Tag Archives: Nachusa Grasslands

10 Reasons to Hike the June Prairie

“In June, as many as a dozen species may burst their buds on a single day. No man can heed all of these anniversaries; no man can ignore all of them.”
— Aldo Leopold

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Almost cloudless skies, with a few swirls of cirrus.  Cool breezes. Warm sunshine.

Skies620WM

This past week has been near perfect weather-wise here in Illinois—about as beautiful a June as we could wish for. A good time to hike the tallgrass prairie. Why? Here are 10 good reasons to consider getting out there.

10. Butterflies. Tiger swallowtails, red-spotted purples, and even friendly little cabbage whites are aloft now, often flying tantalizing just out of reach. The meadow fritillary (below) gets its name, appropriately, from the meadows it likes to inhabit. It’s a regular visitor to the prairies in Illinois. This adult is nectaring on white clover.

Meadow Fritillary NG61420correctWM

Viceroy butterflies are often mistaken for monarchs, but are smaller with a different wing pattern. They occasionally hybridize with the red-spotted purple butterfly, with stunning results — click here to read more about this interesting phenomenon. This viceroy is soaking up a little sunshine on a cool afternoon.

ViceroyNG61420WM

The numbers and diversity of butterflies will accelerate this month, just as the prairie explodes into bloom. Which brings us to…

9. Wildflowers on the prairie are spectacular this month as referenced by Aldo Leopold’s quote that opens this post. You may see the first pale purple coneflowers, barely opened…

Pale purple coneflowerWM Belmont Prairie 620

…or wild quinine, its pearled flowers bright in the sunshine…

Wild Quinine NG61420WM

…or white wild indigo, unfurling its asparagus-like stalk into those blooms so characteristic of legumes…

White wild indigo SPMA61520WM

…. or indigo bush, sometimes called “false indigo,” abuzz with bees.

IndigoBush61420NachusaGrasslandsWM

June is the month when the prairie continues its crescendo toward July fourth, known as the height of bloom time on the tallgrass prairie. Difficult to believe that holiday is only a few weeks away! There is so much to look forward to.

8. A Prairie Wetland Serenade –that’s what the frogs and birds give us in June. Listen. Can you hear the “broken banjo string” sound of the green frogs?

So many layers of sound! Try to find a frog, and you’ll hear “plop-plop-plop” as they disappear in the water ahead of you with only a ring left on the water as evidence they were sunning themselves on the edge moments before.

7. Bison.  When you are lucky enough to visit a tallgrass preserve that has bison, you get a sense of what prairies once were, long ago. And why they seem incomplete without these shaggy behemoths and their little mini-mes.

bisongrazing-NG2017WM

Although the Illinois tallgrass prairie didn’t have vast herds of bison, as the Great Plains once did, bison still performed critical functions such as wallowing, grazing, and leaving fertilizing dung on the prairie. By the early 1800s, bison had mostly vanished from the state. Their restoration today, such as the ones shown at Nachusa Grasslands, is a triumph for species. conservation.

6. Tiny critters, in contrast to the thousand-plus pound bison, aren’t always as noticeable on a prairie.

Tiny critter on penstemon NG61420WM

And yet, without these little creatures—many whose names I’ll never learn—the prairie would not function as a healthy system. Easy to overlook. But no less important than bison.

5. Dragonflies  depend on many of these little creatures for food, and how can anyone fail to miss them? Common green darners fill the skies. Black saddlebags fly up out of the grasses at our approach. Sparkling gems everywhere, perched on twigs and branches. This male calico pennant has a row of tiny hearts on his abdomen.

CalicoPennant Male61520 SPMAWM

The female repeats the pattern, only in gold.

Female Calico Pennant SPMA61520WM

This common white-tail (below) basks in the sunshine on a cool afternoon, with temperatures in the mid-70s F. Dragonflies practice thermoregulation, so rely on a combination of body and wing positions to keep their temperature warmer or cooler.

commonwhitetail61420NGPLPonds

4. Damselflies, the kissing cousins of dragonflies, are often overlooked…but why? They are glamour writ miniature. The ebony jewelwing damselflies are some of my favorites — the first damselfly name I learned was this one. This male (below), lounging by a stream, is resplendent in the sunshine. A showstopper worthy of his name.Ebony Jewelwing Beaver Pond NG61420

The female is similar, except it appears someone touched her wing with white-out.

ebonyjewelwingfemaleBeaverPondNG61420WM

Variable dancer damselflies are smaller, but no less spectacular when seen up close. The male has an unmistakable violet coloration.

VariableDancerSPMA61520WM

Think of how many other damselflies, with their unusual markings and gorgeous coloration, are waiting for you to notice them!  Stop as you walk and peer into the grasses by the side of the trail. Sit quietly by a stream or pond. Damselflies are smaller than you might think. But watch patiently. You’ll see them.

3.  Trails through the prairie are an invitation to adventure. Do you feel your heart lift as you set off to stride down a familiar path? Do you anticipate what wonders are waiting?

SPMAtrail6520WM

You never come back from a prairie hike unchanged. Perhaps it’s a new plant  you see, or the sight of an indigo bunting shattering all that green with its bright blue. The trail is your free ticket to the unknown.

2. Moths are not something we think about on a prairie hike so much, as many of them are creatures of the night. And yet a few of them are day-trippers. Stumble across a reversed haploa moth (yes, that’s really its name) and tell me you don’t have an extra few minutes to stop, and to marvel.Reversed Haploa Moth SpMA61520WM

This celery looper moth (below), barely visible in the shade of stiff goldenrod leaves, hints at a mostly hidden world; a world we have to show up at night to really see.

Celery Looper Moth SPMA61520WM Yet another dimension of prairie to be discovered.

1. Rest and Reflection are always part of being on the prairie. And yet. As I chased dragonflies at Nachusa Grasslands this weekend, I stumbled across this carnage.

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Four dragonfly wings, doubtless the remains of a bird’s breakfast. The wings glittered with morning dew. Gently, I picked one up. It was clear, likely belonging to a luckless teneral dragonfly whose wings were pumped full of hemolymph, but wasn’t yet strong enough to fly. I see many of these teneral dragonflies and damselflies as I walk my dragonfly monitoring routes. They are almost ready to fly; the coloration is not quite fully complete.Teneral Dragonfly NG61420WM

So fragile. Such brief lives! After emergence from the water, dragonflies may live a few minutes (which may have been the fate of the owner of the snipped off wings) or in some parts of the world, several months. Here in Illinois, a long-lived adult dragonfly marks time as a matter of weeks. Yet dragonflies are survivors, still around in much the same form as they were hundreds of millions of years ago. I find solace in that thought.

Time spent on a prairie is one way to make room for reflection. It’s a time to rest and unplug.Jeff at NG 61420WM

A time to explore. A time to discover. A walk on the prairie is a reminder that the world is a complex and beautiful place.

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All we have to do is make time to be there. Then, pay attention.

Why not go see?

*****

Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) is the author of A Sand County Almanac; his environmental ethics articulated in this book helped frame the Wilderness Act in 1964 after his death. His book has sold more than 2 million copies.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL, unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): skies, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; meadow fritillary (Boloria bellona) on white clover, a non-native (Trifolium repens); viceroy (Limenitis archippus); pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium); white wild indigo (Baptisia lactea –species names vary, including “alba,” I am using Wilhelm’s Flora as my source); false indigo or indigo bush (Amorpha fruticosa); video of wetlands in June; bison and calves (Bison bison, photo from 2017); unknown insect on foxglove penstemon (Penstemon digitalis); male calico pennant dragonfly (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; female calico pennant dragonfly (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common whitetail dragonfly (Plathemis lydia); male ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata); female ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata); male variable dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; reverse haploa moth (Haploa reversa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; celery looper moth (Anagrapha falcifera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; teneral dragonfly wings (unknown species); teneral dragonfly; reading and relaxing on the tallgrass prairie; June at Nachusa Grasslands.

Join Cindy for her online upcoming book event, online dragonfly classes, and online prairie ecology classes!

“Chasing Dragonflies in Literature, Life, and Art” Now Online! Saturday, June 27 10-11:30 a.m. Celebrate the release of author Cindy Crosby’s newest book, Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History through The Morton Arboretum. Cindy will be joined by the book’s award-winning illustrator, Peggy MacNamara,  artist in residence at the Field Museum. Enjoy a talk from the author and illustrator about the book, interspersed with short readings and insights on what it means for us as humans to be at home in the natural world. A Q&A session follows. Register here.

“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.

