“If the world seems cold to you, kindle fires to warm it.” —Lucy Larcom
I’ve been looking up words in the thesaurus to describe the Chicago region’s prairie temperatures this week.
Here’s what I’ve found so far: Chilly. Freezing. Icy.
Piercing. Numbing. Sharp.
Glacial. Wintry. Raw.
Penetrating. Hypothermic. And did I say…. cold?
And….refreshing. These temperatures are a wake-up blast that jolts you clear down to your toes. Until you can’t feel your toes anymore.
What do you think? How would you describe the cold this week?
After I hiked the prairie this weekend in the snow, rising temperatures and a misty rain laid an icy glaze across the sidewalks and driveways; shellacked the front steps to our house. It looked as if Mother Nature got down on her hands and knees and buffed the snow to a high gloss.
Monday’s sunshine helped melt it a bit. Now everything is slick with ice. It’s treacherous out there.
I can see my backyard prairie patch from the kitchen window. What solace! The prairie dock leaves are brittle and brown; the compass plants curl like bass clefs. Wild bergamot satisfies my need for aesthetics as much in winter as it does in full bloom during the summer. Rattlesnake master’s spare silhouette is more striking now than it was in the warmer seasons.
Along the side of the house, prairie dropseed pleases in its mound-drape of leaves. What a pleasure this plant is. Every home owner should have it. So well-behaved.
But it’s the rough and tumble of joe pye, goldenrod, asters, swamp milkweed, cup plant, culver’s root, mountain mint and other prairie community members as a whole that I appreciate as much as parsing out a single species.
I’m reminded that underneath the snow is a world of color and motion and growth, just waiting to happen at the turn of the temperatures toward warmth. These bitter temperatures are a necessary pause in the life of the prairie.
Meanwhile, I’ll wait for the ice to melt…
… and remind myself that one of the reasons I planted prairie in my yard is for days just like this one. Is my backyard prairie good for the environment? Absolutely. Essential for pollinators? You bet. And…
…it’s a winter pleasure that warms my spirits, as I look through the window on a brutally-cold, iced-in day.
Lucy Larcom (1824-1893) was a writer, abolitionist, and teacher. As one of nine children, whose father (a sea captain) died when she was eight, Larcom worked with her mother to run a boardinghouse to keep the family afloat in Lowell, Massachusetts. She worked in Lowell’s mills at eleven years old, where the “mill girls” established a literary circle and she became a friend of the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, who was a support and encouragement. At twenty, she moved with an older sister to the Illinois prairies, where she taught school. She later moved back East and wrote for such magazines as the Atlantic. Her poetry collections include Similitudes, from the Ocean and Prairie (1853). She is best known for her autobiography, A New England Girlhood, Outlined from Memory which the Poetry Foundation calls “a richly detailed account of gender, and class in mid-nineteenth century New England.”
Join Cindy for a program in January!
“100 Years Around the Morton Arboretum” — Wednesday, January 26, 6:30pm-8:30 pm. Watch history come to life in this special centennial-themed lecture about The Morton Arboretum. Celebrating 100 years, The Morton Arboretum has a fascinating past. Two of the Arboretum’s most knowledgeable historians, author Cindy Crosby and the ever-amazing library collections manager Rita Hassert, will share stories of the Mortons, the Arboretum, and the trees that make this place such a treasure. Join us in person, or tune in via Zoom from the comfort of your home. (Please note changes in venue may be made, pending COVID. Check the day before to ensure you know the most current details of this event). Register here.
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 Chanceby 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Cindy Crosby is the author, compiler, or contributor to more than 20 books. Her most recent is "Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History" (Northwestern University Press, 2020). She teaches prairie ecology, nature writing, and natural history classes, and is a prairie steward who has volunteered countless hours in prairie restoration. See Cindy's upcoming online speaking events and classes at www.cindycrosby.com.