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5 Reasons to Hike the February Prairie

“…Some say that February’s name comes from an ancient and forgotten word meaning “a time that tries the patience.” — Hal Borland

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February is the shortest month of the year. But it may seem like the longest.

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Big, wet snowflakes fall outside. I welcome the snow—-it brightens up the seemingly endless gray skies that feature so prominently this month. Snow helps lift my mood. Hiking the prairie? Even more so.

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Let’s take a stroll on the prairie…

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…and find five good reasons to walk it in February.

1. Experience Weather Swings

Indecisive February!

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The weather shivers between rain, sleet, sunshine and snow. To hike the prairie this month is to experience shifts of temperature in real time. Feel the freezing sleet on your face. Admire the snowflakes that collect on your sleeve. Crystals play on a hundred thousand seedpods, as precipitation pelts the prairie plants.

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I love to discover transitions on the prairie as the temperatures plunge and rise.

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There’s the tension between freeze and thaw; sunshine and leaden skies; the snap of ice under our boots and the suck of mud. February is all about our impatience for the last month of meteorological winter to finish and the first month of meteorological spring to arrive in Illinois. Hurry up! Our minds are already turning to spring. But what a loss it would be, if we failed to enjoy what February has to offer.

2. Signs of the Unseen

I rarely glimpse the meadow voles, prairie voles, or white-footed mice during the warmer months in the tallgrass. Although once in a while I’m surprised, as Jeff and I were this spring when we reached into a prairie trail map box and found these tenants.

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In winter, these mostly-invisible members of the tallgrass community are betrayed by their tracks and tunnels. I think about them as I follow their progress across the prairie.  The collapsed snow tunnels. An occasional escape hole. And my favorite—the sewing machine “stitches” —-tiny tracks evenly spaced—that criss-cross the trails.

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As we hike, Jeff and I leave our tracks alongside their prints—and the tracks of geese, coyotes, deer, and other members of the prairie community. I like that. It reminds me that we’re all a part of this place.

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3.  Plant Silhouettes

The same gray skies that plunge some of us into seasonal affective disorder throw prairie plants into sharp relief this month. It’s a new perspective. Indian hemp pods swing in bundles, bereft of any seeds.

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I’m more aware of the ribbon-like curves of big bluestem leaves, shorn now of  their turkey-footed seadheads.

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I enjoy the rhythmic sway of Indian grass, pushed by periodic blasts of Arctic wind.

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Prairie cinquefoil takes on a ghostly aspect, blurred in the falling sleet.  Its silhouette makes me think of tulips. Of the bulbs beginning to spear through the garden in my backyard. Of spring.

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These grasses and wildflowers won’t be here long.

Fire is coming.

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4. Unexpected Gatherings

When I think “grassland birds,” mourning doves aren’t exactly what comes to mind. But hiking the College of DuPage’s Russell Kirt Prairie this weekend, that’s what turned up. Notice how this mob has fluffed out their feathers against the cold—like down vests, puffy and tinged with color. It reminds me of the down vests I wore in the 1970s.

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Why did they choose this tree on the prairie, and not another? What are they murmuring about? I wonder. After a bit of looking around on birding websites, I discover a group of doves is called a “dole” or “dule,” and sometimes, a “cote, a “bevy,” and even, a “flight.” Flight? Maybe not. These birds look like they’ve settled in for the long haul.

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Seeing them in the tree reminds me of one of my favorite scenes from the original 1967 Disney adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book.” Remember the four vultures, loosely modeled on the Beatles, talking to each other in a tree? “What do you wanna do?” one asks. “I dunno, what do you want to do?” And so it goes. I can imagine these mourning doves asking each other the same question, over and over. Makes me smile.

5. Snow Magic

Hike the prairie in February, and you’ll be aware of contrasts. Snow is the mitigator. A light dusting of snow makes everything softer, brighter, more appealing. Snowmelt softens the crisp edges of senescing plants, like this prairie dock leaf.

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Cup plants, cracked and brittle…

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…become a foil for the crystal flakes, their veins and wrinkles more obvious now than in the summer. This leaf looks like footed pajamas hung on a laundry line, doesn’t it?

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A sprinkling of snow makes February’s gray skies seem a little brighter.

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A little snow makes the month of February a little more do-able. More digestible. Beautiful. Why not go for a hike and see for yourself?

