Tag Archives: nature writing

5 Reasons to Hike the November Prairie

“November is chill, frosted mornings with a silver sun rising behind the trees, red cardinals at the feeders, and squirrels running scallops along the tops of the gray stone walls”. —Jean Hersey

*****

November marks a tumultuous halfway point. What a month!

School playgrounds are empty.

Families fear to gather. Headlines promise no quick answers.

Pewter skies. Cold drizzle. Tornado watches. 50-mph winds.

Let’s go look for hope. Peace. Beauty.

Here are five reasons to hike the November prairie.

  1. November’s prairie is a sea of gorgeous foamy seeds. Exploding asters loosen their shattered stars against the winds.

Boneset seeds prepare to set sail on the breeze.

Thistles are an exercise in contrast.

Thimbleweed’s wispy Q-tips hold fast against the wind. A few lose their grip, but most will hang on to their seeds through winter.

So many seeds.

So much promise for 2021. Hope for the future.

2. November’s prairie offers the solace of gray skies. Depressing? No. Curiously calming to the spirit, even in high winds, which carve curves in the clouds.

On mornings when the temperature drops below 30 degrees, the freeze softens plants; breaks them down. They crumple. Ice pierces succulent plants from the inside out.

The skies are misted and vague.

The future seems uncertain. But the skies, cycling between sunshine and steel, remind us how quickly change is possible.

3. November’s prairie is full of music. Autumn’s orchestra is fully tuned now, with winter whispering soft notes in the wings. Switchgrass and Indian grass hiss in high winds, like onions sizzling in a frying pan.

Geese cry overhead. on their way to nowhere special.

A train blows its mournful whistle.

I listen until the sound fades away.

4. Leaves are the stars of November’s tallgrass. Prairie dock leaves are topographic maps of the world.

Rattlesnake master masters the curves. I’m reminded of the Olympic ribbon dancers; rhythmic gymnastics performed in taupes and beiges.

Yet these leaves are immobile. Grace and motion frozen in high winds.

Other leaves signal surrender. Tattered and shredded by weather.

I kneel by the compass plant, trying to read its leaves for direction.

It seems as lost as I am.

5. November’s prairie is art in process. What will you see there?

Works by the impressionists.

Echoes of Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World.

Modern art?

Perhaps.

The prairie paints a thousand pictures every day. Sings a hundred songs. Tells stories.

Ready for more?

Let’s go.

*****

Jean Hersey (1902-date of death unknown) was the author of The Shape of a Year. She wrote about gardening, houseplants, herbs, grief, flowering shrubs, and penned many homespun articles for Women’s Day magazine.

All photos this week are from Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL unless tagged otherwise (top to bottom): deserted school playground, Glen Ellyn, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); Belmont Prairie in November; Belmont prairie boardwalk; panicled asters (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum); tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum); pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor); thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica); mixed grasses and forbs; gray skies over Belmont Prairie; hard freeze (prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL): Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripterus); Canada geese (Branta canadensis); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium); unknown prairie forb; unknown prairie forb; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); mixed grasses; Belmont Prairie edges; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) in November; Jeff hikes Belmont Prairie; trail through Belmont Prairie in November.

*****

Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization–now booking talks for 2021. Email Cindy through http://www.cindycrosby.com.

Literary Gardens Online: Friday, Dec.4, 1-2:30 p.m.CST– Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby from wherever you live in the world for a fun look at great (and not-so-great) gardens in literature and poetry. From Agatha Christie’s mystery series, to Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Goudge, Rumer Godden, May Sarton, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Gilbert, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, and Lewis Carroll–and many more! This class is online. Register here through The Morton Arboretum.

Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.

Chasing Dragonflies Final Cover 620.jpg

Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org, direct from Northwestern University Press (use coupon code NUP2020 for 25% off), or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during these unusual times.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (phrelanzer). Or visit her website at http://www.cindycrosby.com. See you there!

