Tag Archives: native plants

Five Reasons to Hike the August Prairie

“No story lives unless someone wants to listen.”– J.K. Rowling

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Each year, I see the prairie as having a certain personality. Sparkling! Energetic. Another year it might be tranquil. Welcoming. I know this is an overlay of my personal feelings about the year, unrelated to the prairie itself. The prairie is utterly indifferent to my mood. Indeed, the prairie has many moods of its own, which change from minute to minute.

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2020 on the prairie has been colored by COVID: from the lack of prescribed burns (all that old standing plant matter!), to the increased traffic on the trails, to the nervousness I feel when I see lots of hikers on a narrow path. When I begin a hike, mask at the ready, it’s a far different experience than it was in August of 2019.

It would be easier than I’d like to admit to let that tension keep me at home, or spoil the joy I usually feel in hiking the tallgrass.

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I go out anyway. I mask up when I need to; then find times (early and late) and spots on the prairie where I can be alone. And each time I go on a prairie hike, I don’t regret it.

There’s always a new discovery.  Shifts of weather. A different slant…

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…on what is pretty familiar after hiking this prairie for 22 years. There are always new ways of seeing things.

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Sometimes, when you’ve walked the same trails for years, you have a preconceived idea of what you’ll find. The danger is this: when you think you already know what you’ll see, you may overlook something special.

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I try to remember to keep my eyes open. My mind open. And my heart open to what I might experience each time I walk in the tallgrass.

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You, too?

With that in mind, let’s explore the tallgrass together and discover five reasons to hike the prairie in August.

#1. Plants Have Stories. This Friday I’m teaching the second half of a class called Prairie Ethnobotany; the big “e” word simply means the study of how people interact with plants throughout history. Each prairie plant has a story to tell. Each “story” has as many “pages” to it as we are willing to read. Prairie plants have so many fascinating ethnobotanical tales to tell.

Think of big bluestem. Did you know that big bluestem is Illinois’ state grass? Or that its nickname is “turkey foot?” bigbluestemhorizontalfogSPMA11020WM.jpg

It was once considered a good substitute for knitting needles—not difficult to imagine, when you look at its jointed stems.

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Big bluestem was known as the ice cream of the prairie for livestock—it was that delicious to cows and horses! Ironically, early settlers knew that where big bluestem grew, the land was suitable for farming.

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I love to hear the stories that my students tell me about their ethnobotanic relationships with plants. Check out Larry and Arlene Dunn’s terrific story here in their blog post from “Acornometrics” about rattlesnake master, one of the stars of the August prairie.

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Maybe, as you walk the prairie in August, you’ll want to write a haiku about a plant, as Larry did in this blog, and for one of our assignments. Share your haiku with me in the comments, if you do write one.

#2. Insects have stories, too! As I walk the prairie, I discover stories about the insects that inhabit it. Some insect stories are cheerful; the business of butterflies and beetles and bees, nectaring and pollinating.

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Other insect stories may be a bit frightening. This black horsefly feeds on blood—any blood—wherever she may find it. Her mouth parts cut open flesh, leaving a painful sore behind. Ouch! I move past quickly. Nothing to see here, Miz Blackfly.

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Beauty and grace, as well as a strong instinct for survival, are what I read in the dragonfly stories. Like this widow skimmer. Fierce. And exquisite. What a powerful combination!

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However, not all insect stories have a happily-ever-after ending.

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But each story tells us something important about the life of the August prairie community.

#3. Take a Hitchhiker Home. No, we’re not talking ticks here. Well, maybe we are. Sort of. Tick trefoil is another star of the August prairie. Many plants have strategies to help them disperse to new locations to diversify their gene pool. One of these strategies is to attach themselves to our shirts or socks and hitch a ride. Tick trefoil is one of my favorite hitchhikers. Those lovely lavender blooms!

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Those intriguing seed pods. Brush against them, and you’ll arrive home, covered with enough tick trefoil seeds to plant a monoculture in your yard. I’ve spent hours pulling the seeds off of my clothes, only to find the seed pods I miss show up in the lint trap of my dryer.

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Pick a tick trefoil leaf and you can also paste it, corsage-like, to your lapel. And look at those flowers. The unmistakable blooms of a legume. They remind me of my sugar snap pea flowers and green bean flowers in the garden, only in stunning violet.

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When I see Illinois tick trefoil in flower and in seed, I know the prairie has begun its slide toward autumn. It’s a bittersweet feeling. The summer of 2020 has been oh-so-short. Or so it seems. What other plants hitch a ride home with you in August?  (Hint: Check your dryer’s lint trap for clues after a hike.)

 #4. Enjoy the Play of Light and Shade. As you hike, see what your eyes are drawn to. Contemplate how plants stand out as individuals, or blend in as an aggregate of masses of color and hue to create a mood. Watch how the light shifts, and blends and changes the prairie palette. Some areas look impressionistic, then a shaft of light throws a particular plant into sharp relief.

In this early August prairie mix….

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…blue vervain takes the spotlight.BlueVervainSPMA8220WM.jpg

In supporting roles are the wispy Canada wild rye…

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…and bee balm and bottlebrush grass.

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Not far off, black-eyed susans and the festive gray-headed coneflowers (below) mix into the prairie edges, adding their yellows as foil to the blues and purples.

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As an art major for a few years in college, I remember learning that yellow and purple are complementary colors on the color wheel. Later, when I took a quilting class, I realized how striking purple and yellow are in combination. The prairie doesn’t need a lesson in color theory to know. It pours out colors and shades of color in an ever-moving kaleidoscope, changing its appearance throughout the day as the sun moves across the sky.  All we have to do to see it is show up.

#5. The Prairie Skies in August have stories to tell. How different the plants look up close…

Ironweed8220SPMAWM.jpg …from when you change  your perspective, and see them against the backdrop of cumulus clouds and blue skies.

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Some plants, like this pale indian plantain, stand out.

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Even the creatures of the prairie community, like this dickcissel, appear in a new light.

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An approaching storm throws the prairie and prairie savanna into a different mood. The bloom colors subtly shift; even the smell of the rain on the way tickles your nose and sharpens your senses. The sounds of the prairie change, from the rumbles of thunder in the distance to the ominous rustling of switchgrass and big bluestem.

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Later in the season, deep fog on the prairie mists it in magic. Serene. Soothing.

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Whether it is hiking the prairie by day…

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…or strolling it in the evening and marveling at another glorious prairie sunset, you’ll know…

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…this hour you set aside to hike the August prairie was time well spent.

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The quote which opens this post is from J.K. Rowling (1965-), author of the Harry Potter series. The series has sold more than 500 million copies, and is considered the best-selling series in history.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby from the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (file photo); compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) with sunflower head clipping beetles (Haplorhynchites aeneus); slanted trail; male eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemus tenera), Arbor Lake, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; praying mantis (Mantid, unknown species–one of the natives? or not? Unsure!), Cindy’s backyard prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL; butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) with big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii);  big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) (file photo); big bluestem (Andropogen gerardii) (file photo); big bluestem (Andropogen gerardii), College of DuPage Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL (file photo); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) (file photo); showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) with unknown beetles; black horse fly (Tabanus atratus); widow skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa) (file photo); widow skimmer dragonfly wings (Libellula luctuosa); Illinois tick trefoil (Desmodium Illinoense); Illinois tick trefoil (Desmodium Illinoense); Illinois tick trefoil Desmodium Illinoense);  light and shade through the Schulenberg Prairie Savanna; blue vervain (Verbena hastata); Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix) and bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata); smooth tall ironweed (Vernonia gigantea);smooth tall ironweed (Vernonia gigantea); pale indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium);  dickcissel (Spiza americana) on great angelica (Angelica atropurpurea), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (file photo); fog on the prairie (file photo, unsure of month); sun and clouds on the prairie; sunset over Cindy’s prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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Join Cindy for an Online Class this Fall!

