Tag Archives: mountain mint

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.

Gray

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.

Chasing Dragonflies Final Cover 620.jpg

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!

A Prairie Fall Equinox

“It’s the first day of autumn! A time of hot chocolatey mornings, and toasty marshmallow evenings, and, best of all, leaping into leaves!”—Winnie the Pooh

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Happy autumnal equinox! It’s the first day of astronomical fall. Daylight hours shorten. The air looks a little pixeled, a little grainy. Soon, we’ll eat dinner in the dark, sleep, and rise in the mornings to more darkness. Some of us will embrace this change, in love with the season. Others will count the days until December 21, the winter solstice, to see the daylight hours lengthen again.

Wait, you might ask. Cindy—didn’t you say it was the first day of fall back on September 1? Yes indeed, I did—the first day of meteorological fall! There are two ways of calculating when the seasons begin. Meteorological fall begins on the first of September each year. Astronomical fall begins on the fall equinox. Read more about the way scientists calculate the seasons here.

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The knowledge that these warm days full of light are fleeting sends Jeff and me to hike Belmont Prairie in Downers Grove, Illinois. The parking lot is full, but the prairie is mostly empty. We love this prairie remnant for its solitude; its timeless grace in the midst of suburbia.

The prairie is dusty. Crisp. Once again, we need a good, steady rain, with none in the forecast for the next ten days. Overhead it’s cloudless; a blank blue slate. I was scrolling through paint samples online this week, and came across the exact color of the sky: “Fond Farewell.” Exactly.

Although the prairie is awash in golds, it won’t be long until the flowers fade and the brightness dims. I remind myself to take joy in the moment.

Big bluestem, blighted by drought, still flashes its gorgeous colors. I love its jointed stems. No wonder it is Illinois’ state grass!

The brushed silver joints are not the only silver on the prairie. Along the trail are the skeletal remains of plants, perhaps in the Brassica family. What species are they? I’m not sure. Whatever these were, they are now ghosts of their former selves.

Gold dominates.

The flowers of showy goldenrod are busy with pollinators, such as this paper wasp (below). The wasps don’t have the smart publicity agents and good press of monarchs and bees, so are often overlooked as a positive presence in the garden.

Then again, if you’ve ever been chased by wasps as I have after disturbing a nest —and been painfully stung—you’ll give them a respectful distance.

Tall coreopsis is almost finished for the season, but a few sunshiny blooms remain.

Sawtooth sunflowers, goldenrod, and tall boneset wash together in a celebration of autumn, now at crescendo.

So much yellow! Sumac splashes scarlet across the tallgrass, adding a dash of red. As a prairie steward on other tallgrass sites, I find this native sumac a nuisance. It stealthily infiltrates the prairie and displaces some of the other species I want to thrive. However, toward the end of September, I feel more generous of spirit. Who can resist those leaves, backlit by the low slant of sun, that echo a stained glass window?

The withering summer prairie blooms are now upstaged by the stars of autumn: asters in white and multiple hues of pink, lavender and violet. New England aster provides the best bang for the buck. That purple! It’s a challenge to remember its updated scientific name: Symphyotrichum novae-angliae. Try saying that three times quickly! A real tongue twister. I miss the simpler name, Aster novae-angliae. So easy to remember. But everything changes as science discovers more about the world. It’s up to us to choose to listen, learn, and adapt rather than just doing what is easy.

The periwinkle hues of the smooth blue aster are unlike any other color on the prairie. I stop to caress its trademark smooth, cool leaves.

Every time I look closely at the asters, I see pollinators. And more pollinators. From little flying insects I can’t identify to the ubiquitous cabbage white butterflies and bumblebees, heavy with pollen. And, yes—those ever-present wasps.

Delicate pale pink biennial gaura, with its own tiny pollinators, is easily overlooked, out-glitzed by the prairie’s golds and purples, but worth discovering. Flies, like this one below stopping by the gaura, are also pollinators, but like the wasps they get little respect for the important work they do.

Soon, the glory of the prairie will be in scaffolding and bone: the structure of the plants, the diversity of shape. You can see the prairie begin its shift from bloom to seed, although blooms still predominate.

Breathe in. September is the fragrance of gray-headed coneflower seeds, crushed between your fingers.

September is the pungent thymol of wild bergamot, released by rubbing a leaf or a dry seedhead.

Inhale the prairie air; a mixture of old grass, wood smoke, with a crisp cold top note, even on a warm day. Chew on a mountain mint leaf, tough from the long season, and you’ll get a zing of pleasure. Listen to the geese, honking their way across the sky, or the insects humming in the grass.