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February will be over before you know it.  The prairie is waiting.

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This winter, I’ve been enjoying the writing of Hal Borland (1900-1978), whose quote from A Sundial of the Seasons, 365 days of natural history observations, opens this post.  It was tough to find his books—all out of print, I believe— so I’m once again grateful to the marvelous Sterling Morton Library of the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL,  which carefully curates vanishing works of literature like Borland’s. Thanks to Mary Joan for introducing me to to his work. The original opening quote is prefaced by the caveat, “There’s no evidence to support it in the dictionaries, but some say… .” Ha!  If the actual etymology of the word “February” isn’t true, the supposed meaning certainly is.

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All photos this week are taken at College of DuPage’s Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL, except where noted (top to bottom): Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum);  Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis); “Prairie Parking” sign with unknown lichens; snowy trail through the prairie; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); COD pond; white-footed mice (Peromyscus spp.), Wolf Road Prairie, Westchester, IL (photo from 2019); mouse and vole trails through the snow;  top of the ridge on COD’s Russell Kirt Prairie; Indian hemp, sometimes called dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum); big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); prairie cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta—us older prairie folks will remember it as Potentilla arguta); little bluestem (Schizachryium scoparium); mourning doves (Zenaida macroura); mourning doves (Zenaida macroura); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum); cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum); tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima) and wild bergamot, sometimes called bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); snowy trail through the prairie.

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Please join Cindy for a class or talk!

Pre-Valentine’s Event! The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Shop: February 13 (Thursday) 8-9 p.m., Park Ridge Garden Club, Centennial Activity Center 100 South Western Avenue Park Ridge, IL. Free and open to the public! Book signing follows.

Wheaton Book Signing! Local Authors Event.  Sunday, 2-3 p.m., Prairie Path Books in Town Square, Wheaton, IL. Free and open to the public. Click here for details.

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.

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   

10 Reasons to Hike the January Prairie

“This life is after all a miracle and we ought to pay fierce attention every moment… .” —Brian Doyle

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January on the prairie is underway, a yo-yo between freeze and thaw; snow and sun.

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Walking the prairie on a gray windy morning, contrasts are everywhere.

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Carrion flower still clutches its inedible fruits; some plump, others desiccated.

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Prairie dock leaves evince a weathered beauty that only comes with age and time.

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They are unrecognizable from the green elephant ears they were in July. The air smells of wet earth and cold. Grasses whisper in the wind. A hawk silently bullets by, rapt on its prey. The hum of traffic in the distance is the only sound. So quiet. Peaceful.

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Until—-scritch scritch scritch. Up in a black walnut tree, a fox squirrel rhythmically gnaws a black walnut. The sound ricochets through the January air. How can a squirrel’s teeth grinding on a nut make so much noise?

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There is so much to experience on the tallgrass prairie in winter. Here are ten reasons to hike the prairie in January.

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10. The drama of winter prairie skies, changing like a kaleidoscope from moment to moment.

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9. The sound of water moving through the prairie; music that is more appreciated in January than July.

 

8. The grace of a single seedhead such as Canada wild rye…canadawildryeSPMA1520WM.jpg

7. …or, the joy of massed individuals, like these large swathes of bee balm.

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6. Possibilities for the future in the mowed firebreaks, ready for the prescribed burn to come.

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5. The glories of prairie plants that are more interesting in seed than in bloom, such as Illinois bundleflower.

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4. Small pleasures like the incredible diversity of lichens on a log in the tallgrass.

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3. Large dramas, such as the sweep of the prairie under a dusting of snow.

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2. The fascination of following animal tracks and trying to understand their stories written upon the landscape.

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1. Ice art, in all its unexpected and temporary forms.

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Welcome to a new year on the prairie.

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There is so much to anticipate this month.

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The opening quote is from Brian Doyle’s (1956-2017)  One Long River of Song. If you haven’t read Doyle, this is a good collection to begin with. Known as a “writer’s writer,” Doyle wrote many novels, essays, and poetry collections. He also won numerous awards, including the John Burroughs Medal and four Pushcart Prizes.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby and taken this week at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (top to bottom): mosses and snow; bridge to the prairie; carrion flower (Smilax spp.); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); January on the prairie; eastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger); prairie sky; Willoway Brook; Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); mowed firebreak; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis); lichens on a log; prairie trail; coyote (Canis latrans) tracks;  ice on the trail; bench on the prairie in the snow.