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” Begin a new session in September through The Morton Arboretum! 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.

“Nature Writing Online” Begins Monday, October 5, through The Morton Arboretum. Want to commit to improving and fine-tuning your writing for six weeks? This is a great opportunity to jump start your blog, your book, or your journal writing while working from home, supplemented with three evenings of live evening Zoom classes on alternate weeks. Watch for registration information coming soon.

Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Read a review from Kim Smith here. (And check out her blog, “Nature is My Therapy” — you’ll love it!

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Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org and other book venues. Order direct through Northwestern University Press and receive 40% off this new book and/or “The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction”— use coupon code SUN40 through August 6. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during this chaotic time.

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

Bringing Prairie Home

“But now, for the first time in its history, gardening has taken on a role that transcends the needs of the gardener.” — Doug Tallamy

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I’ve always been glad I planted prairie in my backyard. But perhaps never so much as this summer, when I, like other Illinois residents, am spending a lot more time at home.

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My suburban backyard 20 miles west of Chicago is less than a quarter of an acre, and bordered closely on all sides by some of the 300-plus homes in our subdivision. Our yard lies downslope of two others, and is often wet—if not downright swampy. When Jeff and I moved here, there were giant arborvitae, a few yews, and not much else. Gardening was difficult. After removing most of the Arborvitae and all the yews, we planted a border of prairie plants across the backyard. Their deep roots helped absorb some of the water.

Over the years, we’ve added numerous raised beds for vegetable gardening…

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…a small pond, and a mixture of native plants and favorite non-natives. I confess to a passion for zinnias; the butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds go crazy over them.

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Our goal has become one suggested by University of Delaware Professor of Entomology Doug Tallamy: plant at least 70% of your yard (by biomass) with trees, shrubs, flowers, and grasses native to your area. Why? It will nourish wildlife. When we plant, we try to keep insects and wildlife in mind. What plants are good nectar sources? How might we attract more butterflies? Which plants have good seeds for birds? Which plants are host plants for moth caterpillars?

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Diversity. We try to think about different plant heights, bloom times, and mixing a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes and bloom sizes in the yard. July is a good month to step outside and sit on the patio for a while. Observe. See what is working. What’s not working. Let’s take a look.

Currently, queen of the prairie at the back of the yard is a showstopper. That pink! And so tall—over six feet. Although the flowers have no nectar, they offer pollen to flies and beetles.QueenofthePrairieGEBackyardBestWM71920

A pawpaw tree behind the prairie patch is a host plant for zebra swallowtail butterflies and the pawpaw sphinx moth.

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I’ve not observed either of these in our yard, but I’m on the lookout! Meanwhile, it’s the eastern black swallowtails I see, drawn to the blazing star blooms by the patio.

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Culver’s root lights its flower candles in the prairie patch each July—the white so bright against the green! Bees of all kinds love it, as do moths, wasps, and butterflies.

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Nearby are the velvet flame-petals of cardinal flowers. Their bright scarlet screams across the yard.  Look at us! We can’t tear our eyes away. Red is an unusual color for prairie plants, and I watch for these in July, fingers crossed.  Sometimes they jump from place to place in the yard. Some years they’ve disappeared altogether. A few weeks ago I wondered if they were still around. And then—here they are.

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The hummingbirds love cardinal flowers. So do the swallowtails. And, when the cardinal flowers bloom, I begin anticipating the great blue lobelia, another favorite, which blooms a few weeks later.

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Each lobelia, a close relative of cardinal flower, is a magnet for hummingbirds and butterflies. They mingle together along the edges of my small pond.

Cupplant just popped into bloom this week; sunny yellow flowers towering over my head. The plants’ joined leaves hold moisture and create a favorite watering hole for goldfinches after a rain or a particularly dewy morning.

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We have a saying in our prairie group: “Friends don’t give friends cup plant!” It’s such an aggressive plant in the right garden conditions, spreading every which way and dominating the prairie patch. Then, I see a bright goldfinch drinking from the cupped leaves in the summer or enjoying the seeds in the fall. It quenches my resolve to dig them up.

Today, I spy a monarch, nectaring on the blooms. Yes. I think I’ll keep cup plants around.

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Near the cup plants are masses of joe pye weed, which hint at the promise of a flower show in August. The blooms will be a big draw for the yellow tiger swallowtails that wing their way through our backyard.

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Wild bergamot—both the native Monarda fistulosa in lavender….

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…and an unknown species — likely a close relative of Monarda didyma--given to me by a friend, lure the hummingbird moths at dusk.

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Bees love both species. Me too.

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By the patio, the gray-headed coneflowers mingle with a wild asparagus plant, the ferny leaves shooting over my head.

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The asparagus came up wild; likely from a seed dropped by the birds at our eight bird feeding stations.  Or maybe we should call them squirrel feeding stations? These bird feeders, plus the native plants with their maturing seedheads in the fall, the water in our small pond, and heated birdbath in winter are a big draw for birds.

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The pond is a magnet for dragonflies and damselflies, including this great spreadwing damselfly sighted last season. I’d never seen it on the larger prairies where I monitor dragonflies, so what a delight to find it—right here, in my own small backyard.

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I’m on the lookout for it this month, but so far, it has eluded me. I commit to spending more time, sitting by the pond, just quietly looking.

Along the edges of the patio, well-behaved prairie dropseed forms beautiful clumps next to the second-year new jersey tea shrub. In August, the prairie dropseed sends up sprays of seeds that smell of buttered popcorn. It’s not a smell to everyone’s taste, but I love it.

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You can see my backyard is a little bit messy, a jumble of natives and non-natives, lawn and prairie. Weeds? You bet. Our lawn is a mix of species, from clover to violets to oregono and wild strawberries. The rabbits approve. But not everyone in my neighborhood understands.

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It’s important to me that my neighbors see our intentions for the yard—and not just see it as a jumble of plants. I want to woo them away from their drug rugs (as conservationists like my neighbor Jerry Wilhelm calls chemically treated lawns) and toward a more healthy yard. For this reason, we have several signs, including a Monarch Way Station from Monarch Watch and a Conservation at Home sign from The Conservation Foundation. I hope when they see the signs, and the butterflies, birds, and blooms, they’ll be a little curious. What’s going on over there?

I want them to know: Prairies are one of the most fragile, nuanced, and diverse places on earth. Full of amazing creatures and interesting plants.

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Every year, our yard moves a little closer to being more healthy. We’ve still got a long way to go. But the journey of bringing prairie home is a marvelous adventure, full of beautiful surprises.

It all starts with a single plant.

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The opening quote is from Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants by Doug Tallamy. Wild Ones Native Landscapers recently put on a webinar with Tallamy that emphasized the need for at least 70% biomass of native plants in yards in order to sustain insects, birds, and the natural world. We’re still working on our yard—and we still have a long way to go. You, too?

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken this week at her backyard in Glen Ellyn, IL , unless designated otherwise (top to bottom):  red-spotted purple butterfly (Limenitis arthemis astyanax ), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; raised garden beds (thanks to John Heneghan, carpenter extraordinaire!); ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) on zinnias (Zinniz elegans) (photo from 2019); backyard planting mix of natives and non-natives; queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra); queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra) with a pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba) behind it;  eastern black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes asterius) on blazing star (Liatris spp.); Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum); cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis); great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) with Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius) (photo from August 2019);  cup plants (Silphium perfoliatum); cup plants (Silphium perfoliatum) with monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus);  Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum);  mixed natives and non-natives; unknown monarda, received as a gift (possibly Monarda didyma?) with hummingbird clearwing moth (Hemaris thysbe); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) and unknown bumblebee (Bombus spp.); grayheaded coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) and wild asparagus (Asparagus officinalis); author’s backyard pond; great spreadwing damselfly (Archilestes grandis), photo from 2019); prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) and New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus); nodding wild onions (Allium cernuum); July on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I’m grateful to the Wild Ones Native Landscapers for their work with homeowners and native plant gardening in suburban yards, and The Conservation Foundation for helping gardeners  make our yards healthier and more wildlife-friendly. Thanks also to John Ayres for the cardinal flower seeds that helped me increase my population. Thank you to Tricia Lowery for the liatris and unknown monarda. Both are pollinator magnets!

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Discover “Tallgrass Prairie Ethnobotany Online” –through The Morton Arboretum! Did you know the prairie was once the source of groceries, medicine, and love charms? Join Cindy for two Friday mornings online, July 31 and August 7, (9-11 a.m.) and learn how people have used and enjoyed prairie plants through history — and today! Spend the week in between on your own, exploring and identifying plants on the prairies of your choice. Register here.

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

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

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

Summer on the Tallgrass Prairie

“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass on a summer day listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is hardly a waste of time.” —John Lubbock

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When the pale purple coneflowers bloom on the prairie,  you know summer has arrived.

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With the blooming of the prairie wildflowers comes their tiny pollinators, dusted in pollen, intent on finding the best nectar sources.

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Everywhere, sheets of wildflowers open under the prairie sky. Purple-blue scurfy pea and the non-native but exuberant ox-eye daisies crowd together, a delightful pairing.

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Black-eyed susans are suddenly noticeable, in all different stages of flowering. From bud…

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To barely open…

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…to just opening…

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…and finally,  a full “open-house” for pollinators.

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Purple milkweed, just about to bloom, waits for monarch caterpillars.

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Non-native nodding thistle—or musk thistle as it is sometimes called—blooms in startling pink, abuzz with a bee or two. It’s almost five feet tall! A show-stopper.

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I’ve not seen this thistle before, and wonder how difficult it is to manage. I read that its seeds may remain in the soil for up to ten years. Even in bud, it is so unusual!

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Prairie sundrops, Oenothera pilosella, are having the best year on the prairie that I’ve seen in more than two decades. Is it the lack of fire this season? Or the wet spring? I’d love to know what conditions have brought it to this state of profusion and perfection. Wilhelm’s Flora ranks its coefficient of conservatism as a “10.”

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Wild coffee—sometimes called “late horse gentian”—offers up its odd flowers to anyone with the patience to look closely. Snowberry clearwing moth caterpillars (commonly called “hummingbird moths”) use wild coffee as a host plant.

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Later, the each of the plant’s orange fruits—called “drupes”—will have three black nutlets resembling coffee beans. 

Prairie-loving creatures are everywhere. The ubiquitous silver-spotted skippers nectar on white wild indigo.

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Damselflies, like this variable dancer, float dreamlike through the tallgrass.

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This has also been a week of dragonflies, perching on old grass stalks and patrolling the prairie airspace. June is a big month for meadowhawk dragonfly emergence.

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So many 12-spotted skimmers! They bask in the sunshine.

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The butterflies are out on sunny days, brightening the prairies. Monarchs. Cabbage whites. And swallowtails. An eastern black swallowtail butterfly, flapping madly, is intent on finding non-native red clover, a good nectar plant. I’ve tasted red clover myself — so sweet! The butterfly is ragged and tattered. A survivor.

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In the savannas near the prairies, the bluebirds rest in the shade. They are year-round residents on the prairie here, but I never fail to be astonished by their color. They may raise two broods each season. The young from the later brood will stay with the parents during the winter.

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I’m grateful for their bright flash of blue glimpsed in any season.

In a woodland close to the prairies, the wood thrush sings its singular tune. It’s my favorite bird song, but a melancholy one, as I know the species is in decline. Read more about its amazing song patterns here.

The bees bump from bloom to bloom, drunk with the possibilities of June.

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Summer on the prairie is just beginning.

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Why not go see?

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John Lubbock (1834-1913) was an amateur biologist, with an interest in evolutionary theory and archeology. He and Charles Darwin exchanged correspondence. Lubbock is also thought to be the source for the quote, “We may sit in our library and yet be in all quarters of the earth.” Not a bad way to travel.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (from top to bottom): pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; mixed wildflowers, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta, unknown insect), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens), Schulenberg prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; musk thistle (Carduus nutans) with honeybee (Apis sp.), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; musk thistle (Carduus nutans), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie sundrops (Oenothera pilosella), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild coffee or late horse gentian (Triosteum perfoliatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; variable (or violet) dancer (Argia fumipennis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown female meadowhawk (Sympetrum spp.); Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL;  12-spotted skimmer dragonfly (Libellula pulchella), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; eastern black swallowtail butterfly (Papilio polyxenes asterius), Dick Young Forest Preserve prairie, Forest Preserve District of Kane County, Batavia, IL; eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) at Bliss Woods, Forest Preserve District of Kane County, Sugar Grove, IL; carpenter bee (Xylocopa sp.) on scurfy pea (Psoralidium tenuiflorum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve skies and prairie in June, Downer’s Grove, IL.

*****

Join Cindy for her upcoming online 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 a new session in September! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional ZOOM session. Register here.

Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org and other book venues. Order direct through Northwestern University Press and receive 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.  

Spring on the Prairie

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” — J.R.R. Tolkien

******

Spring! It’s here—at last—on the Chicago region’s prairies.

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Hiking the prairie in April is like going to a class reunion. So many friends you haven’t seen for a long time. Look! Cream gentians.

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You realize how much you’ve missed each native plant species since you last saw them a year ago in April. Ahhhh. Spring beauties.

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And, like any reunion, there are a few old acquaintances you wish hadn’t shown up. Oh no...garlic mustard.

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After a wild week of snow and sunshine, Jeff and I left the confines of our house to explore the East Prairie at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn. With almost 30,000 commuting students, COD is the largest community college in Illinois and a hop, skip, and a jump from our house. Its large, modern buildings and campus are set in the midst of several well-tended planted prairies, which owe a lot to the work of Russell Kirt, a now retired professor there.

The weather has taken an abrupt turn toward warmth and blue skies. It feels so good to be outdoors…and somewhere other than our backyard. Our dilemma was only — should we look up?

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Those skies! Or should we look down…

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…so much green growth and change. Everywhere, the life of the prairie and its adjacent wetlands offered something to marvel over. Small pollinators hummed around the willows. Try as I might, I’m not able to get a good insect ID.

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Relax, I tell myself. Just enjoy the day. And so I do.

*****

Less than a mile from COD’s prairies—in my suburban backyard—the first cabbage white butterfly appeared this week, drawn to the wreath of marsh marigolds in my small pond. After two snows in the past seven days…

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…the marsh marigolds were a little worse for wear, but not defeated. A cardinal soundtrack—Cheer Cheer Cheer Cheer Cheermade Monday’s sunny afternoon feel even more spring-like.

I sat on the back porch and watched the cabbage white until it was out of sight. Usually, the first butterfly I see on the marsh marigolds is the red admiral. Had it already arrived—-and I missed it? Or was it slower to emerge this season? And—where were the chorus frogs that called from my little pond last year? They didn’t show up in March.  My Kankakee mallow is absent from the prairie patch this April. Shouldn’t it be up by now?

So many questions. What other changes will unfold? Will the bullfrogs appear this summer? What about the great spreadwing damselfly that appeared in the pond last summer? I wonder. What will the next months bring?

Every spring has a tinge of uncertainty. This April has more than its share.

*****

Earlier this week, Jeff and I checked to see how April is progressing at St. Stephen Cemetery Prairie, a small two-acre remnant in DuPage County. It was great to see it had been burned at a time when many prescribed fire events have been postponed. Kudos to Milton Township and its volunteers! Bee balm, goldenrod and asters are visible through the chain-link fence opening.

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Purple meadow rue shows off its distinctive leaf forms.

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I love the history of this place. Once, there was a little community called Gretna close to Carol Stream. A Catholic church, founded in 1852, put two acres of native prairie aside to reserve them as potential cemetery plots for its members, many who had immigrated from Germany. These acres were never plowed. Never grazed.

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This was the first prairie where I saw wild senna. More than 50 native species are preserved here, including Culver’s root, spiderwort, and prairie dock. Nearby are the gravestones with the names: Miller, Dieter, Stark. The little community of Gretna and its church are gone, but the prairie lives on.

As we hike past the cemetery, we notice a brochure box.  Being cautious, as we have to be in these times, we read as much as we can through the plexiglass. A Midwestern cholera epidemic in the 19th Century killed infants and small children. Some are buried here.

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When we returned home, I read more about the cholera epidemic and the 1918 influenza epidemic in the Midwest. I found an interesting article by Dr. Walter J. Daly in 2008 in The U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health, which concluded:

There was an important difference in public attitude about the two epidemics, 19th Century cholera in the Midwest and 1918 influenza: in the case of cholera, the people believed the local atmosphere was at fault, consequently flight was attractive. In 1918, they knew the disease was contagious, whatever it was; they knew it was everywhere; flight would not be successful. Nevertheless, some fled.  Since mid-19th Century, the people have moved ahead. Public opinion is still influenced by business interests and the editors of news distributors. Certainly, they expect more of medical science than did their ancestors. Yet some reactions are probably imbedded in human behavior: to seek explanations and accept unworldly ones if others do not satisfy, to blame strangers among us, to flee if a safer place might be available, to postpone action, and then to forget rather than to learn from it, once the disaster is past.

Sounds familiar.

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I’m struck by the predictable and the unpredictable as I hike the different prairies this week. Many of the rhythms of the prairie continue, oblivious to the unfolding chaos around them. Spring comes to the prairie as it does any other year: rattlesnake master…

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…and gentians and bee balm emerging alongside shooting star.

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Spring beauties and violets are in bloom. April is underway, as it has been for thousands of years in the tallgrass.

Yes, there are changes. In many places, prescribed fire has been cancelled. Some prairies are seeing an influx of hikers longing to get outside; other prairies are closed to the public for the first time for safety.

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In Illinois, our shelter in place was announced March 20. As I write this on April 20, uncertainty reigns. When will life be “normal” again? Will it ever be the same? If the pandemic comes to an end, what will we have learned —as individuals, as a nation? Or, as Dr. Daly asks after recounting responses to the cholera epidemic and influenza epidemics more than 100 years ago, will we forget what we’re learning once the disaster is past?

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So many media articles these past weeks advise me what to do with my “sheltering in place” time. Organize a closet. Try a new recipe. Get my finances in order. The days pass so quickly, sometimes without much seemingly getting done. Some mornings I count  successful if I’m up and dressed. My one priority has been to get outside and walk. Some days, it seems,  that this is the main event.

I’ve decided that’s okay. It’s these wildflowers and spring birds; pollinators and cloud-painted skies that keep me searching out quiet prairies to hike, when my usual prairies are closed or unavailable to me. Each time I go for a walk, I’m reminded of the beauty of the world. After each hike, I come home refreshed. I feel more hopeful. I find renewed energy to tackle the deceptively normal demands of home and work.

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There’s so much we don’t know.  Even the “predictable” rhythms of the natural world are subjected to interruptions and change. An expected butterfly fails to show up. My pond is empty of frogs. A reliable plant fails to appear in its appointed place.

When change comes, I have my memories of past springs. The call of the chorus frogs. The contrast of the red admiral against the marsh marigolds. That Kankakee mallow bloom—wow! I remember its pink. And–as I miss the prairies and savannas I frequented that have been temporarily closed to the public, I can remember what’s in bloom there now; the pasque flowers, the bloodroot in the little copse of trees…

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…the first tentative flowering of wood betony, and the tiny pearls of bastard toadflax.

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I miss those prairies I can no longer access, closed or inaccessible because of the pandemic, but I feel comfort in thinking about them. Because of my relationship to these prairies—mornings spent on hands and knees ID’ing plants, hours spent logging dragonfly data, hiking them in all weathers—their stories are part of my story. My absence now doesn’t change that relationship.

If a time comes when I get older that I’m unable to hike anymore,  I will be grateful to have these memories.  I’ll be hiking these prairies then in my memories and dreams.

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Today, I’m grateful for the memories I have tucked away of my favorite places. Even as I find new places to hike, I follow the progress of those prairies I’m missing and know so well in my mind and my heart.

Not even a pandemic can change that.

****

The opening quote is from Oxford English language scholar J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973), best known for The Hobbit and  The Lord of the Rings series. He was also known for speaking out on environmental issues in the 1960s. His imaginary “Middle-earth” brought hours of read-aloud delight to our family.

All photos and video clip  copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; invasive garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), Glen Ellyn, IL; cream gentian (Gentiana alba), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) with some unknown bedstraw (Galium spp.), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; unknown willow (Salix sp.) and pollinators, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) under snow, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; video clip of marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; St. Stephen Cemetery and Prairie, DuPage County, IL; probably purple meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum), St. Stephen Cemetery and Prairie, DuPage County, IL; St. Stephen Cemetery and Prairie, DuPage County, IL; brochure box, St. Stephen Cemetery and Prairie, DuPage County, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolis heterolepis), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL;  common blue violet (Viola sororia sororia), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; various mosses and their associates, St. Stephen Cemetery and Prairie, DuPage County, IL; box elder (Acer negundo), St. Stephen Cemetery and Prairie, DuPage County, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) and bee fly (Bombylius sp.), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (taken in 2019); bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (taken in 2019); red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL.

