace” is that the prairie does not follow the same principles you do. It will cause you to think more deeply. To care more fully. To pay attention more intently.

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The prairie will leave its traces on you. And you will be forever changed by the encounter.

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The opening quote in this essay is by Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) from Journal of a Prairie Year (Milkweed Editions). Gruchow suffered from severe depression; for many years he found solace in the outdoors and on the prairie. Among his other works are Boundary Waters: Grace of the Wild; The Necessity of Empty Places; Travels in Canoe Country;  and Grass Roots: The Universe of Home.  His writing is observational, wryly humorous, attentive to detail, and reflective. If you haven’t read Gruchow, let this be the year that you do.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): snow on the tallgrass, Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; ice crystals on the path, Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; pale purple coneflower seed head (Echinacea pallida), Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; snow pocket melting in the sun, Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; removing invasives, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) leaf, Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; ice, Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; grasses in January, Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; prairie road, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL;  hiking on New Year’s day, Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; working to restore bison, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; snowy road, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; tracks through frost, Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL.