Tag Archives: Nachusa Grasslands

Prairie Dragonfly Mysteries

“Instinct is a marvelous thing. It can neither be explained nor ignored.” ― Agatha Christie


I’m a big fan of mysteries. As a teenager, I burned through all of Agatha Christie’s classics, and I still love to pick up an occasional thriller that keeps me guessing. As a naturalist, part of my attraction to the outdoors revolves around a different sort of mystery. Science has a lot of answers. But there are many unsolved questions out there.

I like that. Perhaps nowhere is mystery so evident as when I try to understand dragonfly migration.


This week, I’m prepping training workshops for two groups of dragonfly and damselfly monitors at the prairies where I’m a steward. We’re all volunteers, all citizen scientists collecting data that we hope will help future researchers learn more about these incredible insects.

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During the workshops, we’ll discuss the life cycle of the dragonfly. It begins with a little rough and tumble dragonfly romance and then, ovipositing or egg laying.

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Ouch! That’s got to hurt.


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At the two workshops, we’ll share ID tips for differentiating among the 100 or so dragonfly species in Illinois and the almost 50 damselfly species, plus the various variations among male, female, and immature individuals. Pretty straightforward stuff, for the most part.

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We’ll touch on the cultural history of dragonflies as well; their use in cuisine, art, and literature. I like this haiku by Basho: “Crimson pepper pod/add two pairs of wings and look/darting dragonfly.” You can see why he was inspired!

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Dragonfly cultural history and much of dragonfly natural history is explainable, at least to some degree. But dragonfly migration! That’s where it gets difficult.

Dragonfly migration is less understood than that of the monarch butterfly, whose travel habits have been exhaustively studied, immortalized in novels, and  whose migration journey continues to fascinate the general public.


Or consider bird migration, the topic of many books like Scott Weidensaul’s excellent Living on the Wind, and the subject of countless research projects. Sure, there’s still mystery in avian migration. But plenty of information out there.


Dragonfly migration? Not so much. The process remains veiled in mystery.  We do know a few things: at least four dragonfly species in Illinois (green darner, black saddlebags, wandering glider, and variegated meadowhawk) head south for the winter, and probably some damselfly species as well.

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But why these species? Why not others? Where do they go? What tells them to mass at the end of summer and fly, often in large swarms, to another place?

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The Xerxes Society is a wonderful place to discover what we do know about the science of dragonfly migration. As an organization dedicated to protect invertebrates and their habitats, they are a good clearing house for insect migration information. Got some extra time? Click through the link here and read more about how citizen science volunteers are contributing to our understanding about dragonfly migration.


We do know that some dragonflies in North America may travel almost 2,000 miles south in the late summer and early fall. They often join raptors migrating south. Dragonfly offspring will travel the same distances, often with raptors, back north in the spring. Look around in science journals and on dragonfly websites and you’ll find comical images of green darners wearing tiny transmitters to track their movements; or complex studies of isotopes in dragonfly wings which help researchers determine their general place of emergence.

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But once you start reading, you realize just how little we know about these dazzling creatures. You get to the end of the dragonfly migration studies pretty fast. It’s a good PhD project for some future researcher! Learning more about what makes some dragonfly species born with an itch to travel.


In April, we’ll begin to see the first battered and worn out dragonflies head north and arrive in the Midwest, heirs of those stalwart flyers who fled south last year. As dragonfly monitors, we’ll scribble about these early arrivals—and later, summer flyers and dragonfly departures—as hash marks on our data sheets. We’ll report the information to staff at our local prairies and natural areas. Then, in Illinois, we’ll upload it to www.illinoisodes.com, our state repository for this information. All very logical and linear isn’t it?


At some point in the season, most of us will put our pencils down and pause for a moment. Overcome with wonder. How amazing that this tiny creature logged those miles and survived birds, weather, and traffic to be here, on this prairie! How incredible that we can bear witness to this phenomenon, even for a moment.  How satisfying to be a small cog in the wheel of the research that is being done for the future!


And most of us will acknowledge this: Despite the data we’ll collect, despite all the facts we know, it’s that unknown that makes it so exciting to be a part of this citizen science project. The quest is part of the fun.

And we’ll marvel, in awe of the mystery of dragonfly migration.


Agatha Christie (1890), whose quote opens this post, is the author of 66 mystery novels and 14 short story collections. Her books have sold more than a billion copies in the English language, and just as many in translation. My favorite quote of Christie’s: “The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.”

Scott Weidensaul (1959-), who is mentioned in this post, is a Pennsylvania naturalist and writer. My favorite of his books, Living on the Wind,  examines the amazing world of bird migration. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2000.


All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ebony jewelwing damselflies (Calopteryx maculata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; damselflies in tandem, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet dancer damselflies (Argia fumipennis violacea), ovipositing in Willoway Brook, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; calico pennant dragonfly, male (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; meadowhawk (Sympetrum, unknown species), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), International Crane Foundation, Baraboo, WI; great egret (Ardea alba) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; wandering glider dragonfly (Pantala flavescens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; slender spreadwing (Lestes rectangularis), Nomia Meadows Farm Prairie and wetlands, Franklin Grove, IL; American rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; river bluet damselfly (Enallagma anna), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; blue dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; raw data sheet, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Carolina saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea carolina), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.


If you enjoyed this blogpost, check out some other dragonfly resources at the links referenced above and this excellent blog post from a few year’s ago: Cool Green Science’s “Dragonfly Migration: A Mystery Citizen Scientists Can Help Solve.” 

Local friends: If you’re interested in exploring more about dragonflies, join me at Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL,  Friday, March 30, 2018 for a dragonfly workshop. Register by e-mailing me at phrelanzer@aol.com.

Our Inland Prairie Sea

“The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea.”—Isak Dinesen


To refer to the tallgrass prairie as a “sea of grass” is almost cliché.

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And yet, when you juxtapose sea and prairie, you understand why the image comes so readily.


Like many suburban Chicago prairie lovers, in the mud season of the year—late February to mid-March—I do my best to migrate south for a few days. Sunshine, salt water, and sandy beaches are restorative.

The sky over the Gulf of Mexico reminds me of the sky of the tallgrass prairie; open, limitless.



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The flattened waves of prairie grasses and wildflowers, weathered by wind and rain…

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…with blue-shadowed pockets of snow…

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…are in my mind as I watch waves slap the shore.


Funny, isn’t it? Even when we leave the landscape we call home, it haunts us.

It’s not that everything is similar—far from it! The birds are different from those of the prairie in so many ways. The food they eat.


The way they move.



Even their attitude.

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Many of the Gulf Coast birds I see are readying themselves for a long flight north. Soon, migration will bring them and others through the flyways of the Chicago region.

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No matter where I look in Florida, I find unexpected reminders of my life as a prairie steward.


As much as I enjoy getting away from the Midwest in early March, my mind keeps wandering from the beach back to what’s going on in the tallgrass up north. Am I missing out on a prescribed burn? Has the skunk cabbage leafed out yet? What new birds are singing along Willoway Brook?

After five days in Florida, I’m ready to dive back into my prairie work.


One great thing about traveling: At the end of the day…

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…sometimes a little displacement makes you appreciate the place you call home.


Isak Dinesen (Baroness Karen Blixen) (1885-1962) authored Out of Africa and Babette’s Feast. Both were adapted as movies, and won Academy Awards.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Captiva Island sunset, Florida; Captiva Island beach, Florida; Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie at the end of February, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  blue-shadowed pockets of snow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; waves on the beach, Captiva Island, Florida; willet (Tringa semipalmataeating a crab (species unknown), Sanibel Island, Florida; video of sanderlings (Calidris albaand other shorebirds, Sanibel Island, Florida; great black-backed gull (Larus marinus), Sanibel Island, Florida; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Buckthorn Lane street sign, Sanibel Island, Florida; brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalisdiving for fish, Sanibel-Captiva causeway, Florida; sunset with birds, J. N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Sanibel Island, Florida. 

Prairie Maintenance

“Ain’t no use jiving. Ain’t no use joking. Everything is broken…” — Bob Dylan


It is a truth universally acknowledged that a prairie steward in possession of a car she believes is reliable will soon be disillusioned.

My 2004 Honda CR-V just turned over 208,000 miles. The mileage doesn’t trouble me much. Until something conks out. This week, it was the driver’s side window that no longer powered down.

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I didn’t really notice that window function until I didn’t have it anymore. Suddenly, driving through the java shop for my morning coffee, picking up a prescription at the drugstore drive-through window, or going by the gatehouse at the arboretum where I’m a prairie steward became awkward. Opening the door to offer money or information or an admission pass back and forth, especially when temperatures are zero-ish, can herd your thoughts into a bad mood for the day.


Of course, car repair problems are never solo. They swirl in like sandhill cranes, one following the other…ever multiplying before your eyes.

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The gas cap swing door now refuses to flip out, and I find myself manually prying it open whenever my tank registers “E.” A brake light gave up the ghost. And—what’s this? The bright “check engine” light stares back at me from the dash. Bob Dylan’s song “Everything is Broken,” plays continually on my mental soundtrack.


It’s time to trade it in. This, from my husband, who has been patient with the repairs we’ve done over the past 14 years. I’ve always prided myself on not getting attached to “stuff.” But I admit it—I’m sentimental about my car. It’s the first new vehicle I ever bought especially for myself. I haggled over the price with the dealer, customized it with a roof rack for my kayak, and waited until it was available in my favorite color, blue. It regularly  hauls a dozen seed collection buckets, weeders, dragonfly nets, loppers, large thermoses of coffee, a giant orange cooler of water,  tarps, and other accouterments of a prairie steward for countless volunteer work mornings.


Of course, as a prairie steward hauling tools around,  I’m responsible for a different set of repairs. The tallgrass site I help supervise is always, it seems, in need of some sort of maintenance.


This season, we’ll tackle the usual problems: cutting buckthorn and honeysuckle creeping around the prairie edges; pulling Queen Anne’s lace, garlic mustard, and yellow rocket where it pops up in our high-quality plantings. It doesn’t take long for sweet clover and crown vetch to creep in and plot their take-over strategies. Birds-foot trefoil? Always ready to slip in under the radar.  Fixing the trouble spots calls for a series of small, necessary “repairs” that require vigilance and continual maintenance.


Occasionally, the warning light trips on. Check the engine. Last season, it was an infiltration of reed canary grass that stormed a high quality area and suddenly seemed everywhere. Ditto for some rogue brambles that shaded out a previously diverse section of wildflowers while going mostly unnoticed. These started as small problems, but neglected, got steadily worse. Now, both are major repair jobs.

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Some of the repairs I can tackle on my own. Others require a team of volunteers or staff. We all work together, keeping the tallgrass prairie engine humming.


The prairie, like my old CR-V, is always going to be in need of management. It will always need a certain amount of routine maintenance, like prescribed fire, even when there are no obvious “repairs” to be done. It’s a work in progress.


Which brings me back to my Honda. At some point, the repairs will become too much. We’ll trade in my old CR-V for a vehicle with less mileage on it. Cars, no matter how many times you repair and carefully maintain them—and no matter the nostalgia you feel for the roads you’ve traveled together—eventually give out.

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Which is, perhaps, where the comparison of prairie and beloved Honda ends.

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My vehicle will eventually tick off its last odometer mile.  But the more mileage the prairie has on it, the more promise it holds. The older the prairie, the richer its history.  The deeper, more tenacious, the roots. The stronger the ties to the land.

The maintenance and care we give it each year helps it become more beautiful with age. It encourages me to know this. As I keep making the repairs.


Bob Dylan (1941-), whose words kick off this post, is an award-winning songwriter and musician. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. “Everything is broken” is a good song for every car owner—or any prairie steward struggling with a restoration—to give a listen to. It makes me smile—and I hope it makes you smile, too. If you’re a Jane Austen fan, you probably also noticed the “wink wink” reference to the opening lines of Pride and Prejudice.  One of the most famous lines in literature! I’m sure Austen never envisioned her words referring to a car.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) Honda at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison) at Nachusa Grasslands, the Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area, Department of Natural Resources, Medaryville, Indiana;  broken compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum) blooms, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove Park District, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum) leaf, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove Park District, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove, IL;  late summer at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; volunteers hauling brush and grasses, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Belmont Prairie in January, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove Park District, The Nature’s Conservancy, Downer’s Grove, IL; Honda at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; sunset, Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The Art of Prairie Restoration

This world is but a canvas to our imagination.” — Henry David Thoreau


Winter is wonderful. Usually.

But this past week has been a rollercoaster ride of temperature swings from high 50s plunging to near zero; sunshine and gloom, snow and rain. In other words, typical. Fog blew in and settled on the prairies, coloring everything gray. A drag on the spirits.


One of my go-to cures for the January blues—or should I say grays—is The Art Institute of Chicago.

I wander in. Immediately there is a blast of color and light in the Impressionist Gallery. Ironically, even the canvas,”Paris Street: Rainy Day,”  seems bright and cheerful.

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The Monet waterlilies…


…bring back memories of summer in the prairie wetlands.

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I soak up the primary hues of paintings in the Modern Wing.


Thinking of hikes through the snow this month…

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In unlikely stairwells, I stumble across reminders of  blue skies, obscured by clouds this week.

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I  imagine the prairie skies, hidden for so long behind shrouds of fog and curtains of snow and rain.


As I stroll the halls and gaze at the creations showcased in this iconic place, it’s a good reminder of the courage of those who strove, against all odds, to create something beautiful out of nothing. These painters, sculptors, and other artists who had a vision.

Like some other folks I know.

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Prairie restorationists and artists have a lot in common. We think of restoration as a science. But it’s also about creativity.

Prairie restoration begins with a vision.

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The dream of how the land might be healed, imagined in the mind of a steward or site manager.

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There’s a lot of trial and error. Preliminary sketching, if you will; a few rough drafts. Sometimes, you scrap everything and start over.


There may be misunderstandings along the way. People who don’t get it. They look at your “project” and shake their head. They wonder out loud if you have wasted your time.

“Weeds. It’s just a bunch of weeds.”


Bet you’ve heard that one before, haven’t you?


But you keep on moving forward. You believe in what you are doing. You look for the breakthroughs.


Without imagination—without creativity—without courage—the best prairie restorations don’t happen.


The rewards don’t always come in your lifetime. But the work you do isn’t for yourself, although the tallgrass is gratifying in a thousand different ways. You work, knowing you leave a legacy for those who will come after you. You think of them, as you drip with sweat, freeze, or pull weeds; plant seeds.

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You can see the future in your mind. Envision it. That end result. And as artists and restorationists know, it’s worth the work. It’s worth the wait.


Think about it.

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The writer Henry David Thoreau, whose quote opens this essay, was a naturalist, philosopher, writer, transcendentalist, and social reformer. A favorite quote from Thoreau, “We can never have enough of nature.” His 1849 essay, “Civil Disobedience,” continues to stimulate thinking about human rights. His most famous book is “Walden.”

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): prairie plants in the fog at Saul Lake Bog Nature Preserve, Land Conservancy of West Michigan, Rockford, MI; “Paris Street: Rainy Day,” 1877, Gustave Caillebotte, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; “Waterlily Pond,” 1917-19, Claude Monet, European Painting and Sculpture, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; prairie pond, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Clear Creek, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; “Yellow Hickory Leaves with Daisy,” 1928, Georgia O’Keeffe, American Art Gallery, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; beech (Fagus sylvatica) leaves on snow, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; “Sky Above Clouds IV,” 1965, Georgia O’Keeffe, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; sky over Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, United States National Park Service, The Nature Conservancy, Strong City, KS; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) and volunteer weeding, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; volunteers collecting seed, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) seedpod, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; “A and the Carpenter “I”, Sam Gilliam, 1973, Modern and Contemporary Art, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; barb wire and Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; “Grayed Rainbow,” 1953, Jackson Pollock, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL;  ice and grasses, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; snowy trail through Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove, IL; pasque flowers (Anemone patens, sometimes Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; late summer on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; “The Thinker,” Auguste Rodin, Rodin Exhibition, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL (add to the conversation here). 

