Tag Archives: mist

Little Prairie in the City

“Wherever we look, from the dirt under our feet to the edge of the expanding cosmos, and on every scale from atoms to galaxies, the universe appears to be saturated with beauty.”–Scott Russell Sanders

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We went looking for beauty. We found it in the northwest corner of Illinois, on a day both foggy and cold.

The 66-acre Searls Park Prairie and wetland is tucked into a mosaic of soccer fields, jogging trails, picnic grounds, and a BMX bike track. Once part of a 230-acre family farm homesteaded in the 1850’s, today the prairie is a designated Illinois Nature Preserve and part of the Rockford Park District.

Fog drizzles the tallgrass with droplets, but no light sparkles. Staghorn sumac lifts its scarlet torches in the gloom, bright spots of color on this gray, gray day.

This remnant is mostly mesic prairie; or what I call the “Goldilocks” type of prairie—-not too wet, not too dry. Well-drained. Just right. Black soil prairie was once coveted by farmers as a fertile place for crops—farmers like the Searls, no doubt. For that reason, most black soil prairies have vanished in Illinois.

It’s quiet. Even the recreational areas are empty in the uncomfortably damp late afternoon. No soccer games. No picnics. The BMX bike track is closed.

The prairie seems other-worldly in the silence.

Prairies like this, tucked into cities, are important sanctuaries. Searls Park Prairie is known for hosting three state-listed threatened or endangered plant species. I don’t see any of the rare or endangered plants on my hike today. But I do see Indian grass….lots and lots of Indian grass.

Its bright bleached blades are etched sharply against the misty horizon. The colors of the drenched prairie are so strong, they seem over-exposed.

Thimbleweed, softly blurred in the fog, mingles with…

…round-headed bush clover, silvery in the late afternoon.

Canada wild rye is sprinkled with sparks.

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Inhale. Ahhhh. Gray-headed coneflower seedheads are soggy with rainwater, but still smell of lemons when you crush them.

I pinch the hoary leaves of bee balm. Thymol, its essential oil, is still present. But the fragrance is fading.

Mountain mint has lost most of its scent, but still charms me with its dark, silvery seedheads.

Stiff goldenrod transitions from bloom to seed, not quite ready to let go of the season.

Overhead, a flock of tiny birds flies over, impossible to identify. There are rare birds here, although I don’t see any today. On our way to the prairie, we marveled at non-native starlings in the cornfields along the interstate, moving in synchronized flight. I’ve never been able to get this on video, but there are great examples of this flight found here. I’ve only seen this phenomenon in the autumn; one of the marvels of the dying year. Once seen, never forgotten.

On the edge of the prairie, wild plums spangle the gloom.

Such color! Such abundance.

I’ve read there is high-quality wet prairie here, full of prairie cordgrass, blue joint grass, and tussock sedge. We look for this wetter area as we hike, but the path we’re on eventually disappears.

No matter. So much prairie in Illinois is gone. So little original prairie is left. I’m grateful to Emily Searls for deeding her family’s farm to the city of Rockford almost 80 years ago, ensuring this prairie is preserved today.

So much beauty. We hardly know where to look next.

The sun burns briefly through the fog like a white-hot dime.

Dusk is on the way, a little early. We make our way back to the car, just ahead of the dark.

There are many different ways to think of beauty.

It’s always available for free on the prairie, in all its infinite variations.

Why not go see?

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The opening quote is from Scott Russell Sanders’ (1945-) The Way of Imagination. Sanders is professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN, where Jeff and I lived for a dozen or so years. After writing the opening quote, he follows it with “What are we to make of this?” and later “How then should we live, in a world overflowing with such bounty? Rejoice in it, care for it, and strive to add our own mite of beauty, with whatever power and talent we possess.” Oh, yes.

All photos from Searls Park Prairie, Rockford, IL (top to bottom): fog over the Searls Park Prairie; Illinois nature preserve sign; staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); white vervain (Verbena urticifolia); dedication plaque; foggy landscape; indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica); round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata); canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum); fog on the prairie; stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum); indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and wild plum (Prunus americanus); wild plum (Prunus americanus); autumn colors; Jeff on the Searls Park Prairie; sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus) in the mist; foggy day on the Searls Park Prairie; prairie landscape in the fog; unknown umbel.

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Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization–now booking talks for 2021. Email Cindy through http://www.cindycrosby.com.

Literary Gardens Online: Friday, Dec.4, 1-2:30 p.m.CST– Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby from wherever you live in the world for a fun look at great (and not-so-great) 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 Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Goudge, Rumer Godden, May Sarton, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Gilbert, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, and Lewis Carroll–and many more! This class is online. Register here through The Morton Arboretum.

Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.

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Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org, direct from Northwestern University Press (use coupon code NUP2020 for 25% off), or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during these unusual times.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (phrelanzer). Or visit her website at http://www.cindycrosby.com. See you there!

What Coyotes Teach Me

“Whenever the pressure of our complex city life thins my blood and numbs my brain, I seek relief in the trail; and when I hear the coyote wailing to the yellow dawn, my cares fall from me – I am happy.” –Hamlin Garland

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What is it about worry ? Lately, I sense a low-level anxiety from people wherever I go, whomever I talk with. You too? And no wonder, you might say, given the state of so many things in the world.

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So. Come, sit with me on the tallgrass prairie in the early morning while the dew beads the grasses. Chances are, before too much time has passed, we will see a coyote.

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What? See a coyote? Is that supposed to be calming?

Well. I understand your concern. Few animals have been freighted with the emotional and symbolic baggage as the coyote. For some Native Americans, the coyote is trickster. Pioneers called coyotes “brush wolves,” with all the terrifying connotations implied at the time. (Wolves have their own public relations problems, but that’s for another essay.) For Chicago suburban homeowners, the coyote is often hated and feared.

Taker of pet dogs and cats. Garbage stealer. Stealth operator.

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Coyotes are also portrayed as cartoonish. Watch the old Road Runner episodes, and Wile E. Coyote is continually outwitted (Beep! Beep!), or falls off a cliff, or is blown up with dynamite. Even my local wildlife center dresses up their taxidermied coyote.  Coyote becomes something comical.

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But there’s nothing funny in the animal kingdom about the coyote. If you are a deer mouse or squirrel, the coyote is a ferocious predator. Mighty hunter. Their fear is well placed.

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But I went to a lecture on coyotes recently, and listened to an outpouring of worry by people who attended.  What if…?  What should I do when the coyote..? Could this happen? Could that? No coyotes have attacked humans in Illinois in 30 years. We spend a lot of time worrying about what could be. What might happen. What we would do if. Our anxiety  over things we can’t control roams in every direction. Coyotes are only one example of this.

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Think of what we could do with the time we spend worrying! Imagine, if instead, we payed attention and fully lived in each moment. What beautiful patterns we might weave in the world!

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Seneca, a Roman statesman (5 BC-65 AD)  wrote: “There are more things to alarm us than to harm us; we suffer more in apprehension than in reality.”

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So true of my own fears. I am not afraid of coyotes–but I often fear the future. Usually, my fears are of something that never materializes.  My worries often close me off to the richness–and yes, sometimes fearsomeness and wildness–of the world all around me, in all its diversity and wonder. When I look back at how I spent my days, will worrying about the unknown  be how I remember them?

It would be a lonely world without coyotes.

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On the prairie, the coyote is often ghost. Present, but unseen. But if you sit and wait and listen, you feel a coyote is there, even when it is invisible. For me, this is comforting. That the wild exists, whether I witness it or not.

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Coyotes are part of our collective imagination. They remind us that the world is not ours to control.

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When I do see a coyote, it will usually meet my eyes for a moment. Then, it slips away; unconcerned. The coyote’s world does not include me. It is indifferent to my presence. But my world–and the prairie world I visit–is always made richer by the knowledge of the presence of coyotes.

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I’m going to think more about coyotes the next few weeks, and what I saw at that lecture. Sure, I tsked tsked at the worry the listeners expressed about coyotes –but. What do I worry about that is unneeded? What energy do I expend on concern for events beyond my control? I will let go of my own worry about the future, and appreciate the amazing world around me each moment. I will try to weave something beautiful out of each day. Be at peace with the things I can’t control.

I hope you will find peace as well.

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Hannibal Hamlin Garland (1860–1940), whose quote about coyotes opens this essay,  was a Wisconsin-born Pulitzer Prize winning writer. He married sculptor Lorado Taft’s sister, Zulime, and lived in Illinois for a time as well as many other places. Among his writings were Prairie Songs, Boy Life on the Prairie,  and Prairie Folks, as well as numerous works of fiction, short stories, non-fiction, and poems about Midwestern farm life.

Want to know more about coyotes?  http://web.extension.illinois.edu/wildlife/directory_show.cfm?species=coyote

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Hunter’s supermoon over author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; dew drops, Clear Creek at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; coyote (Canis latrans) tracks in the snow, Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; holiday coyote (Canis latrans), Willowbrook Wildlife Center, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Glen Ellyn, IL; coyote (Canis latrans) hunting, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; compass points, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; spider web, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; the top of Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; leaf on the water, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; mist over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; two coyotes (Canis latrans) on the trail, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; coyote in the tallgrass, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

To Know a Prairie

“A walk is only a step away from a story, and every path tells.” –Robert Macfarlane

How do you begin to know a prairie?

You walk it alone, in the late summer sun.

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Wait for the mist to rise, after the rain.

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You sit quietly, doing nothing at all. Suddenly, the  focus becomes what is small.

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And the big things as well, a foil for the small. You notice the bison, formed and shaped by the land;  their bodies echoed in the knobs and the trees.

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And you stop for a while, and marvel.

How do you begin to know a place?

Your skin is scraped raw by the roughness of grass. Then soothed by the silk of the Canada rye.

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You watch the sun light the grass as it sinks out of view.

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And the darkness throws all into impossible relief.

Grasses and shrubs…

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…and wildflowers pink; catching the last light before going to sleep.

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You reflect on what you know, and what you realize  you don’t.

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There will always be mystery, here in the grass.

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You absorb what you can; you listen and learn.

And let the rest wash over you. Too much to take in.

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The story continues with each step that you take. And like a good book, you don’t want it to end.  You pull on your boots the next morning, and hike it again.

That’s how you begin.

To know a place.

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The opening quote is from The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by British writer Robert Macfarlane (1976-), about the shaping of people and places.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom): road through Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; mist on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common pondhawk dragonfly female (Erythemis simplicicollis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Canada wild rye, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  sunset with big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  sunset with shrubs, Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; gaura (Gaura biennis), Nachusa Grasslands, the Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; cattails (Typha latifolia) on Silver Lake, Blackwell Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; mist, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; clouds, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Ghosts of the Tallgrass

“Where there is no vision, there is no hope.” George Washington Carver.

It’s an unseasonably warm day in December. Fog shrouds the prairie. Everything softens. Fades. Blurs.

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Bison haunt the tallgrass, elusive and half-hidden.

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Illinois once had more than 22 million acres of prairie.

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Today, only 3,000 original acres of  tallgrass remain.

A ghost of what once was.

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When we went looking for what was left of the prairie, we found only scraps. Prairie was found  in pockets and corners of land where the farmer’s plow and development could not reach.

Around rocky outcrops.

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Along old railroad right of ways.

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Tucked into neglected graveyards.

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Isn’t it ironic that these neglected, overlooked places were virtual time capsules? That the  cemeteries of the dead became a repository for the living? For hope?

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A springboard for rebirth. Resurrection.

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It takes vision to imagine a better future. To remember — and believe —  that hope for the future may be found in the most unexpected places. Where will you look?

All photos by Cindy Crosby except where noted (top to bottom) : prairie in the fog, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; bison in the fog, NG;  misty December evening, NG; stand of trees in the tallgrass, NG; rocky knob, NG;  railroad tracks, Bosque del Apache, San Antonio, New Mexico — photo by Jeff Crosby;  tombstone, Chapel Hill Cemetery, just outside Rochelle, IL; CHC:; road through the bison unit, NG.