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Please join Cindy at one of her upcoming classes or talks in the new year!

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.

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.   

The (Prairie) Pause that Refreshes

“Now is the winter of our discontent.”–William Shakespeare
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Pause: a “temporary stop” according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary. The Oxford Dictionary defines “pause” as an interruption.  Pause seems like a good word to describe spring on the prairie this past week. Stopped. Interrupted. Although we know this spring pause is temporary in the Chicago region, some of us are feeling cranky about it.

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Spring, with all its flirtatious promises, has seemingly gone AWOL.  The surge and bloom of wildflowers screeched to a halt. And just when spring was beginning to look like it was underway, right? All those tiny green wildflower leaves!

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The sandhill cranes migrating north. The chorus frogs calling. Just days ago. Such a big push spring made; such clamor and green and even some blooms!  And now, sunshine and blue skies have regressed to the soft patter of snowflakes and grayest gloom. 

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The signature song from the Disney movie “Frozen” plays relentlessly in my head (“Let the storm rage on! The cold never bothered me anyway!”) But it’s difficult to let go of my impatience for the new season to arrive.

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You can spend your life wanting whatever is just out of reach, or wish for things over which you have no control. Or you can appreciate the joy of what is right in front of you and already yours. Contentment can be hard-won at this time of year. But I know what I need to do.

I quit grumbling and go for hike on the prairie.

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Flakes sift into my hair; melt on my face. As I hike, the snowflakes turn into tiny icy balls. Graupel.  Small white pellets of supercooled raindrops. We’ve had a lot of it this past month. The perfect transitional precipitation—not quite rain, hail,or snow.  Graupel is water that just can’t make up its mind. Sort of like spring. 

Under snow and ice, the familiar prairie, still unburned, takes on a transitional look of its own.

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The grasses and forbs wear their winter colors, stripped to the architecture of stems and seeds. But the snow caught in their scaffolding seems a foreshadowing of the flowers to come.

The red-winged blackbirds remind me that it’s April, and not winter.

 

The air smells of mud, snow, and decay. Sharp. Cold and invigorating.

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My head clears as I breathe in the icy air. During this past week,  I’ve sampled some of the pleasures of winter again: hot drinks, a warm afghan, and a big stack of library books. Mulled over seed catalogs, but not felt any urgency to get the garden ready.  There’s a sense that everything can wait. 

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It’s been restful, this breath of winter.  This pause.

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For another day or two, I’ll try and savor the stillness that a “pause” brings. Leave my garden tools in the shed.  Put some whipped cream on my hot chocolate. Enjoy these last days of snow and cold.

You heard that right. Enjoy. 

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The weather forecast calls for temperatures in the seventies later this week. 

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I’m looking forward to the warmer days of spring. You too?

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I’ll believe it when it happens.

Until then, I’ll try to appreciate the pause. 

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William Shakespeare (1564-1616), whose quote opens this blog post, was a British playwright, actor, and poet. He’s considered the world’s greatest dramatist. Few of us will make it through life without having read a play or watched a performance written by Shakespeare. Many of his phrases have fallen into common use such as “green with envy,” or “pure as the driven snow.” Check out this fun article from Mental Floss for more:  21 Phrases You Use Without Realizing You’re Quoting Shakespeare.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): west side prairie planting and the northern Europe Collection, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; toothwort (Dentaria laciniata or Cardamine concatenataseedling, West Side woodland, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bridge to upper prairie, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild bergamot or bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bridge over Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  pale Indian plantain (Cacalia atriplicifolia or Arnoglossum atriplicifolium) with snow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; video of Schulenberg Prairie in the snow with red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) singing, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tangled vines and brambles, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie and savanna, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) with snow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and snow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) with snow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. And thanks to Karen Burkwall Johnson for her observation about “snow flowers” — love that! 

A Prairie Wish and a Prayer

 “Labor brings a thing nearer the heart’s core.” –Mary Webb

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For prairie volunteers, it’s impossible to walk the tallgrass in December and not think of endings. This month is the symbolic culmination of a year’s worth of stewardship; the grand finale of planning, sweat, risk, small successes and—sometimes—epic failures. Three steps forward, two steps back.

