Tag Archives: nature writing

A Little Tallgrass Tranquility

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

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

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

It’s quiet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Small moths lay in the tallgrass like winged ghosts.

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

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

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

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Up close, they are surprisingly hairy.

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

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

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I soak it all up.

For a while, I forget the outside world.

Thank you, prairie.

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

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

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Join Cindy for a class online!

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” begins June 7. Work from home at your own pace for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional ZOOM session. Register here.

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

A Very Prairie Cemetery

“The prairie landscape insists on patience and commitment. It does not give up its secrets and wonders easily.” — James P. Ronda

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It’s the end of the work day at home, and I’m scrolling through Twitter. Then I see it —a tweet by tallgrass artist Liz Anna Kozik about a local prairie awash in shooting star blooms. A prairie I’ve never seen before! It’s only 30 minutes from my home. Jeff looks over my shoulder and sees the photo Liz has posted. Wow! We look at each other.

Let’s go!

The 37-acre Vermont Cemetery Prairie is part of the Forest Preserve District of Will County. One acre of the pioneer cemetery is designated as an Illinois Nature Preserve. This acre, untouched by agricultural plows which destroyed most of Illinois’ original 22 million acres of tallgrass prairie, is a rare piece of our history.

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The cemetery is home to the federally endangered  and state threatened Mead’s milkweed. Illinois has about two dozen native milkweeds, all of them host to the monarch butterfly caterpillar. I’ve seen many of these native milkweeds. But the Mead’s has been elusive. Maybe later this summer, I’ll see it here.

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As we get out of the car, I’m disappointed. Prairie plants? Sure. The immediate area around the parking lot seems to be prairie wetland, and we spot some familiar species.

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Birds are moving through. A killdeer. A mallard. Another mallard. And—what’s that?

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Lesser yellowlegs? I think so. Tringa flavipes. For fun, I look up the meaning of its scientific name. I discover “Tringa” is “a genus of waders, containing the shanks and tattlers.”  Hilarious! The Latin name flavipes is pretty straightforward: flavus is “yellow” and pes means “foot.” I love the scientific names; they always have a story to tell about a member of the natural world. I check the lesser yellowlegs’ range in Cornell’s All About Birds; it seems they are stopping here on their way to their breeding grounds up north.

We watch the lesser yellowlegs move through the wetlands for a while, then continue looking for the cemetery.   Jeff spies it first—-the black fencing in the distance is a tip-off. The Tall Grass Greenway Trail runs parallel to the prairie, between the fence and railroad tracks, flanked by towering power lines.

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A mammoth subdivision borders the other side of the preserve. House after house after house. But few people are at the prairie.

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The fence, which keeps us out, is necessary, as the prairie would easily be damaged by vandalism or poaching. Remnants like this have almost vanished in Illinois; only about 2,300 high quality original prairie acres remain. Remaining prairie remnants tend to be along old railroad tracks, on rocky knobs unsuitable for farming (such as you find at Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL), or in cemeteries, such as these.

Jeff and I walk the perimeter. Outside the cemetery fence, even the ditch and buffer zones are a treasure trove of prairie plants. Golden Alexanders.

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And its cousin, heart-leaved golden Alexanders.

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Compass plants.

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Wild strawberries.

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Tall coreopsis.

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Prairie dropseed.

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All this on the outside of the fence! Magical. Could it really be any better inside?

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We look in.

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Wow.

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So much shooting star. We see bumblebees among the graves, working the flowers in the early evening light.

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Among the shooting star is wood betony…

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..and so much hoary puccoon! These pops of orange are startling among the yellow of wood betony and the pink of shooting star. A few bastard toadflax throw white stars in the grasses.  Sedges are in bloom too! But what species?HoaryPuccoonVermontPrairieCemetery51220WM

I have no idea.

The health of this prairie is a tribute to long-time dedicated stewards Don and Espie Nelson. (Watch a video about their work on this prairie here.) Without the efforts of this dynamic duo, this prairie would not be the vibrant, diverse place we see today. It also owes its existence to Dr. Robert Betz, a professor at Northeastern Illinois University, who worked to restore this remnant in the 1960s through cutting brush and using prescribed fire. He’s one of our Illinois prairie heroes.

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I wonder what those who were buried here would have thought about the importance we put on the prairie flora found here today. Curious, I look up Wilhelmine Grabe, whose name appears on a gravestone with her husband, John Grabe.  She was born in Germany, immigrated here, and died in 1895, at the same age as I am today. What did she think, when she came from the forests of Germany and first walked through a tallgrass prairie? Was she enchanted? Or was she afraid of the vast, empty spaces that became her new home? Did she and her husband, John, work hard to break the prairie sod so they could farm and grow food for their family? Would it puzzle her to see how much we value the last vestiges of prairie here?

I look up other names I see on the markers, but find nothing. There are many other gravestones worn beyond deciphering. All of these markers ask us to remember people who called the prairie state home for a portion of their lives. All of them are now at rest in one of the most beautiful cemeteries I’ve ever seen.

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This prairie…these beautiful prairie wildflowers. This unexpected evening. This visit is a surprise that lifts my spirits and revives my sense of wonder.

The surprises have not all been good ones this week. My ginkgo tree, resilient and indestructible—-I thought — had leafed out. Then—wham! All of its leaves died this week.

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Will it survive? I email the Morton Arboretum’s plant clinic, a free service the Morton Arboretum offers to anyone, anywhere. Sharon, a repository of expert plant knowledge,  diagnoses freeze damage. She says it’s possible my little tree will summon enough energy to put out a new set of leaves.

Or not.

All I can do, she said, is watch…and wait.

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I’ve gotten more practiced at watching and waiting the past two months. No problem.

Another surprise:  Sunday evening, three and a half inches of rain fell in a few hours. The Arboretum is still closed because of the pandemic, so we drive to Leask Lane which borders the west side of the Schulenberg Prairie to see how the prairie has fared. There, we pull off the road to peer through the fence. Willoway Brook rampages wide and wild. As a steward, I know the seeds of invasive plants are coming in with this deluge, and will require attention as the waters subside.

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It’s a challenge I anticipate. But it will be a few more weeks before the Morton Arboretum is open. Although my steward work won’t resume for a bit longer, I’ll be able to hike the Schulenberg Prairie again in less than two weeks.  At last. At last.

I’m anxious to see what the past two months have brought to the prairie. I look over the fence and wonder. Are the small white lady’s slipper orchids in bloom? This should be their week. I remember the delight of discovering them nestled deep in the new grasses.

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It’s a discovery that has never lost its charm, year after year.

What about the shooting star? Will they be visible, even with the old growth, unburned, still in place? Try as I might, I can’t see them. But I remember them, from previous years.

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I think of these years, and how beautiful the wildflowers were. I imagine the queen bumblebees, alighting on one bloom after another,  using their strong thoracic muscles—-performing “buzz pollination”—to loosen the pollen. Like salt sprinkled from a salt shaker.  One thought led to another. Had the federally endangered rusty patched bumblebee emerged? Was it out and about in the wildflowers?

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I wonder if the first eastern forktail damselflies are emerging along Willoway Brook, and what effects the water’s rise and fall are having on the dragonfly and damselfly populations.

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So much is happening! So much to anticipate. June 1, I’ll be back on the prairie I’ve grown to love for the past 22 years where I’ve been steward for almost a decade. Less than two weeks to go now. Until then, I peer through the fence.

It will be worth the wait.

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James P. Ronda, whose quote kicks off the blog today, is the author of Visions of the Tallgrass from University of Oklahoma Press. If you haven’t seen this book of lovely essays with gorgeous photographs by Harvey Payne, check it out here.