Finding Peace on the Prairie

“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”–Julian of Norwich

******

Forecast: 25 degrees. One last time, I promise myself. I’ll cover the garden. One last time. Haul out the sheets. Tuck in ruffled kale, rainbow swiss chard, sugar snap peas. Smooth striped sheets over beets.

Kholrabi and parsnip? Check. Lettuce? Covered. All of these vegetables in my autumn garden are reliably frost tolerant, but—25 degrees! I don’t want to risk leaving my raised bed unprotected. Good night. Sweet dreams.

Monday morning, the plants look a bit shell-shocked, but are still in good shape. With a predicted wild swing to almost 70 degrees later this week, I want to hang on to the last vestiges of my garden. Just a little longer. Please.

It’s time to let go.

October ended this week with a full Hunter’s Blue Moon pulling me out like the tides to the back porch.

Bright red Mars has been a delight, rising in the east each evening just after sunset.

The late year constellations are slowly coming into focus. They signal change. Transition. The year 2020 is winding down. Today—Tuesday, November 3— I’ll walk the tallgrass prairie.

In these last months of this year, when faced with something overwhelming, the tallgrass is my solace.

In a year when life seems out of kilter beyond my wildest imagination, the prairie reliably does what it always does. Grass emerges in the spring. Wildflowers bloom, set seed. Leaves crisp, decay, fade away. Forty-mile-per- hour winds that rip leaves off the trees? No problem. Late October snows in my backyard prairie patch? No big deal. The prairie’s deep roots, put down over years of readiness, keeps it strong.

The prairie is indifferent to politics, pandemics, and any sort of news. Comforting, isn’t it? As Mary Oliver writes in her poem, Wild Geese, “Meanwhile the world goes on.”

The prairie embraces the change each season brings. As I hike today, I’ll listen to the breeze shush the big bluestem and switchgrass. Follow the scattershot of unnameable birds strewn across the sun-faded blue of the sky. Caress the cold sandpaper of prairie dock leaves. Inhale the scent of a hundred thousand prairie grasses and wildflowers cycling through the season—living, dying, dormant, reborn.

Earlier this week in my backyard, I planted spring bulbs for bees. Or—was it really for the bees? Maybe it was for me. I want to cultivate anticipation, rather than dread. If a bag full of crocus, daffodil, and allium bulbs can help me do that, so be it.

I plant the bulbs near the fairy garden the grandkids created, near an old aquarium with a screen top. In September, I found two black swallowtail caterpillars munching on my parsley. I stashed them in the aquarium outside (leaving a few of their kindred to nibble parsley in peace).

Their rather ugly chrysalis are strung on the loose branches inside the glass walls. Seeing the aquarium is another reminder that spring will come. With warmer weather, the butterflies will emerge, fresh and ready for a new world.

That last flush of vibrant fall foliage this past week reminds me of an opera’s grand finale. October wore brilliant, colorful costumes as everything lay dying and was brought to a stunning conclusion. You felt the curtain drop as October ended and November began.

And now, we wait for November to usher in the next act in this pandemic.

Issa Kobayashi wrote, This world of dewis a world of dewand yet, and yet.

The past eight months have been unimaginable. And yet. And yet. We are more resilient than we think. Like the prairie, we’ve put down deep roots. We’ve tapped into strength we didn’t know we had.

As we look ahead, we’ll think of ways we can care for each other more fully. Support those who are less resilient. Reach out to our friends and loved ones, especially those alone. Ensure no one goes hungry in a time where so much is unstable and jobs are uncertain. Protect the elderly, the children. Stand for justice, even when it’s uncomfortable to do so. We’ll be flexible as we continue to learn and adapt about this strange time we find ourselves in.

Let’s walk the prairie, and admire its beauty and resilience. Then, let’s work together—no matter what the day brings—to create a better world.