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” begins 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. Pre-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. Or, order now direct through Northwestern University Press and receive 25% off — use coupon code NUP2020 and see the information below. Thank you for supporting small presses and writers during this chaotic time.Preorder Savings Chasing Dragonflies (1)

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.  

A Prairie Homecoming

“There’s nothing in the world so strong as grass.” — Ellis Peters

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The last few months seem like a dream.

This past week, restrictions in Illinois have lifted enough that I’ve been able to hike the Schulenberg Prairie for the first time since April 1. I go early, when the sun is still climbing the eastern sky and the spider’s thrown webs dazzle with drops of dew.

It’s a bit surreal to be out here again, especially since the prairie remains unburned—and will remain so this season. Without fire, the wild prairie roses are tall and glorious.

The bumblebees work the blooms, joined by other insects.

Carrion flower towers over the prairie, its other-worldly tendrils and seedheads adding to the surreal feeling.

Closer to the ground, prairie phlox—beaded with dew drops—splatters the grasses with lavender, white, and pink in a multitude of hues and tiny patterns.

If you didn’t know better, you’d think the photo above and below were different species. But they are colorful variations of the same.

Near by, I lift up the smooth Solomon’s seal leaves.

Every square inch of prairie holds something to discover.

Me and my prairie volunteers have been absent these past months, but the life of the prairie continued unfolding. A tiny Hobomok skipper nectars at the red clover which hugs the edges of the gravel trail.

I don’t see any monarch butterfly caterpillars on my hike, but this week they showed up in my backyard prairie on my butterfly weed plants. They are likely here as well, but invisible to my eyes in the tallgrass.

Dragonflies are everywhere. Common green darners. Baskettails. A black saddlebag dragonfly or two. A common whitetail dragonfly flutters in front of me on the path, then stops to rest. Warming up.

Deep in the grasses on each side of the trail are teneral damselflies, still not fully colored or able to fly very far. Eastern forktails and stream bluets, like this one below, respond to the warming day with more activity near Willoway Brook.

Because dragonfly monitoring work has not resumed at the Arboretum, I don’t have the pressure—and pleasure!—of counting these species today, or jotting down hash marks on a clipboard to submit data. Yes, I miss it. But I realize I am also free to relax and enjoy my hike, without worrying about my surveys. Accepting this, instead of letting it be frustrating, is a good challenge.

I think about this pause in my normal steward and monitoring work as I hike and reacquaint myself with the wildflowers. The white wild indigo is in its first tentative flush of bloom.

Soon it will flood the prairie with white. The purple meadow rue is open, as are the tiny flowers of prairie alum root. The first pale purple coneflowers are opening. All blessedly normal.

And yet. So much is still dream-like, off-kilter. Other hikers pass me wearing masks. We step off the path, six feet apart. The prairie goes on, but we are changed.

My band of prairie volunteers and monitors hope to resume our data gathering and prairie work soon. We will be different than we were last season. And like all changes, it will take a while to adapt to this “new normal.”

As I pass our prairie planting display beds, overgrown now without us to care for them, I’m caught by something yellow. Moth mullein, a rather benign non-native, enchants me with its resemblance to a moth’s antennae. I’ve seen it with white flowers, as well as the yellow flowers. Because of its charm, I always find it difficult to pull, even when it pops up in one of our planting beds. Today I can leave it in good conscience and enjoy it.

Delayed gratification. My prairie volunteer work here—-and my dragonfly work— will have to wait. Nothing about the tallgrass prairie ever moves quickly, I remind myself. The prairie will be here, waiting for us, when the time is right.

Today, all that remains is to relax…and enjoy being here. At last.

*****

The opening quote is from Ellis Peters’ Father Cadfael Chronicles, An Excellent Mystery, one of 20 books in the series. Ellis Peters was the pen name for Edith Pargeter (1913-1995). Her books were adapted for radio, and later for a television series.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby, and taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, unless otherwise noted: mixed grasses with dew; spiderwebs with morning dew; smooth rose (Rosa blanda) with unknown bumblebee; smooth rose (Rosa blanda) with unknown bumblebee and (possibly) the margined calligrapher fly (Toxomerus marginatus); carrion flower (Smilax spp.); prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa); prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa); smooth Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum); Hobomok skipper (Lon hobomok); monarch butterfly caterpillar (Danaus plexippus); common whitetail dragonfly (Plathemis lydia), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; stream bluet (Enallagma exsulans); white wild indigo (Baptisia lactea –species names vary, including “alba,” I am using Wilhelm’s Flora as my source); panic grass or rosette grass (Dichanthelium spp.); bench overlooking the prairie; moth mullein (Verbascum blattaria).

Thanks to Butterflies of the Eastern United States Facebook group for the confirmation on the skipper ID.

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Join Cindy for a class online this summer!

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” begins 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.

“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. Register here.

Coming soon in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Pre-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. Or, order now direct through Northwestern University Press and receive 25% off — use coupon code NUP2020 and see the information below. Thank you for supporting small presses and writers during this chaotic time.

Preorder Savings Chasing Dragonflies (1)

Want more prairie while you are sheltering in place? 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.

A Little Tallgrass Tranquility

“June comes with its own tranquility, predictable as sunrise, reassuring as the coolness of dusk.”– Hal Borland

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Peace, quiet, and tranquility sound appealing right now.  As meteorological summer arrives, the prairie is a good place to find all three. Let’s take a look.

ClearCreekKnollsNG53020WM

The dragonflies and damselflies are out at Nachusa Grasslands. Common green darners aimlessly work their way across the pond. A few common whitetail dragonflies hunt for prey in the cool, overcast day.

It’s quiet.

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I slosh through what was prairie last season; now a new wetland created by beavers. The dammed pond overflows with water, which runs into the grooves on the dirt two-track alongside it.

Two-trackpowerlineponds53020NGWM

These small, ephemeral water-filled ruts teem with life. So many tadpoles!

On the edges, immature eastern forktail females flutter weakly, still in the teneral stage.

Immature Female Teneral Eastern Forktail NG Pwlpds53020WM

Their color gradually comes into focus, like a Polaroid picture. Later, they’ll mature from orange and turn powdery blue.

EasternForktailFemalePLPsNG53020WM

The male eastern forktails are everywhere, looking for females to mate with.

EasternForktailPLPsNG53020WM

I watch the females lay eggs—oviposit—into a vegetation mat floating in the pond. Eastern forktails are usually the first damselfly I see each year, and–with a few season’s exceptions–the most numerous species of damselfly I see at both my prairie monitoring sites. They are easy to dismiss, because they are so common. When I first began learning dragonfly and damselfly ID, I was confused by their different appearances. How could one species of damselfly be three different colors? And that’s not including their teneral stage. The most common damselflies have incredible complexity.

In the quiet, the stress of the last few days fades. I hear a bird that I don’t know–a gallinule, a friend tells me later. A new one for me!

I watch the dragonflies and listen a bit longer before I turn and go back to my monitoring. The wildflowers hum with activity.

YarrowCCNG53020WM

I can still hear well, but my eyes are weaker as I’ve gotten older. As I’m scribbling data on my clipboard, I notice one of the “forktails” is moving differently — floating, instead of fluttering. Another seems a bit off-color for a eastern forktail. But I can’t make out the details, even with my binoculars.

GreatAngelicaCC53020WM

It’s not until I’m home and sorting through blurry photo after blurry photo of my “eastern forktail” damselfly photos, that two crisp photos jump out at me.

Sedge sprite! Nehalennia irene. The first time I’ve seen one. They’ve been found at two sites at Nachusa, but this is the first time I’ve found it— and it’s new for this particular area. Sedge sprites are rare and uncommon in Illinois.  The scientific name almost always tells a good story, and Nehalennia, I discover, is the name of a Rhein River goddess. Appropriate for something so lovely.

SedgeSpritePLPondsNG53020WM

This male’s length is from the tip of my baby finger to the knuckle. Its lack of eyespots–little color markers on top of the eyes–sets it apart from other damselflies, notes Robert DuBois, author of Damselflies of Minnesota, Wisconsin & Michigan. So tiny. So beautiful.

And then—oh! Look. Another species. Fragile forktail damselfly. Ishnura posita. I’ve seen it here before, but only once. I thought the color looked wrong for an eastern forktail when I was sloshing through the pond perimeter and logging it on my data sheet as such, and I was right. The pale green exclamation mark on the thorax is the tip-off.

Fragile Forktail NG PowerlinePonds53020

The fragile forktails fly from May to September, so I should see them again here as I walk my route this summer. I had to go back and revise my data submission. Next time, I’ll pay more attention. I’ll wait to log it until I review the photos.

Later, Jeff and I hike and marvel at the smallest wildflowers in bloom. Long-leaved bluets.