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Take a deep breath. Look around you. Everything that can go to seed has flossed out; emptied itself into the wind and soil. Wade into the tallgrass. Bits of seed silk fly out in  pieces all around, a little prairie mock snowstorm.

Sun slants through seedheads; sparks stalks and stems into silver and gold.

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Hike the trails and mull over the season that has passed. Muse on the new season still to come. 

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In the distance, smoke hazes the prairie, tumbles above the treeline. 

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Natural resource managers, taking advantage of the warm, dry conditions, lay down prescribed burns in the nearby woodlands and wetlands. But not yet on the prairie. Soon, we tell the tallgrass. Very soon. Your turn will come.

December has been, by turns, warm and balmy; all sunshine then thunder; bitter and breezy.

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Listen closely as you hike the prairie trails and you’ll hear the tell-tale sounds of the end of juice and sap. The rustle of switchgrass. The brittle rattle of white wild indigo seed pods.

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The indigo stems snap off in 50 mph winds then roll, tumbleweed-like, across the prairie, scattering their progeny.

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Broken—but accomplishing their evolutionary task of moving around their DNA. In years to come, we’ll see the results: those incomparable white wild indigo blooms. Close your eyes. Imagine.

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But for now, look closely.  Who knows what you’ll see? A heightening of intense rusts and coppers, right before the final brutal bleaching freezes of January and February.

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Keep looking. You may see the occasional fluke or strange oddity as nature deals the tallgrass a wild card.

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Admire the blown-out stars of asters, spent for this season. Think of the seeds they’ve dropped in the rich black prairie soil, which now harbors a constellation of future blooms for the coming summer.

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New beginnings. They’re all here. Think of what weeding, a bit of planting, and a little dreaming might help this prairie become.
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So much possibility.
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Make a wish. Say a prayer.
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Your hard work may be mostly done for this season. But it has brought this little patch of tallgrass very close to your heart. Let your imagination run wild for what this prairie might become.

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Because on the prairie in December, anything for the coming year seems possible.

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Mary Webb (1881-1927), who penned the opening quote, was an award-winning English poet and romantic novelist. Her health ultimately failed from Grave’s Disease; her marriage failed as well and she died alone and with her last novel unfinished at age 46. Her writing reflects her fatalism and compassion for suffering. Gone to Earth (1917) expresses her horror of war; Precious Bane (1924), whose heroine has a disfiguring impairment, received the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse Anglais award, a French literary prize. She is known for her intense creativity, mysticism, and her love for the natural world.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Schulenberg Prairie in December, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cream wild indigo (Baptisia leucampha), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  unknown brome (Bromus spp.), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; prescribed burn, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) seed pods, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) upside down stalks, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie in December, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata) with mutation because of fasciation (viral, genetic, chemical), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; unknown aster, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias  syriaca) pods, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pappus, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hand with common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pappus, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nomia Meadows Farm Prairie, Franklin Grove, IL.

Thanks to Illinois Botany FB page for their help with my question about fasciation and the round-headed bush clover, especially Paul Marcum. 

Deep Prairie Purple

During Fourth of July week, the only fireworks aren’t just in the sky. There are explosions of color as the prairie pours out purple.

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The tallgrass sends up blooms of pale purple coneflowers…

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Twirls and swirls of color.

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Soft, fuzzy, antennae-like purple, deep in the stamens of moth mullein.

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Firecrackers of  deep purple lead plant, with orange embers.

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Bees buzzing ’round satellite spinners of purple prairie clover.

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Lilac bee balm exploding into floral fireworks.

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Tick trefoil and germander dot the tallgrass with occasional ooohs! and aaahs! of  lavender.

 

Violet dancer damselflies send purple aloft, darting here and there in surprising directions; then come to rest in the morning sunshine.

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Vervain spikes light purple sparklers along the paths.

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Unlike the noisy fireworks on July Fourth, these purple fireworks explode against a soundtrack of birdsong and wind. A bit of a rest after all that night time noise, isn’t it?