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All photographs taken at Vermont Cemetery Prairie, Forest Preserve District of Will County, Naperville, IL unless otherwise noted; copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sign; view of the wetlands; lesser yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes); approach to cemetery remnant; approach to cemetery remnant; golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea); heart-leaved golden Alexanders (Zizia aptera); compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis); cemetery fence; shooting star and gravestone (Dodecatheon meadia); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) and gravestone; wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens) and bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata); prairie and power lines; ginkgo tree (Ginkgo biloba), author’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; small white lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL–photo from previous years; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL–photo from previous years; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia); eastern forktail (Ishnura verticalis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Tremendous thanks to Liz Anna Kozik  for the heads up about Vermont Cemetery Prairie. Check out her tallgrass prairie graphic comics and other art here.

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Join Cindy for a class online!

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology” class online in May through The Morton Arboretum is SOLD OUT.   Sign up now to ensure a spot in our June 7 class here.

Nature Journaling is online Monday, June 1 — 11am-12:30pm through The Morton Arboretum:
Explore how writing can lead you to gratitude and reflection and deepen connections to yourself and the natural world. In this workshop, you will discover the benefits of writing in a daily journal, get tips for developing the habit of writing, and try out simple prompts to get you on your way. (WELL095) — Register here.

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

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?

****

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   

5 Reasons to Hike the February Prairie

“…Some say that February’s name comes from an ancient and forgotten word meaning “a time that tries the patience.” — Hal Borland

*******

February is the shortest month of the year. But it may seem like the longest.

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Big, wet snowflakes fall outside. I welcome the snow—-it brightens up the seemingly endless gray skies that feature so prominently this month. Snow helps lift my mood. Hiking the prairie? Even more so.

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Let’s take a stroll on the prairie…

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…and find five good reasons to walk it in February.

1. Experience Weather Swings

Indecisive February!

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The weather shivers between rain, sleet, sunshine and snow. To hike the prairie this month is to experience shifts of temperature in real time. Feel the freezing sleet on your face. Admire the snowflakes that collect on your sleeve. Crystals play on a hundred thousand seedpods, as precipitation pelts the prairie plants.

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I love to discover transitions on the prairie as the temperatures plunge and rise.

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There’s the tension between freeze and thaw; sunshine and leaden skies; the snap of ice under our boots and the suck of mud. February is all about our impatience for the last month of meteorological winter to finish and the first month of meteorological spring to arrive in Illinois. Hurry up! Our minds are already turning to spring. But what a loss it would be, if we failed to enjoy what February has to offer.

2. Signs of the Unseen

I rarely glimpse the meadow voles, prairie voles, or white-footed mice during the warmer months in the tallgrass. Although once in a while I’m surprised, as Jeff and I were this spring when we reached into a prairie trail map box and found these tenants.

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In winter, these mostly-invisible members of the tallgrass community are betrayed by their tracks and tunnels. I think about them as I follow their progress across the prairie.  The collapsed snow tunnels. An occasional escape hole. And my favorite—the sewing machine “stitches” —-tiny tracks evenly spaced—that criss-cross the trails.

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As we hike, Jeff and I leave our tracks alongside their prints—and the tracks of geese, coyotes, deer, and other members of the prairie community. I like that. It reminds me that we’re all a part of this place.

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3.  Plant Silhouettes

The same gray skies that plunge some of us into seasonal affective disorder throw prairie plants into sharp relief this month. It’s a new perspective. Indian hemp pods swing in bundles, bereft of any seeds.

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I’m more aware of the ribbon-like curves of big bluestem leaves, shorn now of  their turkey-footed seadheads.

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I enjoy the rhythmic sway of Indian grass, pushed by periodic blasts of Arctic wind.

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Prairie cinquefoil takes on a ghostly aspect, blurred in the falling sleet.  Its silhouette makes me think of tulips. Of the bulbs beginning to spear through the garden in my backyard. Of spring.

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These grasses and wildflowers won’t be here long.