Then, find a milkweed pod cracked open, with its pappus —- silks—just waiting to be released. Go ahead. Pull out a few of these parachute seeds. Feel their softness. Imagine what one seed may do next season! I try to think like a milkweed seed. Take flight. Explore. Plant yourself in new places. Nourish monarch butterflies. Offer nectar to bumblebees. Lend beauty wherever you find yourself.

Close your eyes. Make a wish.

Now, release it to the wind.

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The opening quote is from Pooh’s Grand Adventure by A.A. Milne. Before he penned the popular children’s book series about a bear named Winnie the Pooh, Milne was known as a playwright and wrote several mystery novels and poems.

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All photos are from Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve in Downers Grove, IL, this week unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): bee or common drone fly (tough to tell apart) on panicled aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Belmont Prairie sign; wildflowers and grasses in September; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); something from the Brassica family maybe? Genus and species unknown; Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis); and other goldenrods; dark paper wasp (Polistes fuscates) on showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); wildflowers of Belmont Prairie in September; staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); new england aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae); smooth blue aster (Symphyotrichum laeve); dark paper wasp (Polistes fuscates) on panicled aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; biennial gaura (Gaura biennis); blazing star (Liatris sp.); gray-headed coneflower seedheads (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (2019); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (2018); common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), Afton Prairie, DeKalb, IL (2017); butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa).

Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization this autumn!

“Nature Writing Online” begins Monday, October 5, through The Morton Arboretum. Want to commit to improving and fine-tuning your writing for six weeks? This is a great opportunity to jump start your blog, your book, or your journal writing while working online from home, supplemented with three evenings of live evening Zoom classes on alternate weeks. Class size is limited; register here.

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

Chasing Dragonflies Final Cover 620.jpg

Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton 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 enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction. 

Six Reasons to Hike the July Prairie

“The prairie is bountifully utilitarian.  But it is lovely too, in a hundred thousand ways and in a million details, many of them so finely wrought that one must drop to one’s knees to appreciate them.”– Paul Gruchow

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Yes, it’s hot. Okay, more than hot. It’s downright scorching. Hike the prairie? You’ve got to be kidding.

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I kid you not. Let’s go! Why? Here are half a dozen reasons to hike the tallgrass prairie in July. Go ahead–dress light, hydrate, slather on that bug spray and sunscreen—and let’s go.

#1. Oh those butterflies! Big ones, like this common but yet oh-so-uncommonly-beautiful Spangled Meadow Fritillary, nectaring at false sunflower in the prairie savanna.

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Or the tiny ones, like this Eastern Tailed Blue, barely visible in the tallgrass.

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You might see the Pearl Crescent, fluttering ahead on the path.

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Wait! I think it is a pearl crescent, but I’m not completely sure. Evidently they are almost indistinguishable from the Northern Crescents. Some folks say they are both the same species, rather than two distinct ones. Ah, well. At least I know for sure when I see a Monarch, like this one nectaring on butterfly weed, one of our native milkweeds in Illinois.

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Not into butterflies? Consider hiking to admire the wildflowers. Why?

#2. July’s prairie wildflowers are show-stoppers. Wow-oh-wow. So much orange. There’s the native Turk’s Cap Lily, just coming into bloom.

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Not to be confused with the invasive daylilies, escaped from tamer plantings in gardens and along roadsides.

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Although they often find a seat in our gardens, we weed them out of prairie restorations when they show up. Otherwise, they’d take over the prairie.

More orange: The aforementioned butterfly weed screams its hues in infinite color variations of  neon orange across the prairie.butterflyweedJuly52020SPMAWM

Other native milkweeds are more nuanced, like this swamp milkweed.

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Even the much-maligned common milkweed, which is—well, weedy,—has a scent that has to be sniffed to be believed. Some sprang up in my clematis just off the back patio. When my husband Jeff passed it the first time it opened this summer, he stopped in his tracks. What’s that great smell?

Mountain mint is in bloom, barely visible in the tallgrass unless you know where to look. A chewed leaf is a guaranteed breath freshener on a hot day.

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Glade mallow, the only member of its genus that occurs in Illinois, is in full bloom.

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It’s difficult to miss, towering over my head. Much easier to walk by without noticing is the fringed loosestrife, a modest little plant with its flowers pointing downward.

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Not to be confused with purple loosestrife,a rampant invasive, fringed loosestrife is a desirable native. Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rericha’s Flora of the Chicago Region gives it a “7” for its coefficient of conservatism. Its anther surface “fluoresces brightly” (or glows) when seen under long-wave ultraviolet light, Wilhelm writes, and it appears “otherworldly.” I’d love to see this for myself.