*****

TONIGHT: “THE NATURE OF CONSERVATION” panel discussion with Peggy Notebaert Museum. FREE!

Join me from wherever you are sheltering in place for “The Nature of Conservation,” April 21, 6:30-8:30 p.m. CST.–No cost, but you must register to receive the link and additional instructions: Register Here

The next “Tallgrass Prairie Ecology” class online begins in early May through The Morton Arboretum. See more information and registration  here.

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

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.

Prairie Comforts

“If you can’t fly, then run, if you can’t run, then walk, if you can’t walk, then crawl, but by all means keep moving.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

******

A bitter wind rattles the windows.  The forecast calls for a possible freeze tonight, jeopardizing my risky plantings of onions, carrots, peas, radishes, kale, and spinach in the backyard garden. Spinach has leafed out. Radishes are up in the raised beds.

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Such tiny seedlings to face a freeze! Enlisting Jeff’s help, I find a sheet and some old towels, then  we drape the raised beds and tuck the ends in with bricks. Now, my garden is ready to face the frigid night ahead.  I hope.

After we finish, I look around the yard and admire what spring has accomplished. Marsh marigolds necklace the pond. Are they blooming in the prairie wetlands right now? I wonder.

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A few marsh marigolds have escaped the pond, leapt the steps leading to the patio, and are in bloom around the hose.

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These enthusiastic wildflowers bring me a lot of joy.  Marsh marigolds are one of the Midwest’s native plants. A similar, but unwelcome yellow flower also stalks my neighborhood: the Ficaria verna, the lesser celandine. On our walks through local subdivisions, Jeff and I spy this invasive hanging out on a street corner and tucked into the edge of a copse of trees.

Ficara Verna-WMlessercelandineLincolnHill41320.jpgAs a prairie steward, I keep my eyes open for this marsh marigold imposter and ruthlessly eradicate it where I can. Give it an inch and it will take over the block. Look at the leaves and flowers of lesser celandine above, then look at the marsh marigolds below. Similar. But different.

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I’m grateful for the marsh marigolds this week. They’re a welcome ray of sunshine. A little bit of comfort .

*****

On Sunday, Jeff and I drive to our daughter’s house for a subdued Easter celebration. In the spirit of social distancing we set up lawn chairs in a corner of their yard and they watch from the porch as the little ones hunt eggs. Afterwards, we swap holiday food in bags–my bread, their lamb and potatoes—and we head home for our duo Easter dinner.  The sidewalks and neighborhoods are crowded with families riding bikes together; going for walks.

As we drive past the College of DuPage prairies, I notice something different.

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Not a soul in sight.

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Stop! We turn into the parking lot. The skies threaten rain, but that isn’t going to stop us.

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The prairie at this time of year is a mix of burned areas and unburned areas. The prescribed fires that keep a prairie healthy have done their work. That green! I had forgotten how intense it is.

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Prairie dropseed scrub brushes are distinctive at this time of year when other plants are barely up.

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Rattlesnake master is unmistakeable—one of the first prairie plants to poke its leaves out of the ground.RattlesnakeMaster41220CODWMWM

Look closely at those leaves above. Like yucca, aren’t they? As its scientific name, Eryngium yuccifolium intimates. Over there –is that a sedge? Yes! But I’m not completely sure of its ID. Mead’s sedge? Pennsylvania sedge, maybe? Hmmm. I try keying it out on my iNaturalist app, but the app isn’t, either. A little mystery.

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Along the path, the bee balm, Monarda fistulosa, spreads its tender growth like a throw rug. I crush a tiny leaf and inhale. Mmmm.  Like minty oregano.

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The prescribed burn has cleared most of last year’s grasses from the prairie, blackened the earth. Despite the blustery weather, the prairie will warm up quickly.

Already, the fringed clamshells of compass plants hold promise. Although the shoots are only a bit taller than my index finger, I’ll see blooms this summer on stalks up to 12 feet high.

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What will I be thinking in late July when it blooms? What will the world be like? After experiencing this pandemic, and the closure of so many natural areas—and crowds in others—I doubt I will ever take a prairie hike like this one for granted again.

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A killdeer calls, then scrabbles across the prairie. Looking for a nest site? Perhaps. I feel my spirits lift. Killdeer are always one of the first signs of spring on the prairie.

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The College of DuPage prairies offer Jeff and myself some much needed solace. You may have felt, as I felt at first, that it is selfish in these times to grieve such things as the loss of a regular walk in a familiar place, or the disappointment of missing a particular patch of hepatica in bloom…

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…or the loss of missing the arrival of spring migrants to a patch of woodland you visit. Perhaps you are unable to go into the field to do your science research; work you’ve planned and received funding for this season at great personal outpouring of energy. Or maybe you mourn the disappearance of the simple rhythms of being a natural areas volunteer and the companionship of others working with you to to restore a prairie, woodland, or wetland. You wonder what’s happening in the places you love—-some now closed off to you for the safety and well-being of all. A good thing. But difficult.

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These losses—of course!—are small when weighed against the loss of a job; the loss of our health, the loss of a beloved friend or family member. The sadness when we can’t hug our grandchildren. The fear we feel over something as simple as grocery shopping.  I’ve felt small-minded for even fussing over a prairie closed; a crowded natural area. What are these losses, really?  And yet, I’ve come to realize they are important losses, none-the-less. These places are part of us. These ordinary rituals, these rhythms of our lives, when lost, un-moor us, unsettle us, shake us. They come at a time when other rituals and rhythms of life are also upended. We long for the simple comforts of our familiar places and routines. Many of them will be unavailable to us for a while.

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My sister, a therapist, tells me we are experiencing trauma, and all of us will respond differently to it. And without some of our prairie walks and work in the places we know and love, we are forced to find new rituals and rhythms. Even as we do so, each of our losses must be acknowledged and grieved.

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I’m establishing new rituals and reacquainting myself with some older ones I’ve neglected over the past few years. A neighborhood walk each morning and evening. A little sketching. Planting my garden. Putting more thought into meals. Eating breakfast together every morning with Jeff, instead of rushing off to work. Restarting my journal, which had gone through a period of neglect.

Watching the rhubarb and other perennials in my yard emerge. I planted rhubarb several times in my garden, and it was never happy. But at last, its seems, I’ve found a spot it likes. I think of rhubarb pie in a few weeks. Something to anticipate.

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I’m enjoying the pleasures of clearing my prairie patch and backyard borders of last  year’s dead growth. Watching the crinkled shell-shaped leaves of alum root emerge.

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I pay closer attention to my backyard these days on a daily basis. Each day, my backyard prairie patch—and the prairies in my community—offers surprises. Cup plant leaves appear. Birds return. Forgotten onion bulbs sprout in the vegetable garden. This week, I spotted my first dragonfly—a common green darner. These natural rhythms continue, even when so much seems in disarray.

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I’m learning to live with greater ambiguity. Becoming more comfortable with being uncomfortable. Instead of planning my year, I try to plan a single day. It’s about as far ahead as I can think. Sometimes, I realize, not much will be accomplished. And that’s okay.

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There are new glories in the natural world to appreciate each morning. I only have to remember to look. To pay attention. In a world full of uncertainty, I may not be able to “fly,” as Martin Luther King, Jr, said in the opening quote. But I can keep moving forward, a little bit at a time.

The emerging prairie shows the way.

****

Martin Luther King, Jr., (1929-68) was a civil rights activist who advocated non-violence. King won the Noble Peace Prize for his work for racial equality, and was assassinated because of this work in 1968. Listen to his most famous speech, “I Have A Dream.” given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.

****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): radish (Raphanus raphanistrum subsp. sativus) seedlings, author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; invasive lesser celandine (Ficaria verna), neighborhood side of Willowbrook Wildlife Forest Preserve, Glen Ellyn, IL; marsh marigold, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; street signs, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) overlooking the Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL;  pond on the Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; College of DuPage Prairie in early April; prairie dropseed (Sporabolus heterolepis); Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL: rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas , Glen Ellyn, IL; unknown sedge in the Carex family (possibly Mead’s or Pennsylvania), Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plants (Silphium laciniatum), Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant flower (Silphium laciniatum), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; killdeer (Charadrius vociferus), Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL;  sharp-lobed hepatica (Hepatica nobilis acuta), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (archival photo); Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), College of DuPage Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) emerging, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL;  prairie alum root (Heuchera richardsonii), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; East Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Thank you to Paul Marcum who helped me narrow down the sedge ID.

****

THIS WEEK: Join me for a free spring wildflower webinar through the Morton Arboretum from wherever you are sheltering in place! “Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Wildflowers,” April 17, 1-2:30 p.m. CST.–No cost, but you must register to receive the link and additional instructions:  Register Here.

The next “Tallgrass Prairie Ecology” class online begins in early May through The Morton Arboretum. See more information and registration  here. The website is updated to reflect current conditions. A free spring wildflower webinar is also in the works! Watch for a link on Cindy’s website, coming soon.

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

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.

Winter Prairie Wonders

“The twitter of a chickadee, a flurry of juncos defying the wind, the industry of a downy woodpecker at the suet won’t warm the day, but they do warm the human heart.” — Hal Borland

******

Color January gray so far, with a few bright spots.

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It’s been a wet one, as well, with precipitation in all its myriad forms.

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As I wash dishes one morning, I watch the birds and squirrels outside my kitchen window battle over birdseed.

They bicker and flutter and knock each other off the perches in their search for the very best position. I try to broker a truce by bringing out more sunflower and safflower. More peanuts. But as I step outside, I stop short. Listen! The northern cardinal—is singing! The first time through, I thought it was wishful thinking on my part. Then he pealed out the notes again.  Cheer! Cheer! Cheer! The sound of spring.

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Or maybe not exactly “spring.” After reading more on Cornell’s All About Birds website, I learn the males and females both sing; males may sing all year. Ah! So much for spring thoughts.  I regularly hear the “chip! chip!” at dusk and dawn when the cardinal resupplies at the tray feeder. But I hadn’t heard the cardinal’s full-throated song for a good long while. It makes me happy.

Dishes finished, that sweet music is enough to pull me out of the house and out for a prairie hike.

******

No cardinals sing in the savanna, but there is a bit of woodpecker hammering and a lone squirrel or two loping silently through the trees. The  pewter skies and sleet, snow, rain, and ice accentuate the colors of the January prairie.

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As I hike through the prairie savanna, admiring the trees blacked with moisture and bright with lichen…

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…snow falls harder. I wrap my scarf  tightly around my neck to ward off the wet. Everything is soaked.

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Late figwort drips with snowmelt diamonds.

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Hiking along Willoway Brook…

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…I admire the winter water transitions.

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Trees lay everywhere, a reminder of other transitions going on. One tree’s life ends, a multitude of new lives begin from that downed tree. Fungi. Mosses.  These fallen trees will serve as homes and food for members of the savanna community; bringing slow change to this transitional place.

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Emerging into the tallgrass from the savanna, the only sounds are the scrunch scrunch scrunch of my boots in the snow, and the occasional hum of traffic from nearby I-88.

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Other than a few light breaths of wind, the tallgrass is motionless. Willoway runs quiet and clear. This silence suits me today. I value the prairie’s opportunities for quiet and reflection.

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And yet, there are many other reasons besides personal ones to appreciate what I’m a steward of here.

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I’ve been reading more this week about prairies as carbon sinks in preparation for a talk at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Arboretum. What are carbon sinks? Why do they matter? I think about this as I stroll the trails.

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A carbon sink is simply a place where carbon is stored. The prairie soil acts as a “carbon sink.” Unlike a forest, where the carbon is mostly stored above ground, in prairies, carbon is taken in and then, stored (or “sequestered”) in the deep roots of prairie plants.

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That’s good news.  It matters, as this carbon sequestration helps keep our planet healthy.  And, I’m more aware of my impact on the world these days, from the miles I drive or fly, to the choices I make in what I eat, what I put my food in (paper or plastic?), whether I use a straw or sip from a glass, or the amount of trash I generate. My personal consumption habits could be overwhelming and depressing, if I let them be. But that would suck all the joy out of life, wouldn’t it?

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And so. I try and balance the despair I feel sometimes over the brokenness of the world and its dilemmas with the gratitude for the beauty and wholeness I find on my prairie walks. The delights of my backyard prairie patch and pond. Or, the enjoyment of watching the birds at my backyard feeders squabbling with the squirrels.

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One reason I’m a prairie steward is this: caring for a prairie reminds me why my personal choices matter. Seeing the tallgrass in all seasons, in its diversity and transitions, helps me remember the legacy I want my children and grandchildren to have. Prairies, the Nature Conservancy tells us, “clean the air we breathe and the water we drink.” Caring for this prairie as both a place for quiet hiking and reflection—and a place that has value in keeping our world a healthier place—gives me a sense of making a difference. It is a touchstone of hope.

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We live in a beautiful world full of wonders. bridgeoverwillowaySPMA12520WM.jpg

No matter what the future holds…

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…I want these prairies to be here for the next generations; places for my children’s children to hike, for them to find room there to reflect, and to enjoy and delight in all its diversity.

A world full of wonders.

******

The opening quote is from Hal Borland’s book: Twelve Moons of the Year, excerpted from his “nature editorials” in the New York Times written before his death in 1978. Borland wrote more than 1,900 of these observational articles for the NYT, and selected 365 for this book. He was a contributing editor to Audubon magazine. Borland wrote more than 30 books, most about the natural world; the genres spanned poetry, fiction, non-fiction, biography, short stories, and even a play. He was also a recipient of the John Burroughs Medal in 1968 for Hill Country Harvest.

*****

All photos this week taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL except where noted (top to bottom): trees in the fog, East Side; melting snow on late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica); video of birds and squirrels at the author’s backyard bird feeders, Glen Ellyn, IL; male and female cardinals ( Cardinalis cardinalis, photo from winter 2019), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie in January, glimpse of Willoway Brook through the savanna; bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa); late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica); Willoway Brook through the prairie savanna; Willoway Brook through the prairie savanna; Willoway Brook through the prairie savanna; bridge and tallgrass; reflections in Willoway Brook; Schulenberg Prairie in January, blackberry (Rubus occidentalis) with snowmelt; prairie grasses in January; native evening primrose (Oenothera speciosa); Schulenberg Prairie savanna; tall goldenrod (probably Solidago canadensis); bridge over Willoway Brook; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum).

******

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

THE TALLGRASS PRAIRIE: A CONVERSATION: January 30 (Thursday) 9-11:30 a.m.  University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum, Curtis Prairie Visitor Center Auditorium, Madison, WI. More information and tickets here. (Sold out–call to be put on a waiting list)

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

Nature Writing and Art Retreat, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, February 22 (Saturday) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Cindy will be facilitating the writing portion. Sold Out. Waiting list –register here.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26.  Details and registration here.

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum. For details and registration, click here.  

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

A Prairie Thanksgiving

“Keenly observed, the world is transformed.”–Gretel Ehrlich

******

A sunrise and sunset in glorious technicolor bookended Monday this week. Pink lemonade. Orange sherbet. Smudges of charcoal and lavender. It’s not winter yet, but these sky-works feel very much of that season to me. One of the bonuses of the shortening days is they enter and exit with such pizzazz.

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The bigger part of a November day’s sky is often more subtle in its allure. Less color. Less drama. Nuanced.

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On the prairie, the palette is all rich metallics.

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Where we relied on sight and of smell and sound during the warmer months to experience the tallgrass, November is a time of texture. The sense of touch comes into greater play.

The woolly seedhead of the thimbleweed stubbornly holds on to its treasures. Touch it. It’s soft, but not silky. More like cotton.

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There’s a new appreciation for shapes, like the curve of a goldenrod gall ball against the backdrop of an angled Indian grass stem. Run your finger across the surface of the sphere. It’s lightweight and surprisingly smooth.

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As the carrion flower fruits fall apart, we become more aware of the vine’s lines and spirals.

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There is the sparse loveliness of the blazing star, when all evidence of life has fled.

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Even the regimented grasses with their tops hacked off are a testimonial that someone cares about this prairie remnant; cares enough to have cut and gathered the seedheads. Were they out here working on a gray, bone-chilling morning? Perhaps these seeds will be used to strengthen the prairie here, or help begin a future prairie restoration planting.

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November’s range of colors may be less dazzling at this time of year, but what it has lost in color, it has gained in contrasts.

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Forbidding and rough; the seeds long gone inside.

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Other prairie plant seeds remain, so delicate a breath would seemingly cause them to float away. And yet, they hang on.

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The November prairie reminds me to be grateful for seeds and seedheads in all their forms. They promise to take the prairie forward, into the future. A walk through the prairie this month reminds me to thank the stewards and volunteers who pour hours of their lives into keeping prairies vibrant and healthy. Without them, the prairie would fail to thrive, and eventually, disappear. It’s a month to appreciate the tallgrass’s underlying structure; that suite of wildflowers and grasses with deep roots. To offer thanksgiving that prairie remnants and restorations continue to exist—and continue to shape the hearts and minds of those who call it home.

In a time when we may feel jaded, cynical, or even in despair over the state of the world, a walk on the November prairie is an act of thanksgiving. An act of hope.

I finish each hike, feeling grateful.

*****

Gretel Ehrlich‘s (1946-) The Solace of Open Spaces, from which the opening quote is taken, is one of my all-time favorite reads. “Everything in nature invites us constantly to be what we are,” she writes. Her book is set in Wyoming.

*****

All photos this week copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve in Downer’s Grove, IL unless noted otherwise: sunrise, author’s neighborhood, Glen Ellyn, IL; gray skies over Belmont Prairie in November; mixed prairie plants, thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica) in seed; goldenrod ball gall; carrion vine (probably Smilax ecirrahta); rough blazing star (Liatris aspera); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida); pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Please join Cindy for one of these upcoming classes or talks before 2019 ends:

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.    A lovely afternoon enjoying little known Arboretum’s stories, and a quiet respite from the holiday hustle and bustle. Register here.

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

Happy Thanksgiving, and thank you for reading!

November Prairie Focus

“Young prairie plants put down deep roots first; only when these have been established do the plants invest much energy in growth above ground. They teach us that the work that matters doesn’t always show.” -Paul Gruchow

******

The cold, gray days of November are here. Beautiful? Yes, in their own way. They offer time for reflection on a year mostly past.

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The sky becomes a slate backdrop to plants which spike and angle and curve. Like silhouette cut-outs.

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Grace notes. Some more interesting now in seed and shape than they were in bloom.

It’s easy for me to overlook what’s good about November. Easier to long for sunshine and warmth; for the fireworks of July wildflowers—purple leadplant spikes and bright orange butterflyweed and lemon-yellow coreopsis. The fresh emerald spikes of grasses pushing through the dark prairie soil in spring. Or even the golds and violets of the autumn prairie.

Seems like we missed part of that season with our early snows.

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As I walk, I think of John Updike’s poem, November:

The stripped and shapely

Maple grieves

The loss of her

Departed leaves.

The ground is hard,

As hard as stone

The year is old

The birds are flown…..

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Much of what I see on the prairie is a matter of focus. In November, I have to remind myself that beauty is here. That the work of restoration is moving forward. It’s a more difficult season than spring when everything is full of promise and possibility. The “prettiness” and promise of the prairie is more obvious in the warmer months. November’s calibration of what constitutes headway, success on a prairie, is different.

Gray. Beige. Black. Brown. The prairie smells of wet earth. Snowmelt. Decay. You’d think this would be distressing, but it’s strangely pleasant. Invigorating.  It’s the fragrance of a work in progress. The cycling of nutrients. The prairie finishes its work of the growing season, then lays the groundwork for the future.

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Sometimes, I look at the November prairie and all I see is the unfinished work of a prairie steward. The native brambles taking over, arcing their spiny branches across the prairie and shading out wildflowers.

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It’s discouraging. Impatience surges. Are we really making a difference here? Or are we like Sisyphus, rolling a boulder uphill, only to have it roll back.

Then, I remember. There was a time when I didn’t  think about these “brambles” because the invasive buckthorn, honeysuckle, and sweet white and yellow clovers were consuming all my stewardship hours. It’s a luxury  now to have most of these problem plants licked (Hubris, don’t strike me down!) and room to think about how to tackle new management  issues.

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Despite my self-reassurance, as I hike I see other potential issues. Are the native grasses dominating the wildflowers? Is the false sunflower spreading too aggressively  in the corner by the bridge?

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I tuck my cold fingers into my pockets and stand on the bridge over Willoway Brook.  Reed canary grass chokes the shoreline. A never-ending problem. Then I look closer. I’m missing the lovely configurations of ice and stream; leaf and stone.

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Just across the bridge is a new “menace.” The past several years I’ve moaned about Illinois bundleflower making inroads into the prairie; it has become a monoculture in spots. Is it a desirable plant? Sure. It belongs on the prairie. But how much is too much? Decisions about how to manage it causes me some frustrating hours. But today, I take a few moments to admire it. Wow. Look at those seed pods.

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There are plants that “don’t belong” on a prairie restoration, and other plants that do, yet get a bit rambunctious. It’s so easy to focus on what’s wrong. Sometimes its tougher to remember what we’ve done well. To focus on the beauty, instead of the chaos.

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Nearby are ruined choirs of cup plants; taller than I am, growth-fueled by rain. Cup plants are the bane of my backyard prairie patch—aggressive thugs that elbow my Culver’s root and spiderwort out of the way.

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But here, on the 100-acre prairie, they are welcome. When I think about it, I realize I’ve not seen them in this area before. They are part of the first waves of prairie plants making inroads in an old field we’re restoring by the Prairie Visitor Center. A sign of success. A sign of progress.

Among the rusts and tans, there are bright bits of color. Carrion flower, now gone to inedible seeds.

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The last flag-leaves of sumac.

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Sumac is also an issue in parts of this prairie. But for now, I relax and enjoy the color.

Nuthatches call from the savanna. The breeze rustles the grasses. Looking over the prairie, focusing on its draining colors and dwindling seedheads…

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… I remember what Paul Gruchow wrote about the tallgrass prairie: “…The work that matters doesn’t always show.”

The day suddenly feels brighter.

*****

Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) was a Minnesota writer who wrote such beautiful books as Travels in Canoe Country; The Boundary Waters: Grace of the Wild; Journal of a Prairie Year; The Necessity of Empty Places; and Grass Roots: The Universe of Home from which this opening quote was taken. There’s nothing like the power of a good book—especially those passages that stick in your mind and are available when you need them the most.

John Updike’s lovely poem November” is found in A Child’s Calendar, first published in 1965. If you’re unfamiliar with his poetry, check out Facing Nature: Poems, Collected Poems: 1953–1993, and Americana and Other Poems (2001).

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken on the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, unless noted:  Willoway Brook in November; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); maple leaf (Acer saccharum) by the Prairie Visitor Station; silky wild rye (Elymus villosus) and log; prairie under snow in November; common blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides); Willoway Brook; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) and unknown asters; cup plants Silphium perfoliatum); carrion vine (probably Smilax ecirrhata); staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides).

Please join Cindy for one of these upcoming classes or talks:

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.    A lovely afternoon enjoying little known Arboretum’s stories, and a quiet respite from the holiday hustle and bustle. Register here.

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.

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!

Find more at www.cindycrosby.com  

Summer Magic on the Tallgrass Prairie

“May I not be permitted…to introduce a few reflections on the magical influence of the prairies? Their sight never wearies…a profusion of variously colored flowers; the azure of the sky above. In the summer season, especially, everything upon the prairies is cheerful, graceful, and animated…I pity the man whose soul could remain unmoved under such a scene of excitement.” ——Joseph Nicollet, 1838

*****

I followed Chance the Snapper—Chicago’s renegade alligator—south to Florida this week.

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The tallgrass has often been compared to the ocean, and it’s easy to see why. As I sit on the sand under the hot sun, the ripples on the Gulf remind me of the wind-waves that pass through the spiking grasses and wildflowers.

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It’s difficult to be away from the prairie, even for a few days in July. So much is happening! It’s a magical time. The gray-headed coneflowers pirouette into lemon confetti.

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Purple and white prairie clover spin their tutu skirts across the tallgrass; bee magnets, every one.

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Rosinweed’s rough and tumble blooms pinwheel open. Rosinweed is part of the Silphium genus, and perhaps the most overlooked of its more charismatic siblings.

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Cup plant, another Silphium sibling, is also in bloom. as are the first iconic compass plant flowers. Prairie dock, the last of the Silphiums to open here in Illinois, won’t be far behind.

The last St. John’s wort blooms seem to cup sunshine.

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The smaller pale blooms, like llinois bundleflower…

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…and oddball wildflowers, like Indian plantain, add complexity to the richness of the July prairie.

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Wild bergamot, or “bee-balm,” buzzes with its namesake activity. I’m always astonished each year at how prolific it is, but this season, it floods the prairie with lavender. Wow.

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The scientific name for bee balm is Monarda fistulosa; the specific epithet, fistulosa, means “hollow” or “pipe-like.” If you pay attention to a single flower in all its growing stages…

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….its intricacy will take your breath away. Look closer. Like fireworks!

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I love to chew its minty leaves; a natural breath freshener. Bee balm’s essential oil, thymol, is a primary ingredient in natural mouthwashes. Tea made from the plant has also been used as a  remedy for throat infections; its antiseptic properties made it historically useful for treating wounds.beebalm719SPMAWM

The hummingbirds and hummingbird moths, as well as the bees and butterflies, find it irresistible.

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Not only a useful plant, but beautiful.

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The air reverberates with sound on the July prairie: buzzing, chirping; the sizzling, hissing chords of grass blowing in the wind. Overhead, ubiquitous honking Canada geese add their familiar notes.

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In Florida, ospreys wake me each morning with their piercing cries. I see them soaring over the tallgrass prairie occasionally at home and at Fermilab’s prairies down the road in Batavia, IL, where they’re a rare treat. Here in Florida, they’re just another common note in the island’s soundtrack.

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It’s bittersweet to leave the tallgrass prairie in July for a week and miss some of its seasonal magic. The wildflowers are in full crescendo. The grasses unfold their seedheads and head skyward. The slow turn of the season toward autumn begins. You see it in the change in dragonfly species on the prairie, the sudden appearance of bottlebrush grass and Joe Pye weed flowers. To leave the Midwest for even a few days is to miss a twist or turn in the prairie’s ongoing story. Miss some of the magic.

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But displacement gives me perspective. A renewed appreciation for what I’ve left behind.

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The magic will be waiting.

*****

Joseph Nicollet (1786-1843), whose quote begins this post, was a French mathematician, philosopher, and astronomer who led explorations in what now is the Dakotas and Minnesota. His whose accurate maps were some of the first to show elevation and use regional Native American names for places. Nicollet’s tombstone reads: “He will triumph who understands how to conciliate and combine with the greatest skill the benefits of the past with the demands of the future.” Read more about him here.

******

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sunset, Captiva Island in July, Florida; Schulenberg Prairie in July, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; St. John’s wort ( likely shrubby —Hypericum prolificum); Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), West side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Indian plantain (Arnoglossum plantagineum), Kent Fuller Air Force Prairie, Glenview, IL; wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) and a silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  sunflowers (probably Helianthus divaricatus) and wild bergamont (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada geese (Branta canadensis), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; osprey (Pandion haliaetus), Captiva Island, Florida; obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; sunset, Captiva Island in July, Florida.

Cindy’s Upcoming Speaking and Classes:

August 12, 7-8:30 p.m., Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Flyers, Fox Valley Garden Club, Aurora, IL. Free and open to the Public. Details here.

August 19-22, 8-5 p.m. daily, National Association for Interpretation Certified Interpretive Guide Training, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Register here.

August 29, 7-8:30 p.m., Summer Literary Series: Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit. Hope aboard the Morton Arboretum’s tram and enjoy a cool beverage, then listen to Cindy talk about the “prairie spirit” on the beautiful Schulenberg Prairie, the fourth oldest prairie restoration in the world. Register here.

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

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