Fire is coming.

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4. Unexpected Gatherings

When I think “grassland birds,” mourning doves aren’t exactly what comes to mind. But hiking the College of DuPage’s Russell Kirt Prairie this weekend, that’s what turned up. Notice how this mob has fluffed out their feathers against the cold—like down vests, puffy and tinged with color. It reminds me of the down vests I wore in the 1970s.

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Why did they choose this tree on the prairie, and not another? What are they murmuring about? I wonder. After a bit of looking around on birding websites, I discover a group of doves is called a “dole” or “dule,” and sometimes, a “cote, a “bevy,” and even, a “flight.” Flight? Maybe not. These birds look like they’ve settled in for the long haul.

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Seeing them in the tree reminds me of one of my favorite scenes from the original 1967 Disney adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book.” Remember the four vultures, loosely modeled on the Beatles, talking to each other in a tree? “What do you wanna do?” one asks. “I dunno, what do you want to do?” And so it goes. I can imagine these mourning doves asking each other the same question, over and over. Makes me smile.

5. Snow Magic

Hike the prairie in February, and you’ll be aware of contrasts. Snow is the mitigator. A light dusting of snow makes everything softer, brighter, more appealing. Snowmelt softens the crisp edges of senescing plants, like this prairie dock leaf.

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Cup plants, cracked and brittle…

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…become a foil for the crystal flakes, their veins and wrinkles more obvious now than in the summer. This leaf looks like footed pajamas hung on a laundry line, doesn’t it?

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A sprinkling of snow makes February’s gray skies seem a little brighter.

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A little snow makes the month of February a little more do-able. More digestible. Beautiful. Why not go for a hike and see for yourself?

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February will be over before you know it.  The prairie is waiting.

*****

This winter, I’ve been enjoying the writing of Hal Borland (1900-1978), whose quote from A Sundial of the Seasons, 365 days of natural history observations, opens this post.  It was tough to find his books—all out of print, I believe— so I’m once again grateful to the marvelous Sterling Morton Library of the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL,  which carefully curates vanishing works of literature like Borland’s. Thanks to Mary Joan for introducing me to to his work. The original opening quote is prefaced by the caveat, “There’s no evidence to support it in the dictionaries, but some say… .” Ha!  If the actual etymology of the word “February” isn’t true, the supposed meaning certainly is.

*****

All photos this week are taken at College of DuPage’s Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL, except where noted (top to bottom): Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum);  Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis); “Prairie Parking” sign with unknown lichens; snowy trail through the prairie; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); COD pond; white-footed mice (Peromyscus spp.), Wolf Road Prairie, Westchester, IL (photo from 2019); mouse and vole trails through the snow;  top of the ridge on COD’s Russell Kirt Prairie; Indian hemp, sometimes called dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum); big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); prairie cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta—us older prairie folks will remember it as Potentilla arguta); little bluestem (Schizachryium scoparium); mourning doves (Zenaida macroura); mourning doves (Zenaida macroura); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum); cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum); tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima) and wild bergamot, sometimes called bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); snowy trail through the prairie.

*****

Please join Cindy for a class or talk!

Pre-Valentine’s Event! 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.

Wheaton Book Signing! Local Authors Event.  Sunday, 2-3 p.m., Prairie Path Books in Town Square, Wheaton, IL. Free and open to the public. Click here for details.

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   

Appreciating Prairie

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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…to the wind-stripped plants.

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

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

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And the gulf fritillary butterfly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The tallgrass prairie.

*****

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

*****

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 

The Tallgrass Prairie: A Cabin Fever Cure

“I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure in the landscape—the loneliness of it—the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it; the whole story doesn’t show.”–Andrew Wyeth

*****

There’s something about a Midwestern cold snap. Suddenly, I have an urge to bake bread. Read books by the fireplace. The coffeemaker perks from dawn until dusk.