Nearby is white wild indigo; some plants still emerging, other bloom stalks mature and withering in the heat. A male red-winged blackbird finds indigo the perfect perch to warn me off its nest.

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I also love the wild petunia for its seeming tenacity, although its coefficient of conservatism is an “8”.  It pops up every year in the same general location on the mowed prairie paths.

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Buckeye butterfly caterpillars are big fans of this wildflower. It’s also attractive to numerous pollinators, especially different bee species.

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You might know many of the wildflower names. But do you know their stories?

3. Got ethnobotany? Got—what? Ethnobotany is just a term we use to talk about how humans have used plants throughout history (and today!). The prairie is full of plants that are both beautiful and utilitarian, and as the wonderful prairie writer Paul Gruchow once said in a chapter from his book: Grass Roots: The Universe of Home, there need not be any contradiction between the two. A good example is Wild Quinine, in full bloom now.

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Some people know it as “feverfew,” which tells you how confusing common names can be (there are several other plants with this nickname). That’s why it’s always good to look at the scientific name, in this case, Parthenium integrifolium. Daniel Moerman, in his amazing book, Native American Ethnobotany, tells us that one Native American tribe used a poultice of fresh leaves of this plant to dress burns. Another tribe believed the leave’s ashes were a veterinary treatment for sore backs in horses.

And look at its value for insects! Wavy-lined emerald moth larvae occur in the inflorescences, according to Wilhelm and Rericha. Butterflies such as the American Lady, Pearl Crescent, and Common Wood-Nymph visit the flowers, they tell us. As I read, I learn that bees that visit the flowerheads when the staminate florets are blooming become coated with white pollen and “resemble little ghosts.” I’ve not seen this! Obviously, I need to sit for a while with this plant and pay more attention.

Another plant in bloom is Elderberry, which Illinois Wildflowers tells us occurs in every county of Illinois. Its small, edible fruits—somewhat poisonous when raw—have none-the-less been used (when cooked correctly) in jellies, wine, and pies, and are often used in homeopathic remedies for flu and colds. Native Americans used plants in the same genus for everything from making whistles to using infusions of the blossoms for upset stomachs, Moerman writes in Native American Ethnobotany.

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I particularly love New Jersey Tea, a prairie shrub whose blooms cover parts of the prairie like a foamy cappuccino in July. The Dakota used the leaves to make a tea-like beverage, although as I understand it, there is no caffeine. I have a small New Jersey tea plant growing in my prairie garden this season, and although it didn’t bloom this summer, I have high hopes for next year.

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Each prairie plant has an ethnobotanical story to tell us. All we have to do is invest a little time into learning that story, and then, share it with others. It’s a non-stop adventure! I particularly love Daniel Moerman’s Native American Ethobotany as a venue to discover some of these stories. Check it out, if you love stories as I do! Although many of the plant remedies and uses are not considered valid today, your prairie hikes will open you up to these stories that will fill you with gratitude for the utility of these beautiful plants over time, and the place they earned in the lives of people who depended on the prairie as their pharmacy, grocery store, and craft shop.

Still need more reasons?

#4. Find a respite from the news.  Tuck your phone away where you can’t reach it easily, put all thoughts of politics and pandemics away, and let the tallgrass prairie clear the cobwebs from your mind. Admire the tall bellflowers that edge the tallgrass.

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Soak up the sunshine of false sunflowers, having a banner season despite the blistering heat.

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Marvel over the smooth phlox with its hairless stems and vivid color. Moths, bees, and butterflies all love this plant, a harbinger of summer.

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And then, look deeper into the tallgrass. So dainty and silent, you’ll see these… .

#5. Learn the names of some damselflies. Aren’t they beautiful creatures worth your time and attention? Their very names seem to sing.

Variable dancer.

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Ebony jewelwing.

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Powdered dancer.

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The American Rubyspot can be found along the river and stream edges in the Chicago Region. Their bright wing spots make them unmistakable.

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One of the most common damselflies in the Chicago region is the blue-fronted dancer. Last season, at Nachusa Grasslands, it was our most numerous damselfly.

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And once you see the damselflies, consider…

#6. Dragonflies, too! While you’re learning damselflies, why not discover a few names for dragonflies?

Male eastern amberwings.

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And their counterparts, the female eastern amberwings.

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The female calico pennants are charming, no matter what angle you see them at.

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These are only half a dozen reasons to hike the tallgrass prairie this week. Grab your water bottle, swipe on some sunscreen…

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…and why not go see?