LongleavedbluetsNGFFK53020WM

Blue toadflax, so minuscule I struggle to get my camera to focus on the flower.

ToadflaxCCNG53020

Rushes—so many to try and name—are woven into the wildflowers and grasses. The light casts them into silhouettes.

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Small moths lay in the tallgrass like winged ghosts.

MothScopula spp. NG53020WM

A flycatcher—possibly an alder flycatcher but likely a willow flycatcher—talks to me from a scrubby shrub. As I wrote this, I tried to remember the exact call, as this is one of the ID markers between the two.  Cornell’s All About Birds website describes the sound of a willow flycatcher as someone quickly zipping up a jacket. Alder flycatcher is described as free-beer! I wish I had paid more attention so I’d be sure of my identification.

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These fleeting moments are easy to miss. I try to remember to listen attentively. What else am I overlooking today?

Pale beardtongue’s bright flowers are difficult to pass by without pausing.

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Up close, they are surprisingly hairy.

Pale PenstamonBeardtongue NGFFK53020WM

A contrast to the pea-like blooms in the tapered spikes of violet lupine, the color of summer’s last light on the clouds at dusk.

LupineNGCC53020WM

The startlingly clear purple-blue of the spiderwort always fails description. Such a color!

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I soak it all up.

For a while, I forget the outside world.

Thank you, prairie.

******

The opening quote is by Hal Borland (1900-1978) from Sundial of the Seasons, a selection of 365  outdoor essays that follow the days of the year. Born in Nebraska, he wrote more than 1,200 essays, many published in the New York Times, often about the passing of the year on his Connecticut farm.

*****

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (top to bottom):  Clear Creek Knolls; beaver pond; new pools in the gravel two-track; video of tadpoles in the ephemeral pools and tire track ruts; eastern forktail damselfly (Ischnura verticalis)); eastern forktail  damselfly (Ischnura verticalis); eastern forktail damselfly (Ischnura verticalis); video of pond; unknown bee on common yarrow (Achillea millefolium); great Angelica (Angelica atropurpurea): sedge sprite damselfly (Nehalennia irene); fragile forktail damselfly (Ischnura posita); long-leaved bluets (Houstonia longifolia); blue toadflax (Nuttallanthus canadensis); unknown rushes (correction — Juncus spp.); unknown moth (possibly one of the Scopula genus); possibly a willow flycatcher (Empidonax traillii, they are difficult to tell apart from alder flycatchers except by song); pale beardtongue (Penstemon pallidus); pale beardtongue (Penstemon pallidus); wild lupine (Lupinus perennis); Ohio spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis).

*******

Join Cindy for a class online!

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” begins June 7. Work from home at your own pace 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.

Want more prairie while you are sheltering in place? 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.

Early May at Nachusa Grasslands

“There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”–J.R.R. Tolkien

******

Spring. At last! It’s come to the prairies and savannas in full flush.  Welcome back, prairie trillium.

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Hello, Virginia bluebells!

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A few days of warmth and sunlight followed by rain and cool nights keep the wildflowers fresh and vibrant. And as always, there is the promise of more to come.

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*****

With the first days of May come good news. Our dragonfly data collection efforts at Nachusa Grasslands, restricted in April because of COVID-19,  could now—cautiously—begin. Saturday, Jeff and I drove to Franklin Grove, IL, so I could walk several of my regular routes and see what was flying.Nachusa Fame Flower Knob 5220 rocks WM.jpg

The day started out fair and sunny but gradually turned overcast and windy as we traveled. Yet the thought of being back at Nachusa–taking on a task that felt “normal” for spring—was a lift to our spirits. It felt odd to travel an Interstate highway again. Strange to stop and put gas in the car—our Suburu has gotten about eight weeks to the gallon lately. It’s bizarre to see many businesses shuttered; to pass a shopping outlet mall turned COVID testing center, lined with cars. What was so familiar only months ago is now changed.

Arriving at Nachusa, I hop out of the car to maneuver the heavy metal bars of the bison gate open and drive into the bison unit,

Nachusa Grasslands May 2 2020WM just off the two track.jpg

Jeff and I scan the prairie ahead. The bison are noticeably absent. How such massive animals can disappear into the prairie is a mystery. I know that this spring, at least nine bison calves have been sighted. I look again. Nada. I remember previous summers and the joy I felt when the mamas and new babies appear.

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We continue to look for bison—and dragonflies—as we travel the gravel two-track to one of my route locations. Normally, the first dragonfly monitoring hike of the season is in April, although not much is flying at that time. Common green darners (Anax junius) will have arrived from the south. Freshly-minted  dragonflies and damselflies should be emerging from the ponds and streams, ready to participate in the ancient dance of pairing up and creating new life.Cattails NG PowerlinePonds5220WM.jpg

Although we’ve driven this two-track many times, it looks different this spring. Nachusa is known for prescribed fire; this is the first time I’ve seen its approximately 3,500 acres untouched by flames at this time of year. If you didn’t know it was May—and ignored the temperature —it could easily be January. But look closer, and you see that underlying carpet of emerald.

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Our first stop is a large pond I’ve monitored since 2013. But wait!

Where is it?

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What? It’s gone! Oh no…I can’t bear looking.

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It was in this pond that I saw my first Northern pintails, migrating through Illinois and stopping for a quick paddle and a bite to eat. It was here I had my one and only face-off with a mama bison; me, carelessly walking my route without paying attention to their movements. This pond is where the great egret would stop to rest on its hunting expeditions. So many memories. What could have caused such a change?

I remember the pond as it was in previous years.

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I look again. Wow.

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Later, I learn what’s happened. Beavers! They’ve spent the past months re-sculpting the prairie landscape to be more to their liking. Who would have thought? At Nachusa, I usually think about the thousand pound-plus bison and the changes they may make to the places I frequent. Amazing what a few 50-pound beavers can do in a matter of months. Such a big changes from a small animal. I think of Mary Oliver’s poem “Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard”: “It’s not size, but surge that tells us when we’re in touch with something real…” Although the beavers’ work was slow and gradual; the end result brings about a surge of emotion. The beavers have upended my idea of a place I thought I knew. I feel unsettled.

Onward! Next monitoring route. Once a stream, then re-shaped by beavers several years ago as a pond, now a stream again. It’s fascinating to see the different types of dragonfly and damselfly species change over time with the habitat changes; some dragonflies prefer running water, others choose still water.  Jeff sets up his camp chair and pulls out a book while I pick my way alongside the stream, watching for any insect movement.

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The skies fill with clouds as the wind picks up, although the temperature remains in the 70s. A great blue heron flies over.

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After 30 minutes, it’s clear no Odonates are out and about; at least none I can find. Not surprising at this time of year. I log my times and mark the data sheet with a big fat zero. We pack up, and move to the next route.  Around a curve, over a bridge, and across the prairie on the gravel two-track.  Still no bison. But—stop the car!— I shout. Jeff quickly pulls over, and we get out and marvel over a carpet of wood betony—Pedicularis canadensis—more than I’ve seen in all my years as a prairie steward.

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Wood betony is a hemiparasite which can draw nutrients from other plants, especially prairie grasses. For this reason, it is coveted by prairie stewards who want to open grass-dominate areas for prairie wildflowers. I love this wildflower for its crazy flowers and crinkly leaves.

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The bumblebees are working the pinwheeled blooms, sampling one after another.

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I read on Illinois Wildflowers website later that long-tongued bees are the primary pollinators, including queen bumblebees and mason bees.

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We watch the bees for a while, then clamber back into the car and continue to the next site, a small pool I call the “Power Line Pond.”

Except…not so small anymore.

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The beavers strike again!

This pond is flooded almost beyond recognition.

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When bison came to Nachusa Grasslands, their hooves changed the shoreline of this watering hole, making it difficult to get close to the water in places. Last year, I re-rerouted my data collection hikes in an ever-widening arc to stay on solid footing. Today, I’m grateful for my knee-high rubber boots. Looks like I’ll be wading.

As I slosh through the water, I see them. Common green darners!

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My first dragonfly data for the season. Delighted, I mark my tally sheet.  Jeff and I watch them zip across the expanded pond, occasionally stopping to oviposit, then flying to a new spot to start again. Another common green darner appears, flying solo. One of the best moments of dragonfly season is making the first hash mark on your data sheet. Today is that day. The season is off and running. At last.

There are several small ephemeral pools nearby, perhaps bison-made, that sometimes shelter damselflies of various species. Today, all I see are a few water-striders, admiring themselves in the mirror of the sky-reflected water.