******

Julian of Norwich (1343-1416) is the author of the first book written in English by a woman. She was an anchorite, a mystic, and lived during the time of the “Black Death” in England, in which 40-60 percent of the population died from bubonic plague.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): mixed kale (Brassica oleracea), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie grasses and wildflowers, Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL; full Hunter’s Blue Moon over author’s prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; line of osage orange trees (Maclura pomifera) with bright Mars rising, College of DuPage East Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; trail through Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL; video clip of snow in October on author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; ducks and geese on a lake at Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL; lake at Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL; purple crocus (Crocus sp.); author’s backyard garden in March, Glen Ellyn, IL; eastern black swallowtail butterfly caterpillar (Papilio polyxenes) on parsley (Petroselinum crispum), author’s backyard garden in September, Glen Ellyn, IL: eastern black swallowtail butterfly (Papilio polyxenes) on cut-and-come-again zinnia (Zinnia elegans), author’s backyard garden, September, Glen Ellyn, IL; bald cypress (Taxodium distichum), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; full Hunter’s Blue Moon over author’s prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL: sunset over author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; walking on Springbrook Prairie at sunset, Naperville, IL.

*****

Today is election day. Please vote!

Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization–now booking talks for 2021. Email Cindy through http://www.cindycrosby.com.

Register for Cindy’s Literary Gardens Online: Friday, Dec.4, 1-2:30 p.m.CST– Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby from wherever you live in the world for a fun look at great (and not-so-great) gardens in literature and poetry. From Agatha Christie’s mystery series, to Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Goudge, Rumer Godden, May Sarton, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Gilbert, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, and Lewis Carroll–and many more! This class is online. Register here through The Morton Arboretum.

Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org, direct from Northwestern University Press (use coupon code NUP2020 for 25% off), or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during these unusual times.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (phrelanzer). Or visit her website at http://www.cindycrosby.com. See you there!

Wolf Road Prairie Monarchs: A Wing and a Prayer

“Coming in on a wing and a prayer, what a show…”–Harold Adamson

*****

Sunday morning dawns bright, windy, and clear. A lone green darner dragonfly zips away as Jeff and I step onto the crumbling sidewalk—one of many sidewalks that run through the 82-acre Wolf Road Prairie remnant in Westchester, Illinois.

Sidewalks? In a prairie? It’s a part of Wolf Road Prairie’s heritage. The sidewalks were built on this remnant prairie as part of a planned development. The prairie was subdivided into almost 600 lots in the 1920s. Then, the Great Depression hit, and ended the project before more construction was completed. A lucky break for the tallgrass.

Later, proposed development in the 1970s was thwarted by the conservation-minded Save the Prairie Organization. Thanks to their work, and the work of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Salt Creek Greenway Association, and Forest Preserve District of Cook County, we have this amazing designated Illinois Nature Preserve to hike through this morning.

Although there are more than 360 native plant species as part of Wolf Road Prairie’s mosaic of prairie, wetland, and savanna for us to admire and identify…

…we are here today to hike and see what dragonflies are out and about.

What you look for isn’t always what you find.

Monarch! Jeff points to a butterfly nectaring on one of the sawtooth sunflowers that floods the prairie with color. We enjoy the contrast of the butterfly’s bright orange and black against the yellow for a moment, and then…Another one over here!

A monarch over our heads. I point. Here’s another one! A monarch brushes my shoulder on its way to the goldenrod. Suddenly, we see monarchs everywhere.

As we hike, butterflies pop up from the prairie wildflowers, disturbed in the act of fueling up for the long journey south to Mexico.

Others dance their butterfly ballet across the sky, sometimes singly, other times in twos. As we hike, we are hit with the realization. This is monarch migration.

In my almost six decades, I’ve only seen this phenomenon once before — at Kankakee Sands at dusk in northwestern Indiana. On September 18 in 2018, we had stopped on the way home from visiting family in Indiana with hopes to see The Nature Conservancy’s new bison herd. Instead, we saw monarchs. Hundreds of them. (Read about that experience here.)

Now, on Wolf Prairie, we hike and we count. Then, we give up. Too many monarchs. We just enjoy them. After an hour, we reluctantly head home. But the images of butterflies and wildflowers linger.

Jeff and I talk about the monarch migration off and on all day. Finally, around dinner time, we look at each other and nod. Let’s go back. We decide to”borrow” two of the grandkids for the trip. We want them to see this epic gathering—one we have talked about with them since they were born.