 

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Why not see for yourself? Go for a hike today — enjoy the quiet, and the magic of the color purple.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): mother bison and baby bison (Bison bison)  Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; the prairie in July, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; moth mullein (Verbascum blatteria), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.; lead plant (Amorpha canescens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.; purple prairie clover  (Dale purpurea) and a bee, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.; monarda  or wild bergamot, (Monarda fistulosa) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Illinois tick trefoil (Desmodium Illinoense) and germander (Teucrium canadense), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.; violet dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis violacea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.; hoary vervain (Verbena stricta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  prairie in July, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

The Best Prairie Restorations

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

–Annie Dillard

 I can’t get Dillard’s simple observation out of my head.

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How do I want to spend my days? This new year?

I want make time. To be there.

To look at the prairie up close, and marvel at a seed head’s complexity.

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To listen to the empty wild white indigo pods, tap-tap-tapping in the wind.

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To notice the tracks of a coyote in the snow and follow them…

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…find the remains of her dinner in the snow…

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…a reminder of how fleeting and precious life is.

How violence and beauty coexist in the natural world.

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Let me soak up the colors of prairie grasses around a lake…

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…marvel at the ice forming on the grasses…

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Take time to notice the kaleidoscope of the sky.

Sunrises.

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Sunsets.

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And all the ways the clouds configure themselves in-between. Such ongoing drama! Yet, the bison on the prairie graze beneath the sky, oblivious.

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Don’t they know? Each day may be our last.

I want to admire the unpopular opossum, with his face like a valentine.

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Be there to see the moon rise in the East,  like a smile.

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Appreciate the play of light and shadows on snow.

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Why? Making time to be fully present to life on the prairie helps me be fully present to life off the prairie. To the people I love. To the work that I do.  It is restoration of another kind. The restoration of my soul.

There might come a time when I may no longer be able to hike the tallgrass. Until then, I’m storing away images in my mind.

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Inhaling deeply so the smells of the prairie are etched into my memory. Mentally recording the sounds of the sandhill cranes and the song sparrow. Remembering how the tallgrass brushes my face.

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If  the time comes when I can no longer physically hike the prairie, I’ll still be able to sit and think back on how I spent my days. The images will be there, like pages in a scrapbook. I’ll count my life richer for this: paying attention.

All photos by Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) SP; unknown seed, SP; white wild indigo pods (Baptisia alba), SP; coyote tracks, SP; squirrel kill, SP; coyote, SP: grasses, Meadow Lake, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; grasses and ice, ML; grasses and ice, ML; sunrise, Newton Park, Glen Ellyn, IL; sunset, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; clouds over bison, NG; opossum, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; crescent moon over author’s prairie, GE; blue shadows, SP; coyote, SP; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), SP.

Note: SP, NG, GE: Schulenberg Prairie, Nachusa Grasslands, Glen Ellyn.

Quote from  Annie Dillard is from The Writing Life.

 

‘Round the December Prairie

A heavy November snow steamrolled the prairie into submission. A 50 degree day or two then melted the snow into invisibility. What’s left behind around Willoway Brook looks as if a giant paperweight has pressed the tallgrass flat.

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December on the prairie opens with a brand new look. Before the deep snow, the prairie grasses brushed my shoulders, towered over my head; a thick, vertical wall. Now, in many places, a springy carpet of grasses lies under my feet.

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For most of the autumn, the prairie has been drawn by an artist who loved vertical lines.

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But now, with the verticals knocked to the ground, a new shape takes prominence.

Circles. One of the simplest shapes in geometry. I see them everywhere.

The prairie dock leaves, drained of their chlorophyll, remind me of a dress I once owned made of dotted swiss material.

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The globes of bee balm repeat the circular pattern; clusters of tiny yawning tubular tunnels.

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Sunken balls of carrion flower catch the afternoon light.

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Tall coreopsis seeds dot the sky like beads suspended on wires.

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Overhead, thousands of cranes are migrating south, punctuating the quiet with their cries. They circle and loop; circle and loop.

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The gray-headed coneflower seeds have half-circle pieces missing.

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Crinkled round ball galls look like they’ve dropped from another planet. Anybody home?  No sign of life inside.

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Even the downy leaves of ashy sunflowers echo the pattern; try to loop  into circles.

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The compass plant leaves curl into ringlets, stippled with tiny full moons.

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Freckled and fanciful.

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I miss November’s bold, vibrant tallgrass, upright and waving in the wind from horizon line to horizon line. A flattened prairie seems defeated, somehow. Beaten down by the elements.