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Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) was a Minnesota writer who loved the Boundary Waters and tallgrass prairies. If you haven’t read his writing, try Journal of a Prairie Year, or Grass Roots: The Universe of Home.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby, and taken on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL this week (top to bottom): bridge over Willoway Brook; great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele); eastern-tailed blue butterfly (Cupido comyntas);  possibly pearl crescent butterfly (Phyciodes tharos); monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus); turk’s cap lily (Lilium superbum) with fleabane (Erigeron); common daylily (Hemerocallis fulva); butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa); swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata); common mountain mint  (Pycnanthemum virginianum); glade mallow (Napaea dioica); prairie loosestrife (Lysimachia quadriflora); red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) on white wild indigo (Baptisia ); trail with wild petunias (Ruellia humilis); wild petunia (Ruellia humilis) with unidentified bee; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium); elderberry ((Sambucus nigra canadensis)); New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus); tall bellflower (Campanula americana); false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides); smooth phlox (Phlox glaberrima interior); variable dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis); ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata); powdered dancer damselfly (Argia moesta); American rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana); blue-fronted dancer (Argia apicalis); male eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera); female eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera); female calico pennant dragonfly (Celithemis elisa); one of the rudbeckias, still working on this ID. It was part of a planting into our prairie display strip with a commercial “native” mix–or it has escaped into it. Pretty! But is it one of our natives? Still working on that. What do you think? (Rudbeckia spps.).

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Join Cindy for online dragonfly classes and online prairie ecology and ethnobotany classes this summer:

REGISTER BEFORE MIDNIGHT TONIGHT! “Dragonfly and Damselfly Beginning ID Online” through The Morton Arboretum. July 8 and July 10 –two morning classes online, with a day in between for you to work independently in the field, then bring your questions back for help. Register here.

“Prairie Ethnobotany Online” –through The Morton Arboretum. July 31 and August 7, 9-11 a.m. with a week  in between to enjoy your knowledge in the field. Learn about how people have used and enjoyed prairie plants through history. Register here.

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” begins a new session in September! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional ZOOM session. Register here.

Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org and other book venues. Order direct through Northwestern University Press and receive 40% off this new book and/or “The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction”— use coupon code SUN40. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during this chaotic time.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.  

Appreciating Prairie

“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.” — Rachel Carson

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There’s a lot to be said for intentional displacement; changing one place for another that is completely opposite. I’ve found this as I’ve traveled to two “islands” over the past week. One, in Madison, Wisconsin…

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…the other a tropical island 1,500 miles south—Captiva Island, Florida.

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The Wisconsin “island” is a restored tallgrass prairie, marooned between neighborhoods and the busy Beltline highway that ferries people through this marvelous city.

uwmadisonarboretumcurtisprairie12920WM.jpgDubbed the “Curtis Prairie” at University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum, it’s the mother of all prairie restorations (or “reconstructions” or “prairie plantings” if you’d rather use that terminology). Touted as “the worlds oldest ecologically restored prairie”, the 71 acre prairie was planted in an old horse field in 1936.

UWMadArbCurtisPrairieMountainMintWM12920.jpgLast Thursday,  I had a lively discussion about prairie here with 150 passionate people who love and care for the natural world.  When I left, after two-and-a-half hours, I felt inspired and hopeful. Hearing their questions and learning about their work was a reminder to me that there are good people in the world, willing to encourage each other and put love, sweat, and energy into restoring tallgrass prairie.

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The other “island” I’ve traveled to this week is more known for pirates than prairie; surf and seashells instead of Silphiums.  To travel 1,500 miles from Madison, Wisconsin, to Captiva Island, Florida, is to be intentionally displaced.

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I appreciate displacement—not only because it puts me on a sunny beach in early February (after months of gray days in Illinois this season)—but also because it shakes me out of my routine. From prairie walks one day to beach walks the next is jarring. I went from admiring the scoured felted-looking milkweed pods on Curtis Prairie one day…

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…to picking up cat’s paw and olive seashells under the watchful gaze of a seagull on the beach a few days later.

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As I hike Captiva’s beaches, scolded by seagulls for not having scraps to toss, I miss the bluebirds that brighten the prairies with their blazes of color in February.

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But I marvel at the osprey nests high in their man-made platforms. This one had an  osprey standing guard, looking over the Gulf of Mexico.

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So  much larger than the abandoned nests I find on my prairie hikes!

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Curtis Prairie has its share of bird life. Those wild turkeys! They always make me smile.

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So comical and ungainly. Different than the shorebirds I see on the beach, but really, just  variations on a theme.

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Unlike the wild turkeys, the Gulf Coast birds are graceful in flight. I watch them for hours from my beach chair, putting down my paperback, shading my eyes against the sun.