But—will the monarchs still be there, hours later?

They are.

Nectaring on sunflowers.

Juicing up on tall boneset.

Dining on pasture thistle.

Sipping from goldenrod.

Monarchs in motion. Seeing them on so many different wildflowers is a good reminder that monarchs need more than milkweed. A lot more. They need fall blooming plants that will provide nectar as they travel thousands of miles to their final destination.

They need what we find on a healthy tallgrass preserve like Wolf Road Prairie. It’s these preserved natural areas that help ensure the monarch’s survival.

There are such wonders to be found in the world.

But you have to go look.

When you do, maybe you’ll feel as we did after seeing the monarchs.

Hopeful for the future.

*******

The opening quote is from Coming in On a Wing and a Prayer, a song popular during World War 2. It was written by Harold Adamson with music composed by Jimmy McHugh, and made the top 20 bestselling songs of 1943.

******

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Wolf Road Prairie (top to bottom): Wolf Road Prairie September 13; sidewalk through the prairie; sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus); biennial gaura (Gaura biennis); monarch leaving sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus) after nectaring; Jeff hikes Wolf Road Prairie during monarch migration; monarch (Danaus plexippus) nectaring on sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus); hiking Wolf Prairie during monarch migration; monarch sailing over Wolf Road prairie; monarch (Danaus plexippus) nectaring on sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosserratus); counting monarchs (Danaus plexippus); monarch (Danaus plexippus) nectaring on tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum); monarch (Danaus plexippus) nectaring on pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor); monarch (Danaus plexippus) nectaring on Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis); exploring the prairie; mixed blooms; hiking Wolf Road Prairie; monarch (Danaus plexippus) on sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus); finding monarchs at Wolf Road Prairie.

*******

SPECIAL EVENT! DuPage County friends —DuPage Monarch Project is sponsoring a “Parks for Pollinators” bioblitz through 9/20. Click here to find out how you can contribute your observations and make a difference in the natural world! Simply take photos of pollinators and upload them to iNaturalist, a free App for your phone. Have fun and help this great effort.

“Nature Writing Online” begins Monday, October 5, through The Morton Arboretum. Want to commit to improving and fine-tuning your writing for six weeks? This is a great opportunity to jump start your blog, your book, or your journal writing while working online from home, supplemented with three evenings of live evening Zoom classes on alternate weeks. Class size is limited; register here.

Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.

Chasing Dragonflies Final Cover 620.jpg

Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org, direct from Northwestern University Press (use coupon code NUP2020 for 25% off), or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during this chaotic time.

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

September Arrives on the Prairie

The three great elemental sounds in nature are the sound of rain, the sound of wind in a primeval wood, and the sound of outer ocean on a beach.” –Henry Beston

*****

Crackle. Pop. Crunch. The once-tender prairie wildflowers and grasses snap under the weight of my boots. The wind rustles the dry big bluestem and switchgrass. Dust puffs up behind me.

Today is the first day of meteorological autumn. The prairie is hard as concrete, desperate for water.

Since the Durecho on August 10, not a drop has fallen in Glen Ellyn. Twenty-one days without precipitation. I miss the sound of rain. I miss the way the garden lifts its leaves and perks up after a shower. I long for the slam-ka-BAM of thunder, the drumming of raindrops on the roof. Flicker-flashes of lightning that illuminate the world. And the clean, earthy smell of the prairie after a storm.

I think of the early settlers and the Dust Bowl. How did they feel as the harsh winds blew their lives to ruin? It’s only been three weeks without rain, and I’m on edge. Brittle. Testy.

In the evenings, I water my backyard prairie patch and garden, but the green bean leaves turn yellow anyway. Zucchini leaves dry up. Tomatoes hang green on the vine and fail to ripen. Cardinal flowers close up shop as the cup plants crumb and brown.

Wildflowers wilt.

We need rain.