But I’m glad for the unexpected gift of seeing a prairie pattern I might have otherwise missed. Losing a familiar way of viewing the world opens up a different perspective. Today, I’m seeing the prairie in the round.

Who knows what else I’ll learn to see in a new way before the year is done?

 

All photos by Cindy Crosby taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL except where noted  (top to bottom): Willoway Brook; prairie grasses, prairie clover (Dalea purpurea, Dalea candida) , prairie dock leaf (Silphium terebinthinaceum), bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) ,carrion flower, tall coreopsis; sandhill cranes; Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata; ball gall; ashy sunflower (Helianthus mollis); compass plant  (Silphium laciniatum);  compass plant(Silphium laciniatum).

Tea in the Tallgrass

It’s been a wet year so far on the Illinois prairie, and at least one tallgrass plant seems to be enjoying the drippy conditions. Wild bergamot. Or, as many of us call it, “bee balm.”

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It’s this perennial’s pretty lavender blooms, shading to pink or white, that add a little pastel color to prairies in Illinois, July through September. Butterflies, hummingbirds, sphinx moths and —- you guessed it — bees —find bee balm irresistible.

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And oh! The delicious smell of the leaves. Crush one between your fingertips and mmmmmmmm. Minty? Maybe oregano-ish? Or thyme? I’ve heard all of these scents from sniffing prairie visitors and natural history students. Bee balm is in the mint family (Lamiaceae) and has the square stem to prove it. Many people think the smell of wild bergamot is the smell of the tallgrass prairie. I do.

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Tear off a leaf of wild bergamot — Monarda fistulosa — and chew it. Feel your mouth tingle? It’s considered astringent, and the taste can be very strong.

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Native Americans liked to brew a tea or make infusions from the leafy foliage and flower heads as a cure for everything from a fever to a headache.

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Today, you’ll still find people drinking wild bergamot tea as an herbal remedy.  I find it refreshing. A few wild bergamot leaves, some red clover heads for a sweetener, and presto — delicious foraged tea!

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One misconception I had when first was introduced to wild bergamot was that it was an ingredient in Earl Grey tea.  After all, the plant smells like Earl Grey tea, doesn’t it? Further confusion: If you look at the label of Earl Grey or Lady Grey tea you’ll see bergamot listed as an ingredient. But in this case, bergamot refers to a citrus fruit, the bergamot orange (Citrus bergamia), not our familiar prairie plant. Earl Grey tea contains some of the essence of the bergamot orange’s peel. Our native flower shares that same citrusy-minty fragrance and so is believed to take its common name, wild bergamot, from the orange.

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You’ll find lots of different bee balms in gardens, including a pink variation, like this unknown species given to me by a generous friend.

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Another bee balm you might find in Illinois gardens is Monarda didyma, or the scarlet bee balm. It’s sometimes called by the common name, “Oswego Tea.”

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I grow the native, pink, and scarlet bee balms in my backyard. The hummingbirds seem to prefer the scarlet color of Monarda didyma. 

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But although scarlet bee balm  is native to the Northeastern United States, many naturalists consider it non-native in Illinois and thus, unwelcome on the Illinois tallgrass prairie. It’s also a rapid spreader, and can become invasive. Oops!

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Ah, well. It looks pretty in the garden, doesn’t it?  A little compromise might be in order.

I’ll just keep it out of my prairie patch.

All photos by Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom): Wild bergamot, Monarda fistulosa, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; bee on wild bergamot, Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild bergamot and false sunflowers (Heliopsis helianthoide), SP;  silver skipper on wild bergamot, NG; wild bergamot, SP; foraged tea party, TMA;  wild bergamot, SP; pink bee balm (species unknown), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; hummingbird feeder and scarlet bee balm (Monarda didyma), GE; scarlet bee balm, GE.

Disclaimer: Always ask permission before you gather any wild plants. Before you make bergamot tea or any foraged tea, be sure you have the correct plant and have read about possible interactions and allergies.  Then make your decision about consumption. Web MD is a good source for this: http://www.webmd.com/

Information on wild bergamot and other bee balms was taken from many sources, including the  Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center: http://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=MOFI and Illinois Wildflowers: http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info/weeds/; and Native American Ethnobotany by Daniel Moerman.