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One of my all-time favorite novels, Crow Lake, tells the story of three children unexpectedly orphaned in rural Canada. The oldest son, about to leave for college, chooses to invest in his siblings and stay home so they won’t be parceled out to various relatives. By doing so, he comes to terms with his losses, including a promising future derailed. Mary Lawson uses the life of a pond—-in particular, its surface tension—as a way to consider how sudden change may re-route our plans; cause us to reinvent ourselves. The outcomes aren’t always what we’d expected, or even hoped for. It’s how we choose to respond to sudden change that shapes us and our future, she shows through her story.

This trio of common green darners  turned out to be all we’d see for the day. A spatter of rain begins, and our hopes of more sightings disappear. We drive out of the bison unit, and head for home. But on the way, we pass Clear Creek, one of my routes I’ve not gotten to today. We swing in and park. The chances are slim to none to see any dragonflies or damselflies, but who can resist one more hike?

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As we walk, we glimpse the quick touch-down of a mourning cloak butterfly. This spring, I’ve only seen the cabbage white butterflies and red admirals. Mourning cloak butterflies are unusual in that they often overwinter, then mate in the spring. This one refused to turn around and give us the full glory of its coloration.

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But I had seen this species in bright sunlight the previous spring, and marveled.

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It is exciting to see the first butterflies of the season. But I want dragonflies. I wade into Clear Creek and scrutinize the shoreline, slowly walking the edges. Later in the season, Clear Creek is populated by ebony jewelwing damselflies and springwater dancer damselflies and shadow darner dragonflies. But today, no damselfly or dragonfly is stirring under the steel gray skies.Clear Creek NG 5220WM

I pull a few garlic mustard plants, then wade back to the trail. Jeff has already hiked to the top of  Fame Flower Knob, overlooking the creek.

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I follow the trail to the top, scrutinizing the new growth as I hike. No dragonflies on the trail…but look!

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Sand phlox. An unexpected delight. And over here…pussy toes.

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Such unusual flowers. Like a cluster of shaggy Q-tips.

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And over here….a small patch of birdfoot violet. So tiny!

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I spend some time admiring them up close. Then, I join Jeff.

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Together we’re silent, taking in the view. It’s familiar, yet changed by circumstances — the lack of prescribed fire, the work of prairie creatures such as bison and beavers, the temporary lack of stewardship activity over the past weeks during Illinois’ quarantine. Witnessing these changes to a place I care about is part of building a relationship with it.

What other changes will 2020 bring?

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There’s no way to know. But I do know this. I’ll be back here, to watch them unfold.

******

J.R.R. Tolkien is best loved for his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and the delightful prequel,  The Hobbit. The lines that kick off this post are spoken by the dwarf Thorin to young dwarves in The Hobbit as they look for shelter in a rainstorm on their way to burgle treasure from the fearsome dragon Smaug. Instead of shelter, the dwarves find… well, if you haven’t read the book in a while, this is a great time to revisit it. Read more here.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL, unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum recurvatum), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; smooth Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Fame Flower Knob;  Nachusa in early May; bison (Bison bison) with their little ones (taken in a previous year); pond in early May; Nachusa Grasslands in early May; dried out pond in May; great egret (Ardea alba); pond in 2017; former pond in 2020; stream; great blue heron (Ardea herodias); wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis)); wood betony ((Pedicularis canadensis) with unknown bumblebee (Bombus spp.);  wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis) with unknown bumblebee (Bombus spp.) ; wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis) with unknown bumblebee (Bombus spp.)’ Power Line Pond; Power Line Pond; common green darner dragonflies (Anax junius) at Busse Woods (taken in a previous season), Forest Preserve of Cook County, Schaumburg, IL; water strider (possibly Aquarius remigis); two-track gravel road to Clear Creek; mourning cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa); mourning cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Clear Creek in early May; Fame Flower Knob in early May; sand phlox (Phlox bifida); field pussy toes (Antennaria neglecta); field pussy toes (Antennaria neglecta); birdfoot violets (Viola pedata); Fame Flower Knob in early May, red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus). Thanks to the Kleimans for their help in understanding how beavers are changing Nachusa Grasslands.

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Several of Cindy’s classes have moved online! For updates on classes and events, please go to http://www.cindycrosby.com.

If you enjoyed the “Wild and Wonderful Illinois Wildflowers” webinar, please join me for the new Enchanting Spring Prairie Wildflowers, an online webinar this Friday, May 8 1-2:30 p.m. CST, through The Morton Arboretum. Spring on the prairie is a story of color, pollinator pizazz, and native  plants that shaped North American history through their value as  edibles, medicine, and even love charms! Enjoy colorful  photos of some of Illinois’ most beautiful blooms—and a few native  grasses, too!  Click here to register.  

The next “Tallgrass Prairie Ecology” class online on May 4 through The Morton Arboretum is SOLD OUT.   See more information and registration for our June class  here.

Want more prairie while you are sheltering in place? 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.

Waiting for Prairie Dragonflies

“Wild beauty sustains us…it makes each of us an heir to wonder.” — Terry Tempest Williams

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Crocus bloom in my backyard, bright spots in the brittle little bluestem and prairie dropseed.

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When I see these flower faces turned toward the sun, I know it won’t be long until the dragonflies arrive on the prairie. I check Willoway Brook. Then, the local ponds. A prairie stream.

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Under the water’s surface, the dragonfly and damselfly nymphs are waiting.

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Soon, they’ll emerge…

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…then transform from creatures of the water to their teneral stage. Weak, colorless, they are at the mercy of birds, frogs, and predators with an urge for a “dragonfly crunch” lunch.

TeneralAmericanRubyspotSPMAWilloway6718WM.jpg They slowly transform……

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…to aerial experts with brilliant coloration.

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Those eyes!

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The diversity of Odonates never ceases to startle…

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…delight…

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…and amaze.

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The spreadwing damselflies like this one below (so difficult to ID)….

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…remind us there is mystery in the midst of knowledge. Not everything can be known at a glance. Then, later, the white-faced meadowhawk dragonflies show up, their pearl faces lending confidence to their name and ID.

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Some early emergents seem to scoff at April snows and colder weather. We may even see green darners working the ponds for early insects by the end of March. Weather permitting. Down south, the migratory dragonflies will begin making their way to the Midwest. They’ll arrive soon—at the end of the month or early in April—the green darners, the wandering gliders, the black saddlebags…

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…ready to find a mate.

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Together…

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…they give us hope for a healthy and prolific Odonate future.

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Soon, the prairie will come alive with the whiz and zip of dragonflies and damselflies. Meanwhile, we watch. Anticipating.

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Will you be there to see them return and emerge? Walk the prairie paths. Be alert.

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Eyes to the skies.

I can’t wait.

******

Terry Tempest Williams (1955-) is writer-in-residence at Harvard Divinity School. Her latest book Erosion: Essays of Undoing explores her work as a writer, activist, and educator.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken in previous dragonfly seasons (Top to Bottom): crocus (Crocus sativus), author’s backyard prairie plantings, Glen Ellyn, IL; stream through Springbrook Prairie, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Naperville, IL;  Hine’s emerald dragonfly nymph (Somatochlora hineana), Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; teneral American Rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American Rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana), Nachusa Grasslands, Nature Conservancy of Illinois, Franklin Grove, IL; American Rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Carolina saddlebags (Tramea carolina), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; familiar bluet damselfly (Enallagma civile), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Franklin Grove, IL; eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blue dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown spreadwing (Lestes spp.), Ware Field prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  white-faced meadowhawk (Sympetrum obtrusum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Carolina saddlebags dragonflies (Tramea carolina); Ware Field prairie planting, the Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ebony jewelwing damselflies  (Calopteryx maculata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Halloween pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina); Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; exploring the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; exploring the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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Cindy’s new book, Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History is available for preorder now from your favorite indie bookstore, The Morton Arboretum Store, or online  (with original art from Peggy Macnamara, Field Museum artist in residence).  Publication is June 2020 from Northwestern University Press.

Join Cindy for a Class or Talk in March

The Tallgrass Prairie: A ConversationMarch 12  Thursday, 10am-12noon, Leafing Through the Pages Book Club, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Open to the public; however, all regular Arboretum admission fees apply.  Books available at The Arboretum Store.

Dragonfly Workshop, March 14  Saturday, 9-11:30 a.m.  Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. Free and open to new and experienced dragonfly monitors, prairie stewards, and the public, but you must register as space is limited. Contact phrelanzer@gmail.com for more information.  Details will be sent with registration. UPDATE: THIS WORKSHOP IS POSTPONED. Watch for new date soon!

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26 through the Morton Arboretum.  Details and registration here.

See more at http://www.cindycrosby.com 

The Prairie Whispers “Spring”

“…this spring morning with its cloud of light, that wakes the blackbird in the trees downhill…”—W.S. Merwin

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On March 1, Jeff and I celebrated the first day of meteorological spring by hiking the 1,829-acre Springbrook Prairie in Naperville, IL.  March came in like a lamb.

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From its unlikely spot smack in the middle of subdivisions and busy shopping centers, Springbrook Prairie serves as an oasis for wildlife and native plants. As part of the Illinois Nature Preserves and DuPage Forest Preserve system…

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… it is (according to the forest preserve’s website) “a regionally significant grassland for breeding and overwintering birds and home to meadowlarks, dickcissels, grasshopper sparrows, woodcocks and bobolinks as well as state-endangered northern harriers, short-eared owls, and Henslow’s sparrows.” Some of these birds stick around during the winter; others will swing into the area in a month or two with the northward migration.

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That’s quite a list of birds.  Shielding our eyes against the sun, we see something unexpected.

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A bald eagle! From its “grave troubles” in the 1970s (as the Illinois Natural History Survey tells us), it is estimated that 30-40 breeding pairs of bald eagles now nest in Illinois each year. We watch it soar, buffeted by the winds, until it is out of sight. As we marvel over this epiphany, we hear the sound of a different bird. Oka-lee! Oka-lee!

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We first heard them a week ago as we hiked the Belmont Prairie. Their song is a harbinger of spring.  Soon, they’ll be lost in a chorus of spring birdsong, but for now, they take center stage.

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A few Canada geese appear overhead. Two mallards complete our informal bird count. Not bad for the first day of March.

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The scent of mud and thaw tickles my nose;  underwritten with a vague hint of chlorophyll.

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Strong breezes bend the grasses.

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The temperature climbs as we hike—soon, it’s almost 60 degrees. Sixty degrees! I unwind my scarf, unzip my coat.

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Joggers plod methodically along the trail, eyes forward, earbuds in place. They leave deep prints on the thawing crushed limestone trail. Bicyclists whiz through, the only evidence minutes later are the lines grooved into the path.

Our pace, by comparison, is slow. We’re here to look.

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Bright light floods the grasslands. Mornings now, I wake to this sunlight which pours through the blinds and jump-starts my day. In less than a week—March 8—we’ll change to daylight savings time and seem to “lose” some of these sunlight gains. Getting started in the morning will be a more difficult chore. But for now, I lean into the light.

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What a difference sunshine and warmth make!

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Families are out in groups, laughing and joking. Everyone seems energized by the blue skies.prairieskiesspringbrookprairie3120WM.jpg

Grasslands are on the brink of disappearance. To save them, we have to set them aflame. Ironic, isn’t it?  To “destroy” what we want to preserve? But fire is life to prairies. Soon these grasses and ghosts of wildflowers past will turn to ashes in the prescribed burns.

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Mowed boundaries—firebreaks—for the prescribed burns are in place…

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…a foreshadowing of what is to come. We’ve turned a corner. Soon. Very soon.

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The prairie world has been half-dreaming…

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…almost sleeping.

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It’s time to wake up.

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All the signs are in place. The slant of light. Warmth. Birdsong. The scent of green.

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Spring.

*****

The opening quote is part of a poem “Variations to the Accompaniment of a Cloud” from Garden Time by W.S. Merwin (1927-2019). My favorite of his poems is “After the Dragonflies” from the same volume. Merwin grew up in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and was the son of a Presbyterian minister; he later became a practicing Buddhist and moved to Hawaii. As a child, he wrote hymns. He was our U.S. Poet Laureate twice, and won almost all the major awards given for poetry. I appreciate Merwin for his deep explorations of the natural world and his call to conservation.

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All photos this week copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Springbrook Prairie, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County/Illinois Nature Preserves, Naperville, IL (top to bottom):  March on Springbrook Prairie; sign; prairie skies (can you see the “snowy egret” in the cloud formation?); bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus); red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus); possibly a red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) nest (corrections welcome); mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccafolium); switchgrass (Panicum virgatum); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); hiker; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); prairie skies; dogbane or Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum); mowed firebreak; curve in the trail; snowmelt; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); grasses and water. “Lean into the light” is a phrase borrowed from Barry Lopez —one of my favorites —from “Arctic Dreams.”

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Join Cindy for a Class or Talk in March

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL. For details and registration, click here. Sold out. Call to be put on the waiting list.

The Tallgrass Prairie: A ConversationMarch 12  Thursday, 10am-12noon, Leafing Through the Pages Book Club, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Open to the public; however, all regular Arboretum admission fees apply.  Books available at The Arboretum Store.

Dragonfly Workshop, March 14  Saturday, 9-11:30 a.m.  Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. Free and open to new and experienced dragonfly monitors, prairie stewards, and the public, but you must register as space is limited. Contact phrelanzer@aol.com for more information,  details will be sent with registration.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26 through the Morton Arboretum.  Details and registration here.

See more at http://www.cindycrosby.com   

A Little Prairie Fog Magic

“Things take the time they take. Don’t worry.” — Mary Oliver

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Seems Mother Nature is trying to cram all four seasons into one week as January gets off to a tumultuous start in the Chicago region. From the “Winter Storm Icepocalypse” that fizzled, to temps veering from a balmy 50 degrees to a bitter 17 (and what about those wind gusts at 40 mph?) we’ve already experienced weather worthy of all four seasons. Sun. Snow. Ice. Sleet. Wind. Rain. Fog.

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With a winter storm in the forecast, I headed to the Schulenberg Prairie Friday to put in some long-overdue pasque flower seeds.  Pasque flowers are one of the first wildflowers to bloom in the spring after a prescribed burn.

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We usually deal with the seeds immediately as they ripen, pushing them into the soil next to the mother plant. But our flowering plants have dwindled here—in 2018, to just a few blooms. We’ve also been starting them in the greenhouse—and direct sowing them—but I worry about the limited genetic pool we’re drawing from. Slowly the population is increasing. But we have a long way to go.

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This season, generous folks at a local forest preserve were kind enough to share seeds with us to help invigorate our dwindling, genetically-inbred population. But, by the time the seeds arrived, I was out of commission for the season after cancer surgery. The seeds languished in an envelope. Until now.

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Winter seeding is a time-honored method to stratify certain prairie seeds that need a cold, moist period to germinate. Better late than never, I tell myself. This morning, the temperature hovers in the mid-40s. But snow is on the way.

Fog envelopes the prairie and prairie savanna.

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I grab my bucket of sand and envelope of seeds, and head for the area I have in mind for the pasque flowers.

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Fog brings a certain silence with it. On Sterling Pond, across from the prairie savanna, the cold ice of the pond kisses the warm air. The fog shape-shifts across the water. A living thing. A breath of transition.

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A few goldfinches in their buff-colored winter plumage bounce through the scattered trees.

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Along the trail, a pasture thistle throws sparks of light from the fog moisture.

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Learning to distinguish between the native thistles (keepers!) and invasive thistles (begone!) was one of my early tasks as a prairie steward. One clue is the pale reverse sides of the leaves on native thistles. Even in winter, this pasture thistle’s leaves are a give-away. Keeper.

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The trail is mushy, and I’m soon thankful for my knee-high rubber boots. Mud clings to the soles, weighing my steps. It’s a slog, but I’m slowed more by the beauty around me than the mud. The prairie is on fire with water.

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Fog droplets kindle sparks of light on every plant surface, reflecting the upside prairie.

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Arriving at my chosen spot, I push the pasque flower seeds into the moist ground and sprinkle a little sand over the top to anchor them so they don’t blow away before the snow falls. When gale force winds arrive that evening, I’ll think back on this and be glad I did.

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The coming snow will provide cover. Freeze and thaw. Freeze and thaw. The seeds will settle into the prairie soil and wait, ready to germinate—I hope—this spring.

It’s tough to focus on the task at hand when all around me, droplets hang from the tips of grasses like crystals. Canada wild rye is beaded with diamonds.

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Big bluestem, our Illinois state grass, is clear-pearled and luminous.

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Switchgrass hangs wands of lights in the gloom.

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It’s unearthly. Magical. I’m mesmerized by contrasts. Worn, wet prairie seedheads. Sprinkled with light.

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I return to the seeds. Pasque flowers have a reputation for going into deep dormancy if not planted immediately after harvesting. So my hope for seeing any quick results in the spring are tempered with the knowledge that these were held in storage longer than I would have liked. It might be years. And yet. Sometimes, life doesn’t work out the way you planned it. You have to adapt to what you’re given.

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2019 was a year of the unexpected for many of us. Me included. As a prairie steward, I had to adjust my expectations of what I would accomplish. Looking back at the year,  it’s tough not to think about the projects that remain unfinished.

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These pasque flower seeds were one fall-out of those adjusted expectations of my prairie work. After surgery in August, it was two months before I could hike as far as the pasque flowers’ seeding spot.

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I’m grateful that today, five months later, I can effortlessly hike across the prairie. As the late poet Jane Kenyon wrote, “It could have been otherwise.

Brian Doyle wrote about his  cancer diagnosis in One Long River of Song: Notes on Wonder. Don’t call it “a battle with cancer,” he said. It’s not a battle. Rather—as a tiny, frail nun once told him—cancer becomes your dance partner. You don’t want this partner;  you don’t like this partner, but you have to dance, he writes.

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The shadow of that dance partner will always be with  you. I think of this as I gently pull the pasque flower seeds from their envelope. How quickly our lives may change. How unwelcome  “the dance.” But as I sow the seeds of the pasque flower, and sand them into their places, I feel optimistic about the future.

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The common name “pasque” means Easter, as this is the time the plant usually flowers. Its scientific name  is Pulsatilla patensPulsatilla means “beaten about” in modern Latin, or “beaten by the wind.”

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We burn the tallgrass prairie here each spring. Amid the ashes and bare, blackened earth, the pasque flower dances with the prescribed fire. None-the-less, it blooms. Trembles in the wind. It’s almost been defeated here, on this site, over the years.

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But not yet. I’m not going to let it go. The dance continues. I’ll keep planting pasque flower seeds for the future. I’ll continue to hope.

*****

The opening quote is from Felicity by Mary Oliver (1935-2019),  winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. If you haven’t read her writing, a good place to start is New & Selected Poems Volume 1.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): trail to the Schulenberg Prairie in the fog, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Franklin Grove, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens) seeds, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; fog on the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bridge over Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Sterling Pond in the fog, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; goldfinch (Spinus tristis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) leaves, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; droplets on Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens) seeds, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; prairie interpretive trail under the snow, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; coyote (Canis latrans) tracks in the snow, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL;  ice art, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sanding in the seeds, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens) blooms fading, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens) opening (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The line from the Jane Kenyon poem is from Otherwise. Thanks to Susan Kleiman and Russell Brunner for their help with the pasque flower seeds! Grateful.

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

Sterling Stories, Lisle Heritage Society, Sunday, January 19, 2 p.m. With co-presenter Rita Hassert, Library Collections Manager, The Morton Arboretum. Location is the  Lisle Library, 777 Front Street, Lisle, IL. Open to the public.

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. 

A Year of Reading Prairie

“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.” –Jane Austen

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December is here, and my bookshelves are overflowing. Some books are stacked on the floor; other shelves have two rows of books instead of one. And yet…. my Christmas list includes more books. Where will I ever put them all?

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I’ve tried to pare down some of my inventory. But when I get to my prairie books, the winnowing stops. I thumb through old favorites. Sigh over a few that I’ve skimmed and want to spend more time with. I run my fingers over their book jackets and add them to the piles of books already on (and under) the nightstand.

By reading these field guides and coffee table books and essays on the tallgrass,  I’m building my relationship with the prairie. That feels good, especially on a day this week when 60 mph winds roared across the tallgrass and kept me indoors.

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When I was an independent bookseller, I believed for every question, there was a book that might help me wrestle with the question—even if the answers were still fuzzy.  As a prairie steward and naturalist, I love the wide range of literature that helps me explore the natural world. You too?

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As 2019 draws to a close, it’s time to take an annual romp through my prairie bookshelves together. The books below are not a comprehensive reading list by any means. Some of the prairie books I own are out on loan and don’t appear here; some of them are temporarily out of sight (likely in that pile by the coffee table) or being used as coasters (!!!). I didn’t have room to include books on gardening with native plants, like the passionate A New Garden Ethic by Benjamin Vogt or Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home…. or even the biographies of prairie heroes, such as Arthur Melville Pearson’s excellent book on George Fell, Force of Nature. These books that follow also have more to do with prairie plants than other members of the prairie community (so no field guides given here on butterflies, mammals, dragonflies–another bookshelf full of great reads to discuss on a different day).

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All are ones that as a prairie enthusiast, prairie lover, and prairie steward I spend a lot of time browsing, recommending, or giving as gifts. They focus specifically on prairie history, prairie restoration, and prairie plants. Ready? Let’s go!

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Is that a prairie plant—or a weed? I get this question a lot. And the answer isn’t always as simple as you’d think. When I first hiked the tallgrass prairie in 1998, I didn’t know foxtail grass from Canada wild rye. I’m still learning my plants. As I wrangle with questions about tallgrass prairie plant ID’s, I look to great field guides like the Tallgrass Prairie Wildflowers Falcon Guide (Doug Ladd and Frank Oberle) (available new and used in several editions). My copy, which replaced a falling apart earlier edition, is dogeared fromuse in the field. Ditto for my well-thumbed Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide by Lawrence Newcomb. An updated edition is available now, although I’d find it difficult to trade my old annotated one in. I appreciate Newcomb’s for general wildflower ID, in the prairie, woodlands, and wetlands.

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I’m a big fan of Andrew Hipp’s Field Guide to Wisconsin Sedges. His easy-to-use guide, with the smart drawings by the talented Rachel Davis, give me hope that maybe this season I’ll learn a few more members of my prairie, wetland, and savanna community. Sedges are hard.

The book behind Andrew’s is Wildflowers of the Tallgrass Prairie: The Upper Midwest by Sylvan Runkle and Dean Roosa. My first edition is long out of print, but the awesome  folks at University of Iowa Press published a second edition with better photographs; check it out here.  Short ethnobotanical stories for each prairie plant make this book a winner, with a bit of explanation on plant scientific names.

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If you’re really serious about learning your grasses and wildflowers—and you live in the Chicago Region—you’ve probably already purchased Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rericha’s Flora of the Chicago Region.

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With 3,200 plant species in the 22-counties it covers described along with each plant’s neighboring plant associations, insect associations, and “C” value (plus some awesome illustrations), this unique book belongs on every prairie steward’s bookshelf.  At $125, the holidays are a good time to put it on your wish list. My copy weighs 10 lbs, so I get a good workout just carrying it around.  After a morning taking notes in the field, I sit down at the kitchen table and browse through its pages.  The essays and other auxiliary matter are absorbing reads for anyone who loves prairie.

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Sure, you can use the excellent, free iNaturalist app on your cell phone for basic prairie plant ID. I use it too! But  there is no substitute for a good field guide.

In preparation for the spring season, I’m working on prairie seedling ID. Like sedges, those new shoots and leaves are a challenge to figure out.  Sure, some seedlings are distinctive from the start, like prairie alum root or wood betony. But the grasses? Tough.

Two books have been particularly useful to me this year: The Tallgrass Prairie Center Guide to Seed and Seedling Identification in the Upper Midwest by Dave Williams (another great Bur Oak book) and the Prairie Seedling and Seeding Evaluation Guide (Paul Bockenstedt, et al.) I picked up the spiral edition of Prairie Seedling on a visit to University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Arboretum Bookstore on a whim, and was glad I did.

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The Tallgrass Prairie Center’s guide has color photographs that highlight the critical points of identification, as well as seed sizes and characteristics. Take a look.

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The Prairie Seedling guide’s spiral format makes it easy to use in the field, and its nod to look-alike plants are a useful tool. Although not comprehensive, it has a solid 54 prairie plants and 26 weed species.

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If you love the tallgrass prairie—but are more interested in its stories than figuring out the plant names—-the best place to begin is with John T. Price’s edited volume, The Tallgrass Prairie Reader. Price presents essays on the prairie chronologically from the 19th to 21st Century. To read the almost 400 pages from start to finish is to begin to understand how people have viewed prairie over time—and how our ideas about prairie have changed. (Full disclosure: I’m delighted to have an essay in this compilation.)

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Another of John Price’s books, Not Just Any Land, explores our relationship to prairies through personal experiences. Paul Gruchow also loved the tallgrass prairie and wrote volumes about it; his Grass Roots: The Universe of Home (Milkweed) includes the iconic essay, “What the Prairie Teaches Us” that I’ve read aloud and shared with numerous nature writing classes, my prairie volunteers, and my tallgrass ecology students.

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Another of Gruchow’s marvelous books, Journal of a Prairie Year is a series of reflections and hikes on the prairie, month by month. I re-read it every year.  Other books that explore our relationship with prairie include William Least Heat-Moon’s PrairyErth, specifically focusing on Chase County, Kansas; Seasons of the Tallgrass Prairie, with Paul Johnsgard’s passion for prairie birds front and center; Buffalo for the Broken Heart which tells of Dan O’Brien’s work with bison and prairie in the Black Hills; and two books of spiritual essays, Jeffrey Lockwood’s Prairie Soul, which includes an exploration of religion and science, and my own By Willoway Brook, which I wrote on prayer as I was beginning to explore the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum.

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Tom Dean and I released a reflective book of full-color photographs and essays this spring that explores the connections between people and prairie: Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit.  Short “conversations” are paired with images of prairie as we explore how the prairie has much to tell us about wonder, loss, home, joy, change, restoration, healing, and more.

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Tom and I are both big Paul Gruchow fans, so you’ll see Gruchow’s influence in the book.  There’s a little poetry in the pages as well.

 

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Images have a lot of power to engage people with the tallgrass prairie. In the books below, the photographs and drawings make a compelling combination. John Madson and Frank Oberle team up for the Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie; Aimee Larrabee and John Altman put their talents to work in the gorgeous coffee table book accompanying their PBS documentary,  Last Stand of the Tallgrass Prairie; the incredibly talented artist Liz Anna Kozik puts a new twist on prairie restoration in her Stories in the Land; and Michigan’s prairies get a shout-out in the lovely Prairies and Savannas in Michigan by Ryan O’Connor, Michael Kost, and Joshua Cohen.

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Prairie aficionado? Plant nerd? Either way, these three books below on prairie ethnobotany — how people have used plants over time—will absorb you for hours on end. Native American Ethnobotany by Daniel Moerman is a compilation of the human uses of 4,000 plants, including many of the prairie, by specific tribes. Fascinating reading! Kelly Kindscher’s dynamic duo Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie and Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie are geared toward the prairie plants of Kansas, but I find plenty of useful information  when I teach prairie ethnobotany in Illinois. Plus, all three books give you a glimpse of a different time, when we were tightly connected to prairie as our grocery store, pharmacy, hardware store, craft supply, and love charm shop.

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What if you’re just beginning your journey to know and understand the prairie? These three books are a good place to start.  The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction assumes no prior knowledge of the prairie and invites the reader to explore, engage with, and build a relationship to this amazing landscape of home. I wrote it for my new prairie volunteers, prairie visitors, and friends and family members that were intrigued by the prairie, but didn’t want a long or complex read. Like longer books? Richard Manning’s engrossing Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics and Promise of the American Prairie is a satisfyingly deep dive into the subject, as is the poetic and beautifully written Where the Sky Began by the late John Madson.

For the prairie steward, restoration landowner, or prairie volunteer in your life who is serious about restoration and management techniques, check out these three books: The Tallgrass Prairie Center Guide to Prairie Restoration in the Upper Midwest (Daryl Smith, Dave Williams, Greg Houseal, and Kirk Henderson) is one of my go-to guides when I’m trying to figure out what to plant, herbicide, burn, or collect next. The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States is a terrific guide from the generous and inimitable blogger (The Prairie Ecologist) and Nature Conservancy’s Director of Science in Nebraska, Chris Helzer.  I learn a lot from Chris! Stephen Packard’s and Cornelia Mutel’s edited volume of essays, The Tallgrass Restoration Handbook is a classic, and one of the first books I purchased on prairie almost 20 years ago (there’s a newer edition available now) .

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There are beautiful prairie books for young readers.

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I confess I enjoy reading them myself. I love Carol Lerner’s out-of-print Seasons of the Tallgrass Prairie, which has solid information for elementary aged kids and up. Look at the page on deep roots, as one example.

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Claudia McGehee’s A Tallgrass Prairie Alphabet, (a beautiful Bur Oak book shown next to Carol’s book on the left),  is not just for kids. Check out this entry for the letter “X.” Wow.

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Any children’s book that has a sphinx moth and eastern prairie fringed orchid on the same page has my heart. ♥

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These are just a few of the books I turn to in order to deepen my relationship with native plants and the tallgrass prairie. These books have been mentors, friends, and companions in the field. They are a way to connect with prairie when the cold winds and weather keep me inside with a hot beverage and a warm afghan. They remind me that others are musing over the same questions I have about prairie ID and prairie stewardship; they help me feel companionship as I hike the prairies and reflect on how others have experienced them over time.

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This list is not exhaustive by any stretch of the imagination. Rather, it is presented here for your enjoyment and discovery. Maybe some will end up on your bookshelves!

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What prairie books do you reach for? Drop me a note here so we can share book recommendations.

Wahoo!   Books are so much fun…

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…especially on a cold December day. Don’t you think?

Happy reading!

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The opening quote is from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Although her most famous line is likely “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” I prefer her quote about books. Read more about Jane Austen here.

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All non-book photos copyright Cindy Crosby and listed here (some photos appeared previously): unknown seedhead, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  road to Thelma Carpenter Prairie, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; Carolina saddlebags in May (Tramea carolina), Ware Field, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Wolf Road Prairie, Westchester, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Will County, IL; wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus), Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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Please join me for these upcoming classes and talks!

Sunday, December 8, 2-3:30 p.m.: Tallgrass Conversations at Prairieview Education Center, 2112 Behan Road, Crystal Lake, IL 815-479-5779 Book signing after the talk! $5 per person, registration recommended, details here.

Saturday, February 22 —Writing and Art Nature Retreat — at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Details and registration information here.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online wraps up this month! Watch for the next online course in March. Register here.

Nature Writing Workshop: on-line and in-person begins March 3, 2020. Register here.

Find more at www.cindycrosby.com  

November Prairie Perspectives

“A woods man looks at 20 miles of prairie and sees nothing but grass, but a prairie man looks at a square foot and sees a universe… .” –Bill Holm

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November is here. Right on the heels of the end of October’s temper tantrums. Out like a lion. We woke up Halloween morning to discover snow had sledgehammered the garden, frosted the pond, and drained the last emeralds from the prairie patch. The world seemed to have gone from color to monochrome.

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It was a new perspective. Tracks everywhere. So much activity in our little backyard prairie patch and pond! Birds quickly swarmed the feeders and I doled out seed like candy to trick or treaters.

Trees along the streets, stubbornly clutching their leaves, sighed and released their grip. Birds nests suddenly went from invisible to visible on my neighborhood walks and my prairie hikes.

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The snow threw its wet blanket over the Chicago region, then melted under a temperature swing in the 50s over the weekend. On the Schulenberg Prairie and prairie savanna, Willoway Brook overflowed.

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Pools of water stood on the trails. I was grateful for my rubber boots. Other than a flutter of sparrows low in the grasses and a hammering of woodpeckers in the prairie savanna, the tallgrass was quiet.

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Sunday, Jeff and I drove to Nachusa Grasslands, 90 minutes away, for their annual Dragonfly Monitor’s end of the season celebration. As we traveled west, the wind brushed the clouds eastward and the sun appeared. We took a few moments to stop on the bridge over Franklin Creek, a diverse and lovely area just a hop, skip, and a jump from Nachusa.

On the west side of the bridge, the skies had mostly cleared.

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Turn around. On the east side, the clouds shattered into a thousand pieces. One creek, one bridge, one moment, two different perspectives.

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After the party, we hiked Fame Flower Knob, one of Nachusa’s prettiest hiking areas and also one of my dragonfly routes.

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Of course, the dragonflies are long gone. But the prairie plants had made the turn to November after the cold snap, with their own new profiles, colors, and textures.

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Blazing star is as pretty in seed as it was in flower.

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Cup plant’s square stem is now in sharp relief. Its leaves have ruffled into dry decay.

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Pale purple coneflower seedheads stand empty, mostly stripped of their future progeny by goldfinches and other seed-loving birds.

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Bright fruits of Carolina horsenettle sprawl in the grasses. Toxic, but beautiful.

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And look—common yarrow, still in bloom at the top of Fame Flower Knob!

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Yes still blooming—despite the recent snow and frigid temperatures. Tough little wildflower. Clear Creek is just barely visible from our perch,  running full and fast. I love this perspective of Nachusa Grasslands. So often, I’m focused on the individual, whether it is a dragonfly, or a prairie plant, or even a bison. This high perspective gives me context for those individuals. It also reminds me of the farming community in which the prairie restoration is enveloped.NGfromfameflower11319WM.jpg

The ledge where we sit is covered with twin colonizers, lichens and moss. Bright color. Life on the rocks.

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As we leave the knob, we see the bison grazing in the distance, close to their corral after the recent round up. It’s difficult to remember that bison were brought here about a half dozen years ago. They seem integral to this place now. In their short time here, they’ve changed the way we move through this landscape (always aware of where the herds are); how we see the prairies here, and—of course—they’ve changed the prairies themselves through their movements across the grasses.