How to Spark (Prairie) Wonder

“While we are born with curiosity and wonder, and our early years full of the adventure they bring, I know such inherent joys are often lost. I also know that, being deep within us, their latent glow can be fanned into flame again by awareness and an open mind.”–
Sigurd Olson


I’m thinking about the above quotation as I hike through prairie snow. The temperature? Below zero. Not an optimal day for outdoor adventures. But after more than five decades of wanderings—and at the beginning of a new year—I’ve been wondering. How do I keep my sense of curiosity and wonder in a cynical world? How do I “fan the flame;” “stay aware” as Olson writes? It’s so easy to become insular.

Then, I look around.


Time outdoors. Perhaps that’s always the answer.


SPMAwasharea123117.jpgEven a short walk in the brutal cold is a mental palate cleanser. It sweeps clean the heavy holiday fare. Too much travel. Noise. Not enough time to think.


I breathe in. The air sears my lungs; seeps into my gloves, painfully nips my hands. Then all feeling recedes.


Above me, the wild geese fly in formation over the prairie, calling to each other. The sound carries clearly in the cold, crisp air. I inhale again, and feel the fuzziness in my mind begin to dissipate.


I think of Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese.” When I worked as a ranger on a wilderness island, one of my many non-glamorous tasks was sweeping the visitor center floor at the end of the day. As I’d push the broom, back and forth, back and forth, I’d try memorizing a new poem each week, written on a card in my pocket. It made the task more pleasant. “Wild Geese” was one poem I memorized that became a favorite.


Lost in remembrance, I almost miss what’s under my feet. The prairie and meadow voles have been busy tunneling through the snow, on a seed-finding mission.


The short winter list of prairie birds and animals are easier to name than the lengthy  roll call of plant species. Winter plant ID is a guessing game. The once-familiar wildflowers have shed their leaves and bleached their colors. Some I can be fairly certain of, like these thimbleweeds, with their tufts of seeds in various stages of blow-out along a sheltered edge of the prairie.


Or the pasture thistle, in its familiar spot next to the path.


The compass plant leaf, even when cold-curled like a bass clef, is unmistakable.


But other wildflowers, sans identifying colors, scents, or leaf shapes, are a mystery. Is this one an aster? Sure. But which one? I realize how limited my naturalist skills are every winter.


Such a jumble of seasonal botanical leftovers! All in various stages of decay. Monarda? Check. Blackberry canes? Check. And is that tiny curl a bit of carrion flower vine? But which species?


Hours could be spent in this fashion; looking, listening, hypothesizing, thinking, remembering. It takes so little to rekindle the spark of curiosity and wonder. To wake up. To be refreshed.

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Just a short hike. A moment’s attention toward what’s happening around your feet. A glance at the sky.


And suddenly, you feel it: the embers of curiosity and wonder begin to glow again.


Sigurd F. Olson (1899-1982) wrote nine books, including my favorite, The Singing Wilderness.   Many of his essays are about the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and North Woods, and a few are about the prairie. Some include beautiful scratchboard illustrations from artist Francis Lee Jaques,  who was born in Illinois. Olson was a conservation activist and one of the greatest advocates for natural areas in recent times. The quote that begins this blog post is from his book, Listening Point.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): West Side bridge, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Orland Grassland, Forest Preserve Districts of Cook County, Orland Park, IL;  Orland Grassland, Forest Preserve Districts of Cook County, Orland Park, IL; fence line at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Canada geese (Branta canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie vole (Microtus ochrogaster), or meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus) tunnels, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant leaf (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; aster (unknown species), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blackberry canes (probably Rubus argutus), bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), and carrion vine (Smilax, unknown species), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  Saul’s Lake Bog and Prairie, Land Conservancy of West Michigan, Rockford, MI; sunrise, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL.

Hope in the Tallgrass

“Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering, ‘It will be happier.'” —Alfred, Lord Tennyson

I watched a flock of sandhill cranes scrawling their calligraphic way south this week, high above my backyard prairie patch. You’re late, I said under my breath. But of course, they’re not.


Sandhill cranes know the rhythms and patterns encoded deep in their bones; ancient and primitive. They don’t need someone like me, who lives by clocks and calendars, to tell them when it is time to shift places. The wild things know what they need to know.


But we who do live by clocks and calendars know that this particular week is a symbolic one; one that brings our year to a close.

It’s been a bittersweet year for many of us. For some, a year of losses. Disappointments.


For others, a year of joys. A year of surprises, perhaps. Of new beginnings.


For most of us, a blend of all of these. In a few days, the coming season stands ready to be unwrapped, like a bright shiny package. Full of unknowns.


We look back on a prairie season that brimmed full of braided ladies’ tresses orchids and ebony jewelwing damselflies;


…dickcissels and purple prairie clover; Scribner’s panic  grass and ornate box turtles.


Subtle sunrises and in-your-face-spectacular sunsets. Clouds that splattered the prairie sky in a thousand different patterns. Thunderstorms and snow. Wide open spaces that gave us room to think.


Rainbows and sun halos and sundogs that prismed the clouds with color.


Astonishing! All of it. How can we not marvel?

But most of all, this past year the prairie continued to amaze me with its people. Volunteers. Their generosity and willingness to give continually exceeded my expectations. People who care! They are willing to put sweat equity into ensuring the tallgrass prairie’s survival.


Such a diverse group! Some are gifted in art or poetry; theology or math; in music or mechanical engineering; in home economics or biology. These volunteers are pilots, librarians, homemakers, real estate agents, clergy, nurses, and lawyers. They are the unemployed, the already-too-committed, students, and retirees.


They arise early in the morning. Drive long distances to pull weeds, cut brush, collect seeds. Set prescribed fires. Listen patiently to someone like me talk or teach about prairie. Week after week, they get up and do it all over again. It’s because of them that the tallgrass prairie has a chance in this world.


As this year ends, I think of the prairie and its community of rich diversity. And I think of this rich diversity of people I know who so faithfully care for it. For without them, the prairie today would no longer thrive in a world where its currency has tenuous value.


Looking back on 2017, it is easy to feel overwhelmed, anxious, discouraged and—even at times, looking at recent headlines—despair about the natural world. I’ve felt all of these things at some point during the year. But this week, I choose to feel hope.


Because of the volunteers I know. Because they are working to make this world a better place. Because they show up, week after week.  They believe they can make a difference.

Don’t give up.


This year, I hope you’ll be out there on the prairies and other natural areas with us.

We’ll be waiting for you.


Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), whose quote opens this blog post, is a good writer to end the year on. He was Poet Laureate of Great Britain and Ireland. He suffered great grief in his family; his father was abusive, and of his 11 siblings, two became addicts and several others suffered acute mental illness. Poetry was his escape, and he poured his life into it. Read about his work and explore his poems at The Poetry Foundation.  I particularly like his short poem, The Eagle.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom):  sun halo with sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis); last weeks of December at Orland Grassland, Forest Preserves of Cook County, Orland Park, IL; goldfinch nest (Spinus tristis), Orland Grassland, Forest Preserves of Cook County Orland Park, IL; bison (Bison bison) at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;   praying mantis (Mantis religiosa) egg case, Orland Grassland, Forest Preserves of Cook County, Orland Park, IL; ebony jewelwing damselflies (male and female) (Calopteryx maculata), Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wetland and prairie, Orland Grassland, Forest Preserves of Cook County, Orland Park, IL; clouds over Orland Grassland, Forest Preserves of Cook County, Orland Park, IL; sundog over Lake Michigan after a prairie visit, St. Joseph, IL;  volunteer on Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; volunteers caring for prairie planting, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wetland and prairie, Orland Grassland, Forest Preserves of Cook County, Orland Park, IL; clouds and prairie, Orland Grassland, Forest Preserves of Cook County, Orland Park, IL; Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), Orland Grassland, Forest Preserves of Cook County, Orland Park, IL; two-track through Orland Grassland, Forest Preserves of Cook County, Orland Park, IL.

Thanks to Heather Herakovich for the nest ID! And thanks to the staff and volunteers who work to preserve the 960-acre Orland Grassland, and to Bob Rottschalk, a faithful blog reader who suggested I go see this preserve for myself. What a beautiful prairie and natural area! I’ll be back.

A Prairie Pause

“Every day I see or hear something that more or less kills me with delight…it is what I was born for—to look, to listen… .” — Mary Oliver


First-timers to the prairie in December may be underwhelmed. The grass colors are draining away; plants are nibbled and ragged. Shopworn.


But, as the opening lines of the Mary Oliver poem above suggest, for those who hike and look during these gray days, December has its rewards.  Kaleidoscope skies delight us in the afternoons, straight out of a Van Gogh painting.


Slow-burning sunsets, trailing scarves of fire, deliver quiet satisfaction. They end  some of the shortest days of the year.

Gensburg-Markham Prairie 12-17.jpg

As a prairie steward at two different sites, I find December is a good time to reflect on the coming season. At home, I scribble in my notebook. RCG? means, “What will I do about the reed canary grass we can’t get rid of that’s infesting a high-quality area of the prairie?”  That caricature of a flower next to it is purple loosestrife, which consistently mounts a stealth operation into the west end of the stream from a subdivision across the road. A reminder that constant vigilance is the price of an invasive-free waterway.


All of these invasive plants will be put on an “alert” list and dealt with in 2018. But for now, they are just words on paper. Something to think about in the abstract.


And then, there is my prairie “wish list.” Oh, such possibilities! Maybe, adding a little cardinal flower in the wetter areas.


Along the streambank, where the native Illinois bundleflower has become an aggressive bully,…


…I can proactively place great blue lobelia. These “blues” may take root, and chase some of my problem plants away. Or, so I hope.

Crosby backyard GBLobelia 2017.jpg

I digitally page through online native plant nursery catalog offerings, make notes, calculate costs. Wonder what the possibilities might be. I pore over my prairie plant inventory list, made this season. What plants have gone missing this year? Who is new that showed up to the party, uninvited? Which species is getting a little aggressive, a little too territory-hungry? A little less monarda—a little more pasqueflower? 


In my faith tradition, December is a time of waiting. A time of anticipation. Preparation. On the prairie, as a steward, I find the month of December to be much the same.


A rest from herbicide management, writing workday summaries, or thinking about dragonfly populations in the creeks and ponds of the prairie wetlands.

eastern amberwing2 sp 2015.jpg

I like this rhythm of the seasons. I need a pause, one in which I’m not pulling weeds; collecting seeds. Sure, there are tasks that can be done—I’m still trying to wrap up some spreadsheets, finish some year-end reports—but let’s be clear. Nothing is screaming “spray me now!” No seeds I need are being eaten by birds, or explosively shooting off into the grasses before they can be collected.

Goldenrod ball gall-Belmontprairienaturepreserve12917

There is time to catch up on unread piles of articles; to thumb leisurely through a book or two on prairies that I’ve been meaning to read. Find journal essays online about dragonflies. Set workshop dates to train new monitors. Compare notes with other stewards. There is time—precious time—to untangle my thoughts.


With gray skies wrapped around our days like a smothering cloak, the impulse to be indoors, instead of out, is strong.  No warm breezes beckon. I don’t wonder if I’m missing a new dragonfly species when I curl up on the couch with a mug of hot tea.  I don’t worry that the sweet clover has, seemingly overnight, overrun a new portion of the tallgrass. I can take a break, guilt-free. December is a simpler month; a welcome interlude in the busyness of the life of the prairie.


I don’t know what the new year holds. I prepare as best I can. Scribble lists. Reflect. Dream a little. Prepare. Anticipate. Scribble some more.


When I’m out hiking the trails, I imagine the prairies as they will be, vibrant and blooming in the spring. I look at them now, clear-eyed. Yes, they are brittle, a little shaggy. Ragged under their sprinkle of new snow. Different. But no less beautiful. Then I retreat back home to make a few more lists.

And I savor the pause.


The opening verse is from Mary Oliver’s poem, “Mindful.” If you haven’t read the whole poem, and you love volunteering or caring for the tallgrass prairie in some way throughout the year, this poem is for you. Read it here.  It’s beautiful. Oliver (1935-) won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984. Her newest poetry collection is Devotions.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): prairie dock leaf (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cloudy December skies over the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Gensburg-Markham Prairie Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, and Northeastern Illinois University, Markham, IL:  vigilant bullfrogs (Lithobates catesbeianus)  Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; ice in Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Nomia Meadows Farm prairie and wetlands, Franklin Grove, IL; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, Il; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; path through Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), female, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ball gall at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL.