Tag Archives: Nature Writing online

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.

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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   

February Prairie Joys

“The season was…caught in a dreamy limbo between waking and sleeping.” — Paul Gruchow

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And so, February slogs on. We slip on ice, shovel the driveway, or shiver as cold slush slops into our boots. The sky alternates with bright sun and scoured blue skies to gray sheets of clouds that send our spirits plummeting. It’s difficult to not wish February gone. And yet, there is so much February has to offer. So much to enjoy! Hiking the Schulenberg Prairie and savanna after the snow on Valentine’s Day Friday, I was reminded of this.

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It’s 14 degrees Fahrenheit.  Brrr! There’s something comforting about water running under the ice in Willoway Brook.

In other parts of the prairie stream, the water looks like a deep space image, complete with planets, asteroids, and other star-flung matter.

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Wrinkles of ice form on the surface, like plastic wrap on blue jello.

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This slash of blue stream owes much of its color to the reflected February sky. Bright and sunny. So welcome after a string of gray days!

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However, to say the brook is blue is to overlook its infinite variations in color. Leaning over the bridge, I knock a drift of powdered snow loose. It sifts onto Willoway Brook and sugars the ice.

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The prairie is quiet. Roadway noise from a nearby interstate is an ever-present current of background sound, but the “prairie mind” soon learns to filter it out. My “prairie steward mind” notes the numbers of Illinois bundleflower seedheads along the stream, a mixed blessing here. We planted this native as part of a streambank rehab almost 20 years ago. Now, the bundleflower is spreading across the prairie in leaps and bounds and threatening to become a monoculture. What to do, what to do.

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For today, I’ll just enjoy its unusual jolt of shape and color. Wait until spring, bundleflower. I’ll deal with you then. Meanwhile, I enjoy some of the less rowdy members of the prairie wildflowers. Bee balm with its tiny pipes, each hollow and beginning to decay, shadowed in the sunlight. It’s easy to imagine hummingbirds and butterflies  sipping nectar here, isn’t it? Its namesake bees love it too.

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The February prairie is full of activity, both seen and unseen. A few sparrows flutter low in the drifts. Near the bee balm, mouse tunnels and vole holes pock the snowbanks.

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Coyote tracks, their shamrock paw prints deeply embedded in the slashes of snow, embroider the edges of the tallgrass.

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The remains of prairie plants have mostly surrendered to the ravages of the season.

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Carrion flower, a skeleton of its former self, catches small drifts. Such a different winter look for this unusual plant!

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Pasture thistle stands tall by the trail, still recognizable. This summer it will be abuzz with pollinator activity, but for now, the queen bumblebees sleep deep under the prairie. Waiting for spring.

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The Schulenberg, a planted prairie, and Belmont Prairie, a prairie remnant, are less than five miles apart but feel very different.  On Sunday, Jeff and I drove to Downer’s Grove and hiked the Belmont Prairie. The bright sun and warming temperatures—44 degrees! —-also made Sunday’s hike a far different proposition than my Friday hike at 14 degrees on the Schulenberg Prairie.

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The shallow prairie stream at Belmont glistens with ice fancywork.

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The prairie plants here—what’s left of them in February—display infinite variety as they do on the Schulenberg. Nodding wild onion.noddingwildonionbelmontprairie21620WM.jpg

Rattlesnake master, its seedheads slowly disintegrating.

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Rattlesnake master’s yucca-like leaves, once juicy and flexible, are torn into new shapes. The textures are still clearly visible.

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Soft arcs of prairie brome…

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…are echoed by curved whips of white vervain nearby.

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The compass plant leaves bow into the snow, slumped, like melted bass clefs.

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I can identify these plants. But then the fun begins. What is this seedhead, knee-high by the trail? Such a puzzle!

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Without plant leaves, ID becomes more challenging. But the usual suspects are still here. A chorus of tall coreopsis…

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…and the wild quinine, now devoid of its pungent summer scent.

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Soft Q-tips of thimbleweed are unmistakable.

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As is the round-headed bush clover silhouette; a burst of February fireworks.

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February is flying by. There’s so much on the prairie to see before it ends.

Why not go look?

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Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) penned the opening quote to this post, taken from the chapter “Winter” from Journal of a Prairie Year (Milkweed Editions, 1985). Gruchow remains one of my favorite writers; his treatises on Minnesota’s tallgrass prairie and rural life are must-reads.

All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Schulenberg Prairie and prairie savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook in ice and thaw, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ice on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ice on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ice on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; vole tunnel (may be a meadow vole or prairie vole, we have both!), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; trail through the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; carrion vine (likely Smilax herbacea) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; skies over Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; stream through Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; nodding wild onion (Allium cernuum), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL;  rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie brome (Bromus kalmii), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; white vervain (Verbena urticifolia), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; unknown, possibly purple or yellow meadow parsnip (Thaspium trifoliatum/flavum), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL.

Thanks to Illinois Botany FB friends (shout out Will! Evan! Paul! Duane! Kathleen!) for helping me work through an ID for the possible native meadow parsnip.

Join Cindy for a class or event!

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.

The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction– February 29, Saturday 10-11 a.m.,  Aurora Public Library,  101 South River, Aurora, IL Open to the public! Book signing follows.

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   

6 Reasons to Hike the October Prairie

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

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

More follow. They come and go throughout the afternoon.

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

Soon, October will be a dim but cherished memory.

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

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

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1. Goodbye, Butterflies

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

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

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2. That Prairie Fragrance!

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

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3. Seed Diversity

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

Pale Indian plantain, with its fluffy pinwheels.

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

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False Solomon’s seal brightens the prairie edges.

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

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

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4. Structure 

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

Bottlebrush grass, with its skeletal spikes.

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

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5. Textures

Feel the rubbery leaves of pale Indian plantain.

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

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6. Fall Color

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

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

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Why not go see?

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Who knows who you’ll meet on your hike.

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

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

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

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

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