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It’s time to go. It’s always difficult to say goodbye to a place you appreciate; just as it is to transition from one season to another.

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New adventures lie ahead. There’s plenty to anticipate. New members of the prairie community wait to see in all their variations, all through the colder weather.

Bring it on, November!

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We’re ready.

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Bill Holm (1943-2009) was the author of more than a dozen books of poems and essays, including Prairie Days, from which the opening quote was taken. A native of Menneota, MN, and a descendant of Icelandic immigrants, he died at 65.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): backyard prairie patch and pond on a snowy morning, Glen Ellyn, IL; bird’s nest, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL; bench on the Schulenberg Prairie in early November, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Franklin Creek State Natural Area, Franklin Grove, IL;  Franklin Creek State Natural Area, Franklin Grove, IL; Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands (The Nature Conservancy), Franklin Grove, IL; Clear Creek Unit, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; blazing star (Liastris spp.),  Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; possibly Carolina horsenettle (Solanum carolinense), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; common yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; view from Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; mosses and lichens, Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; Jeff hikes Nachusa Grasslands in November, Franklin Grove, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; St. Stephen’s Prairie in early November, Carol Stream, IL.

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Share Prairie Through Books!

Shopping for the holidays? Please think about books as gifts! Share prairie with the people in your life through words and images by ordering these through your favorite bookseller:

Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit (with co-author Thomas Dean, full color photography throughout). Discover the prairie in a new way through “conversations” about its relevance to themes such as home, loss, restoration, and joy. Read more here.

The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.  Perfect for the prairie lover in your family, your favorite prairie steward or volunteer, or your family members that wonder why in the world you care about the tallgrass! Read more here.

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Join me for these upcoming events:

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online wraps up this month! Watch for the next course in March. Registration opens on November 19 here.

Nature Writing continues at The Morton Arboretum, on-line and in-person through November 20. Next session begins March 3, 2020. Watch for registration soon!

Saturday, December 7, 1:30-3 p.m.—Sterling Stories from the Arboretum Stacks: Grab a friend and spend a lively hour together sipping hot beverages while you enjoy little-known stories about the Morton Arboretum. What’s that old fountain doing in the library? Why was there a white pine planted in the May Watts Reading Garden? Who is REALLY buried in the Morton Cemetery—or not? What book in the Sterling Morton Library stacks has a direct relationship to a beheading? Why does the library have glass shelves? How has salt been a blessing —and a curse—to the Arboretum over its almost 100 years? Listen as 33-year Arboretum veteran library collections manager Rita Hassert and  Cindy Crosby spin entertaining tales of a place you thought you knew….until now.   Register here. A lovely afternoon enjoying little known Arboretum’s stories, and a quiet respite from the holiday hustle and bustle.

Sunday, December 8, 2-3:30 p.m.: Tallgrass Conversations at Prairieview Education Center, 2112 Behan Road, Crystal Lake, IL 815-479-5779 Book signing after the talk! Free and open to the public.

See more at www.cindycrosby.com

6 Reasons to Hike the September Prairie

“The days dwindle down; to a precious few; September… .” — sung by Willie Nelson

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Change. Possibilities. Fresh starts.

These are a few of the reasons I welcome the opening week of September on the prairie.  Warm days, cool nights. The mental swap of summer to autumn.

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There are subtle shifts of color as the brights of summer become autumn’s metallic hues.  I sit on the back porch overlooking my prairie planting, listening to the insects sing static. Buzz. Chatter. Hum. The buttered popcorn-cilantro smell of prairie dropseed planted around the yard tickles my nose.

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The first ripe gray-headed coneflower seeds in my prairie patch are ready for collecting. I crumble the seedheads between my fingers. Inhale. Mmmm.  They smell lemony.

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September is a treat for the senses.

Need more motivation to get outside? Here are six compelling reasons to hike the September prairie, whether for a short stroll through your backyard tallgrass patch or a longer walk at your local forest preserve’s tallgrass restoration.

1.  Wind

The grasses  hit their stride in September, and this year’s prairie is particularly lush from early spring rains. Grasses tower over our heads.  Tall wildflowers (called forbs) and some of the rangier grasses flop over in spots; too lanky to stand alone. When the wind ripples through the grasses against a backdrop of cumulus clouds, floating in a cerulean blue sky, you feel the immensity of time and space. A feeling that is often in short supply in the Chicago suburbs.

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In her book, My Antonia, Willa Cather wrote this about the prairie: “As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the color of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.” 

When I can’t fall asleep at night, I close my eyes and imagine the wind moving through the grasses, with the bright blue sky overhead.

2. Gold rush

From the goldfinches to the goldenrod; the tall coreopsis and the last sunflowers…

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… yellow is the primary color of  the early September prairie. American goldfinches bounce like yo-yo’s across the grasses, giving their trademark flight call, “Po-ta-to-chip!” “Po-tat-to-chip!”  Black walnut trees shake their gold leaves loose; pocket change sprinkled across the prairie trails.

In my backyard prairie patch, I watch the paper wasps work the goldenrod blooms for nectar.

 

Wasps are important pollinators. Sure, you don’t want them at your cook-out, but seeing them methodically rummage through the flowers reminds me they have an important role to play on the prairie and in my backyard.

3. Migration Marvels

The migrating monarch butterflies appreciate goldenrod, especially Solidago rigida—the stiff goldenrod—to nectar up for the long journey to Mexico.

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Dragonflies swarm through the tallgrass, zipping just above the big bluestem. This past week, my dragonfly monitors at two different tallgrass prairie sites noted hundreds of green darners— with a few black saddlebags and wandering gliders thrown in —massing and on the move. The Chicago lakefront is another traditional hot spot to see large groups of Odonates headed south.

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This is also the time of year I see the red saddlebags dragonfly in my backyard. Each evening I check the edges of the pond, the garden, and my backyard prairie patch. Will the red saddlebags show up this season? Not yet.

Much of dragonfly migration is still shrouded in mystery, although new discoveries are happening all the time. Read more about how you can help scientists learn more about dragonfly migration here.

4. Grass, Grass, Grass

Each spring, I think the miracle of a burned prairie becoming green shoots and blooms makes it the best possible time of year. In the summer, I reconsider—all that color and motion! In the early days of September, I’m convinced autumn is the best time of year on the prairie.

I turn the names of the grasses over and over in my my mind. A litany of grass. Cordgrass. Switchgrass.

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Indian grass. Side-oats grama.  Little bluestem.

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Grasses dominate. Especially our iconic big bluestem— Illinois’ state grass.

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In her essay, Big Grass,” Louis Erdrich writes: “Grass sings, grass whispers.” Why not go listen?

5. Butterfly Extravaganza

September marks the passing of the season of butterflies. Sure, there are some stragglers in October, but right now is their big finale.

So many butterflies! The buckeyes.

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Painted ladies and monarchs. Silver-spotted skippers.

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A tiny eastern-tailed blue or two; this one resting on chicory.

Eastern-tailed blue 2014 SPWM

Before we know it, they’ll be gone for the season. Take time to stop and watch the butterflies as they nectar on flowers, float above the switchgrass, or swirl in a mating dance as old as time.

6. Filling Station

If you’re wrestling with a problem, or need space to get away from people for a while, the tallgrass prairie is a good destination. I always find transitions in my life and the changes from season to season are an opportunity to stop. Reflect. Revisit some of my preconceptions about my priorities. It’s a chance to slow down. Think. A walk through the tallgrass—or even a stroll around my backyard prairie patch—gives me space to sort through whatever I’m wrestling with. Hiking the prairie fills up my inner well, which fuels creative tasks and the life of the spirit. That well becomes empty without time outdoors.

SchulenbergPrairieMASeptemberWM.jpg

You, too?

Happy hiking.

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This week’s post opens with Willie Nelson (1933-) singing Kurt Weill’s (composition) and Maxwell Anderson’s (lyrics)  September Song. I’m not particularly a country western aficionado, but a few of  Nelson’s songs always end up on my playlist. Another is Nelson’s cover of Georgia on my Mind from the album, Stardust; my favorite of his collections. Blue Skies is another favorite. There’s a tinge of melancholy in these songs which seem perfect for ushering in autumn.

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All photographs copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) and great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL:  September at Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; possibly narrow-leaved sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius), along Willoway Brook on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Glenbard South High School prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; possibly a dark paper wasp (Polistes fuscates ) on Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; eastern tailed-blue (Cupido comyntas), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, IL; September at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Note that some of these images in today’s blog are from previous September hikes.

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Cindy’s classes and speaking events will resume October 5. See more at www.cindycrosby.com.

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