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Each new bird in Florida gives me pause. There’s so much to learn! The trees and plants here are also alien, from the lush emerald and lime colored palms….

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…to the wind-stripped plants.

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Naming any of them is challenging. But puzzling over identifications is nothing new to me. Anytime I walk the winter prairie in an unfamiliar place, I find something I’m unsure about. On Curtis Prairie, I struggle to identify some of the plants in their winter forms, like these below. Sunflowers? Perhaps. Which species? Maximilian sunflowers, maybe? I’m not completely sure.

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Here on sun-washed Captiva Island, I miss my butterfly field guide at home on the shelf. My iNaturalist app helps, and later, returning to my hotel room, so does my butterfly facebook group. Gradually, I’m learning the names of a few of the unfamiliar tropical butterflies, like this white peacock.

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And the gulf fritillary butterfly.

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The butterflies nectar on brightly-colored blossoms, most of whose names are unknown to me. I do know the hibiscus, in its screaming reds, oranges, and pinks.

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But other flowers send me back to my iNaturalist app, puzzled and curious.

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As I walk the beach, admiring the butterflies and unfamiliar blooms, I think of my recent hikes on Wisconsin’s Curtis Prairie.

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Full of color in its own wintry way. Full of life and beauty, even under leaden skies. My winter hikes here and at my home prairies in Illinois are usually finger-numbing and sometimes, treacherous in ice and snow.  My beach hikes in flip-flops and shorts are a study in contrast.

Soon, I’ll leave this tropical island for home in Illinois. Back to the familiar. Back to hiking the “islands” of tallgrass that have been preserved or reconstructed, from a few acres to thousands of acres. Curtis Prairie Madison UW Arboretum Trails 12920WM.jpg

Hiking in Florida has been fun—and worthwhile. Intentional displacement always sharpens my attention; makes me aware of what I’ve left behind and perhaps, taken for granted. Displacement reminds me of the contrasts in the natural world that can be found, just a few hours plane ride away. This displacement broadens my perspective. Jolts me out of my complacency. Helps me become more flexible, more open to change.

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But lovely as Florida is, it’s not my “natural habitat.” Instead, it gives me a new appreciation for my landscape of home.

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The tallgrass prairie.

*****

The opening quote is from Rachel Carson (1907-64), whose words and wisdom live on in her books. Although her most famous (and earth-changing) book was Silent Spring (1962), my favorite is The Sense of Wonder (1965) published after her death. She also wrote compellingly of the sea in Under the Sea-Wind (1941); The Sea Around Us (1951); and The Edge of the Sea (1955).

*****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby –prairie photos this week are from University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum, Madison, WI; all other photos this week are from Captiva Island, FL (top to bottom): path through the Curtis Prairie; Captiva Island beach trail; Visitor Center at UW-Madison Arboretum; mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum);  Curtis Prairie; beach scene; common milkweed pods (Asclepias syriaca); beach with seagull (probably a herring gull, Larus argentatus); bluebird house on the prairie; osprey (Pandion haliaetus); unknown nest; wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) (photo taken this spring at UW-Madison Arboretum’s Curtis Prairie; shorebird, possibly a sanderling? (Calidris alba); unknown shorebird in flight; probably the royal palm (Roystonea regia); possibly American century plant (Agave americana); corrected to sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus)–thank you, UW-Madison Arb!; white peacock butterfly (Anartia jatrophae); gulf fritillary butterfly (Agraulis vanillae);  pink hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis); possibly southern swamp crinum (Crinum americanum); Curtis Prairie winter colors; Curtis Prairie trails; shorebird, possibly a sanderling (Calidris alba); Curtis Prairie in winter.

Thanks to the Butterflies of the Eastern United State Facebook group for their help with my Florida butterfly ID! Grateful. Florida friends: I welcome corrections of my Florida flora and fauna identifications. I’m still learning!

Thank you to Gail and Jennifer for their hospitality and the wonderful folks of the Winter Enrichment Series at University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum this past week. Grateful.

*****

Please join Cindy at an upcoming event or class this winter:

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.

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  

A Tale of Two Prairies

“The natural world is the refuge of the spirit… .” E. O. Wilson

*****

Sunday, my family and I braved the traffic out of Chicago to celebrate Christmas together in northwestern Indiana. There were a surprising number of commuters.

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Probably the holidays.

Any opportunity to travel is an opportunity to see prairies. As we drove toward the Indiana state line, making good time, Jeff suddenly veered off I-294 at the exit for Highway 6. “Let’s revisit Gensburg-Markham Prairie!” he offered. We had dropped by this prairie several years ago, and impressed, always vowed to return.