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I halfheartedly look for my hiking boots to go for a prairie hike, then pause. Wind howls around the house and rattles the windows. My weather app tells me  the “real-feel” temperature is minus 16 outside.  I go back to my book. Wimp! I scold myself. But I feel a deep desire to hibernate.

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As the snowfall ended and hypothermic temperatures dissolved Monday into manageable levels, indoor pleasures palled. I had read through a large stack of library books over the weekend, baked more sourdough bread than Jeff and I could ever possibly eat, and drank enough coffee and tea to keep myself awake for a month.  Cabin fever. Now, I was ready for a prairie hike.

You too? Let’s go.

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Jeff and I arrived at Belmont Prairie Monday to find an empty parking lot. Looks like a prairie hike isn’t on most people’s agenda. Snow underlies the prairie, with the occasional frozen pool showing the effects of sleet and rain over the weekend.

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Grasses are bowed by drifts.

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Others are upright, but shorn of their seedheads, like these big bluestem.

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It looks like January—winter at last—on the prairie, from the bare trees on the rim of the tallgrass to the golds of the grasses.

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The prairie is mostly quiet, except for the occasional skein of Canada geese calling overhead.

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As we hike, we see a few tracks here and there, showing that at least one person has trekked these paths since Saturday. Mostly, the paths are full of a different kind of print. Squirrel tracks. Deer. The occasional mouse or vole hole. As we move down the trail, Jeff grabs my arm. Look! Five white-tailed deer bound away. We watch them go, blurs in the distance.

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This prairie remnant—untouched by the plow and left undeveloped—holds a treasure-trove of native plants.

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Each in its particular stage of senesce. Each with its own particular allure.

Carrion flower.

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Bee balm—or wild bergamot as some prairie stewards like to call it—is everywhere. Its scientific name, Monarda fistulosa, is apt: fistulosa means “hollow reed” or “tubular.” No wonder hummingbirds and hummingbird clearwing moths swarm this plant in the summer.

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Pewter-colored wild quinine is as pretty in January as it is in bloom. Gardeners would call these plants “winter interest.”

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Ditto for rattlesnake master, whose yucca-like leaves have interesting texture and a rough-hewn elegance.

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Some of the rattlesnake master seedheads remind me of straw-colored dahlias.

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Not everything I admire is native. Even though Queen Anne’s lace is an invasive, I always enjoy it in January. I love its structure. Later, in the growing months, I’ll weed it out on the prairie and in my backyard. But for now, I can see its delicate grace.

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The clouds begin to break up, and the sun suddenly throws the prairie into sharp relief.

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We’ve reached the far side of the preserve now, and the stream is just ahead.

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The bridge is a bit treacherous, but I’ve got Yaktrax on for the first time this season.  These rubber stabilizers pull on over my hiking boots and help me keep my footing on the ice. Today, they are a complete mismatch, as I’ve lost one each from two different pairs (one has a strap, one is without). But they see me across the icy trails and bridge without mishap.

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The creek through Belmont Prairie, full after Saturday’s rains, is mostly frozen now.

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I stop and take a closer look.

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Ice art is everywhere, a dance between ice and thaw. It’s as if the prairie grasses have scribbled designs in the stream.

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I love the abstract shapes and delicate traceries. Some seem to reflect the clouds of a prairie sky.

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The melted places add their own filigreed patterns.

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The tips of growing plants—blue flag iris, perhaps?—are barely visible, spearing through the ice and snow.

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Green plants! Signs of life. They make me think of spring. But—hold on. I don’t want to rush this season. We need the snow cover and cold each year for the health of the tallgrass. Winter is an important chapter in the prairie’s story.

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I can’t help the jolt of happiness I feel, though.  The green plant tips seem to hold a promise. Spring is coming.

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As we hike back to the car, I’m grateful for the bracing prairie hike. Glad to see the beauty of the ice and snow. Grateful—yes, really—for the cold that blew so many cobwebs out of my mind. I feel rejuvenated. My mind is clear.

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Cabin fever? Not me. Not anymore.

Thanks, tallgrass.

*******

Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) was a controversial painter specializing in realism. Love his work—-or find it cheesy—he was an important figure in the popular culture of the mid-1900s. His most famous painting is probably Christina’s World. Charles Schulz fans will remember in Schulz’s “Peanuts” comic strip that when Snoopy’s dog house burned down, Snoopy replaced his Van Gogh with a Wyeth painting. Wyeth received the National Medal of Arts in 2007.

*****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken this week at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL (top to bottom): ice crystals on the prairie trail; ice crystals on prairie grass;  trail through Belmont Prairie; view in to Belmont Prairie; grasses in snow; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); mixed grasses and trees; Canada geese (Branta canadensis); white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus); pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida); carrion vine (Smilax spp.); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa);wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium); invasive Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) trail through Belmont Prairie; trail through Belmont Prairie; bridge over the stream; stream through Belmont Prairie; stream through Belmont Prairie; ice art, ice art; ice art; ice art with growing tips of unknown plant; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica); unknown plant; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans).

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.

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 Little Prairie Fog Magic

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

Fog envelopes the prairie and prairie savanna.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Switchgrass hangs wands of lights in the gloom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

****

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

10 Reasons to Hike the January Prairie

“This life is after all a miracle and we ought to pay fierce attention every moment… .” —Brian Doyle

*****

January on the prairie is underway, a yo-yo between freeze and thaw; snow and sun.

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Walking the prairie on a gray windy morning, contrasts are everywhere.

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Carrion flower still clutches its inedible fruits; some plump, others desiccated.

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Prairie dock leaves evince a weathered beauty that only comes with age and time.

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They are unrecognizable from the green elephant ears they were in July. The air smells of wet earth and cold. Grasses whisper in the wind. A hawk silently bullets by, rapt on its prey. The hum of traffic in the distance is the only sound. So quiet. Peaceful.

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Until—-scritch scritch scritch. Up in a black walnut tree, a fox squirrel rhythmically gnaws a black walnut. The sound ricochets through the January air. How can a squirrel’s teeth grinding on a nut make so much noise?

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There is so much to experience on the tallgrass prairie in winter. Here are ten reasons to hike the prairie in January.

*****

10. The drama of winter prairie skies, changing like a kaleidoscope from moment to moment.

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9. The sound of water moving through the prairie; music that is more appreciated in January than July.

 

8. The grace of a single seedhead such as Canada wild rye…canadawildryeSPMA1520WM.jpg

7. …or, the joy of massed individuals, like these large swathes of bee balm.

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6. Possibilities for the future in the mowed firebreaks, ready for the prescribed burn to come.

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5. The glories of prairie plants that are more interesting in seed than in bloom, such as Illinois bundleflower.

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4. Small pleasures like the incredible diversity of lichens on a log in the tallgrass.

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3. Large dramas, such as the sweep of the prairie under a dusting of snow.

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2. The fascination of following animal tracks and trying to understand their stories written upon the landscape.

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1. Ice art, in all its unexpected and temporary forms.

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Welcome to a new year on the prairie.

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There is so much to anticipate this month.

****

The opening quote is from Brian Doyle’s (1956-2017)  One Long River of Song. If you haven’t read Doyle, this is a good collection to begin with. Known as a “writer’s writer,” Doyle wrote many novels, essays, and poetry collections. He also won numerous awards, including the John Burroughs Medal and four Pushcart Prizes.

*****

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby and taken this week at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (top to bottom): mosses and snow; bridge to the prairie; carrion flower (Smilax spp.); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); January on the prairie; eastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger); prairie sky; Willoway Brook; Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); mowed firebreak; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis); lichens on a log; prairie trail; coyote (Canis latrans) tracks;  ice on the trail; bench on the prairie in the snow.

*****

Please join Cindy at one of her upcoming classes or talks in the new year!

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