Oh no! The entrance gate, at the end of a neighborhood cul-de-sac, seemed to be locked.

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Determined, I squeezed through the opening between the fence and the chain-closed gate. Later, I read that the chain is merely draped over the top of the fence. Ha! I could have lifted it off and opened the gate, it seems. Perhaps it was more of an adventure my way.

On the other side, this remnant prairie is full of treasures, even in December.

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Drifts of prairie dropseed swirled through the prairie.

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Mountain mint seeds were mostly gone, but no less beautiful for that.

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Deep in the grasses I found prairie dock leaves. This is my favorite time of year for them. Like “swiss dots” fabric.

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Its Silphium cousin—compass plant—wasn’t far away.

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A few purple prairie clover seedheads remained. I struggle, sometimes, to distinguish the white prairie clover from the purple at this time of year, when the seeds are partially gone. One is grittier, and one is softer and lighter colored. Hmmm.

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White vervain, which occurs in every county of Illinois, curtained the edges of the prairie.

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I walked the mowed trail and listened. Not far away, the Tri-State Tollway traffic roared and billboards signed their temporary depressing messages. Legal services. Gambling. Fast food. Strip clubs.

 

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But the magic of the switchgrass…

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…and the remains of the tall coreopsis and other prairie plants gone to seed were enticing enough to propel me deeper into the prairie, wondering what else I might see. Alas! There wasn’t nearly enough time to explore. We needed to get back on the road.

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After our family gathering in Indiana, Jeff and I headed home via some back roads through St. John, avoiding the traffic on the Tri-State Tollway as much as possible. Gray skies promised an early dusk and perhaps, snow on the way. On this route, we always watch for the Shoe Corner, at the intersection of 109th and Calumet—an odd tradition in this part of the Hoosier state of dropping shoes along the roadway. As we braked at a stoplight, Jeff pointed. “Look!”

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We immediately signaled and drove slowly along the edges of the prairie, looking for an entrance. The best spot seemed to be a parking lot with an abandoned building.

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This, I thought, was more forbidding than the locked gate to Gensburg-Markham. I doubted we were at the correct entrance. But a trail mowed along the edge of the prairie offered a way in. As I walked into the grasses, I wondered about the history of this place. Indiana once was about 15 percent tallgrass prairie, according to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Later, I learned that this 34.2 acre remnant was saved from development and dedicated in 1992.

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Reading more at home, I found that according to the DNR, at least 175 species of native plants are here; one federally threatened. Three rare animals. Several rare moths and insects. Biesecker Prairie is also an introduction site for the  federally-threatened Mead’s milkweed; an unusual milkweed that no longer occurs naturally in Indiana. I promised myself to come back in the summer, when we had more daylight and knew where to park and hike.

Beisecker Prairie is a gem in a rough-cut setting. We could have so easily missed it! A defunct business nearby had piled refuse, boats, and old electronics along the far edge of the area. It’s so easy to focus on what is broken and ugly; to only see the damage we’ve done to the beautiful natural areas we once had in Indiana and Illinois.

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But often, beauty and restoration are just around the corner. Literally.

Despite its surroundings, Biesecker Prairie seemed….tranquil. Peaceful, despite the traffic flying by. A little oasis. Like Gensburg-Markham by the Tri-State Tollway.

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I wonder what Biesecker Prairie will look like in spring. From different vantage points at this time of year, you could see common milkweed; tall coreopsis, prairie dropseed, perhaps a little cordgrass. Native prairie plants.  Someone cared enough to preserve and protect this little corner prairie remnant. Someone realized its value.  Its history. And because of this, it survives.

 

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This small prairie remnant in Indiana—and others like Gensberg-Markham Prairie, a remnant carefully preserved in Illinois—still stand despite the odds.  We find these prairies juxtaposed between golf courses and highways. Sandwiched  into neighborhoods, defunct businesses, and Interstates. These precious few acres of tallgrass prairie remain because people paid attention. They cared enough to protect them. Kudos to the volunteers, stewards, and agencies that made it happen—and who continue to steward these tallgrass prairie preserves today.

Two urban prairies. Two different states. Two stories.

Hope for the future.

*****

The opening quote is by E. O. Wilson (1929-), Professor Emeritus and Honorary Curator in Entomology at Harvard, from Biophilia (1984). Wilson is considered the world’s foremost authority on ants. Blinded in one eye as a child in a fishing accident, he learned to focus on “little things” he could see up close, or under a microscope. Wilson has won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction twice; once for On Human Natureonce for The Ants (with Burt Holldobler). He is sometimes called “the Father of Biodiversity,” and is known for his theory of island biogeography (with Robert Macarthur).

****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): possibly cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum), Naperville, IL; gate to Gensburg-Markham Prairie; Gensburg-Markham Prairie in December, Markham, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; mountain mint (probably Pycnanthemum virginianum), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; white vervain (Verbena urticifolia), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; I-294 and Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL;  tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; corner of Biesecker Prairie, St. John, IN.abandoned business close to Biesecker Prairie, St. John, IN; edges of Biesecker Prairie, St. John, IN: Biesecker Prairie in December, St. John, IN; Biesecker Prairie, St. John, IN.

******

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. 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. 

6 Reasons to Hike the October Prairie

“October is a fine and dangerous season in America . . . a wonderful time to begin anything at all.”  –Thomas Merton

*****

I hear them before I see them. Shielding my eyes against the afternoon sunshine, I scan the skies. Three sandhill cranes. A small wave headed south. Their chatter echoes long after they are folded into the deep blue sky and disappear.

More follow. They come and go throughout the afternoon.

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It’s bittersweet. Sandhill cranes moving south are a signal of change. Summer is gone,  and autumn, it seems, already passes too quickly. Seeing the first waves of cranes reminds me to open my eyes. Pay attention. To intentionally not miss a moment of the month. October is a time for walking the prairies and savannas slowly. For looking carefully. For soaking up whatever sunshine we can before cold weather hits.

Soon, October will be a dim but cherished memory.

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The woodlands are a magnet for paparazzi in October; visitors shooting photos of  the sugar maples aglow. Hickories and sweet gums change their green leaves to bright colors. But the prairie has its own autumnal palette.

Turn away from the woodlands for a moment, and consider six reasons to hike the tallgrass in October.

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1. Goodbye, Butterflies

In my backyard prairie patch and garden, the painted lady butterflies flutter wildly—drunk on nectar—-but not prepared to stop gorging themselves. Only frost will cut them off. Butterflies pile up, two to a bloom, jostling for the best positions, battling skippers and bees. The occasional monarch still floats across the prairie, but not in the numbers seen in September.

If you’re lucky, you’ll find some New England asters still in bloom as I did, with a few butterflies working the flowers. This cabbage white butterfly is a common one I see all summer on the prairie—and late into the fall. I love its pale, gold-dusted contrast with the  purple fringes of the aster.

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2. That Prairie Fragrance!

Breathe deep the newly-crisped air with its fragrance of cool damp earth and sweet decay.  Bee balm, Monarda fistulosa, still gives up its delicious fragrance when its leaves are broken. So does mountain mint. When I taste the leaves of both, the oils are a bit bitter and harsh in my mouth.  I content myself with rubbing the leaves between my fingers. Gray-headed coneflower seed heads, crushed in my hands, are my favorite fragrance of all. After a hike on the prairie, rubbing leaves, I’m scented with “the outdoors” for the rest of the day. Nature’s own prairie perfume.

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3. Seed Diversity

Walk the prairie and the prairie savanna this month and you’ll be astounded by the variety of seeds.

Pale Indian plantain, with its fluffy pinwheels.

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Tall compass plants, with their unique seedheads, bring the Statue of Liberty to mind, don’t you think?

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False Solomon’s seal brightens the prairie edges.

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Carrion vine’s mostly-inedible fruits will hang half-hidden in the Indian grass and big bluestem until almost spring.

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This week, I searched until I found the  quirky seeds of white turtlehead, almost invisible in the prairie now unless you know where to look. We don’t have very many turtleheads, so the seeds give me hope for more of this wildflower in the future.

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4. Structure 

Without the ka-POW of bright bloom colors blanketing the prairie, structure takes center stage.

Bottlebrush grass, with its skeletal spikes.

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You can see it it shares a Genus with Canada wild rye. They are both graceful and needle-like.

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5. Textures

Feel the rubbery leaves of pale Indian plantain.

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Then contrast them with the sandpapery surface of a compass plant leaf.

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6. Fall Color

The sumacs, woven into the prairie grasses, are touched with reds and chartreuse.

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Little bluestem sparks its seeds as its stems color up from greens to reds to rusts. The tallgrass prairie in October is just as startling and gorgeous in its own way as the colorful woodlands. Maybe better.

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Why not go see?

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Who knows who you’ll meet on your hike.

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It’s worth a trip to the tallgrass to find out.

*****

Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was best known for his spiritual memoir, The Seven Story Mountain (1948), the title of which refers to Purgatory in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Merton was an English literature teacher turned Trappist monk, who joined Kentucky’s Gethsemane Abbey. There, he wrote more than 50 books and promoted interfaith understanding. My favorite of Merton’s books is The Sign of Jonas.

*****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken this week at the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, unless noted otherwise: Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) over author’s backyard prairie patch (this photo taken in 2016), Glen Ellyn, IL;  October in the savanna; prairie path; Small white butterfly or “cabbage white” (Pieris rapae) on New England aster  (Symphyotrichum novae-anglia), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL;  gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) with spider web; pale Indian plantain seedhead (Arnoglossum atriplicfolium); compass plant seedhead (Silphium terebinthinaceum); false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum); probably upright carrion vine (Smilax ecirrhata); white turtlehead (Chelone glabra) in seed; bottle brush grass (Elymus hystrix); Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium); compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); sumac (Rhus spp.); little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium); bridge in the October tallgrass; great blue heron (Ardea herodias).

******

Join Cindy for a Nature Writing Workshop, online and in-person, through The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL. Click here for registration information. Or see http://www.cindycrosby.com for more classes and events.

Cindy’s forthcoming book is Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History with Northwestern University Press, illustrated by the talented Peggy Macnamara, artist-in-residence at The Field Museum, Chicago. Look for it in Spring, 2020.

The Perils of Reading About Prairie

“Education is thinking, and thinking is looking for yourself and seeing what’s there, not what you got told was there.”–William Least Heat-Moon

***

It’s easy to let others tell you what’s “out there.” I know. As a former indie bookseller and lover of any book with the tag “nature essay” on it, I’m addicted to words. Reading books about prairie–and following social media updates or blog essays on the natural world–are only a few of the reasons I enjoy being an armchair nature lover. I can delight in woodlands, wetlands, and prairies without any of the discomfort involved in actually being there.

Through words, I can imagine the winter greens and umbers of mosses carpeting a fallen log, with autumn leaves still lingering.

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Or, through words, I can imagine prairie aromatherapy. A little crushed mountain mint rubbed between your fingers — mmmmm.

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Through words, I can “see” how the wind moves the hyssop in undulating waves.

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Or think about thimbleweed seedheads, in all stages of blow out, and how soft they would feel if I stroked them against my cheek. Like silk.

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The furred white seed heads are in sharp contrast to the geometry of the winter grasses, crisscrossing in golds and soft bronzes. Words can tell me that.

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I love reading about prairie. It enriches what I see there; inspires me to pay attention.

And yet.

Sometimes it’s easier for me to just read  about the natural world in February. The days can be gloomy and cold. I feel a distinct lack of motivation. With reading, there is no mud, drive-time, or layering on sweatshirts, coats, gloves, and hats. The only aches and pains I have after closing a book or reading a social media excerpt are a stiff wrist and tired eyes. Unlike a good, long hike, where I remember it in my muscles for days afterward.

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But I’ve found that the biggest peril of reading about the prairie and the natural world is that I can feel as if I’ve been there and looked. And I haven’t.

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It’s easy for me to turn inwards in winter, to stay inside and let others tell me what’s going on. To read words about the world in isolation.

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But without being there, I miss the connection of the heart to what I see. And of course, what each of us sees is filtered through our own unique lens. No one else’s words can replicate that for us.

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So I go. And I look. And then I return home, calmer, more at peace. Don’t get me wrong. I continue to devour words about the outdoors anywhere I find them. But prairie is my place to be. Words, no matter how inspired, are no substitute for that.

Wherever you find yourself, I hope you’ll go see what’s happening outdoors. Take a deep breath. Notice the sounds. See what the sky looks like.

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Let me know what you discover.

After all, it’s a beautiful world.

***

William Least Heat-Moon (1939), also known as William Trogden, is a Missouri native and resident whose quote from Blue Highways  opens this essay.  He took the invitation to “go see” literally and explored the back roads of the United States. He is the author of several books, including PrairieEryth (1991), which looks at the history, landscape, and people of Chase County, Kansas. Both books are a commitment of time at more than 400 pages each, but well worth it. Another favorite quote of mine from Blue Highways: “Instead of insight, maybe all a man gets is strength to wander for a while. Maybe the only gift is a chance to inquire, to know nothing for certain. An inheritance of wonder and nothing more.” May we all have strength to wander and wonder.

All photos in this essay taken at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL, unless otherwise noted/copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): mosses and oak leaf; common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum); yellow or purple hyssop (Agastache neptoides or Agastache scrophulariaefolia); thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica) in seed;  big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and Indian grasses (Sorghastrum nutans); trail through Tellabs prairie;  fall leaves in the Tellabs savanna; farm just outside Ashton, IL; Tellabs prairie;  tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris).

Special thanks to Susan Kleiman, nature educator at Byron Forest Preserve, for her ID help on this post. Any ID errors are my own.