I walk my dragonfly monitoring routes on the prairies, astonished. Where are the Odes? Has the lack of water affected them? Perhaps. A few migrants —a trio of black saddlebag dragonflies, a cluster of common green darners circling overhead, the glint of a wandering glider—are all I see on an hour-long outing. Where before there was a richness of species and numbers, the dragonflies have dwindled to these few. Damselflies? Not a single one.

And it’s no wonder. Willoway Brook’s tributaries—usually aflutter with ebony jewelwing damselflies and blue-fronted dancers—are dry and choked with brush.

Ordinarily, we complain about rain: that despoiler of picnics, outdoor weddings, kayak outings, and camping trips. And yet. How we long for it when it doesn’t show up.

A lone common buckeye butterfly surprises me on the path. It fruitlessly loops from clover to clover, seeking nectar. The red clover blooms are withered and brown and it comes up empty.

On the parched prairie, the grasses and wildflowers continue on. Tall coreopsis is vibrant despite the lack of precipitation.

Cream gentians still look fresh and supple.

Carrion flower, with its alienesque seeds, is show-stopping.

Big bluestem and Indian grass, look brittle and bruised.

Stiff goldenrod pours out its blooms, irregardless of drought, attracting a goldenrod soldier beetle (sometimes called leatherwings). Butterflies love it. Monarchs depend on this relatively well-behaved goldenrod and other fall wildflowers to fuel up for their long journey south. Planted in backyards and prairies, goldenrod helps ensure survival of this beloved butterfly.

As a child, I remember bringing an older relative goldenrod in a kid-picked bouquet. Alarmed, she thanked me for the flowers, but removed the goldenrod—because she said it gave her allergies. Today, we know this is a myth. It’s the ragweeds (both common and giant ragweed —-also native) that bloom about this time of year that wreak havoc with allergy suffers. We can enjoy goldenrod without fear.

Tall boneset announces autumn as it opens in clouds on the edges of the prairie, mingling with goldenrod and competing for a seat in the savanna.

Nearby, wingstem in full bloom attracts its share of pollinators, including this non-native honeybee and native bumblebee.

There’s been a lot of discussion among prairie stewards about competition between native and non-native bees. Should we have beehives on our prairie restorations? Or not? Read this excellent post by Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie’s Bill Glass here. We’re always learning new things about prairie stewardship; always adjusting our management strategies and expectations as we grapple with new information and its implications for a healthy prairie. It’s important to keep an open mind. Not to get mired in doing things “the way we’ve always done them.” To keep reading and learning from others who have experiences we can benefit from. I mull over information on managing for native bees as I walk.

As I finish my hike on the prairie, thinking about prairie management issues, I try to be patient. Rain will come. The prairie will survive. Soon, my longing for rain will be only a memory. In the meantime, I cultivate patience.

The road ahead is uncertain.

Staying flexible. Keeping an open mind. Adapting. Listening to experts. Acting on the science as it unfolds. Practicing patience.

Good advice for prairie stewardship—and for life in general in September.

*******

Henry Beston (1888-1968) was a writer and naturalist, best known for The Outermost House. I particularly love the chapter “Orion Rises On the Dunes.” Check it out here.

****

All photos taken at the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, and copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): the prairie in August; new england aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae); canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum); common green darner dragonfly (Ajax junius); Willoway Brook; wild lettuce or prickly lettuce (Lactuca serriola); common buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); cream gentian (Gentiana alba); carrion flower (probably Smilax ecirrhata); indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigida) with goldenrod soldier beetle (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus) and unknown beetle; tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima); tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum); wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) with a honeybee (Apis sp.) and bumblebee (Bombus sp.); Illinois tick trefoil (Desmodium illinoense) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) with unidentified insects; path through the Schulenberg Prairie; smooth aster (Symphyotrichum laeve).

******

Join Cindy for an Online Class this Autumn! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for details.

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” Begin a new session this Thursday, September 2 through The Morton Arboretum! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional Zoom session. Classes are limited to 50. Register here.

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

Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.

Chasing Dragonflies Final Cover 620.jpg

Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org, direct from Northwestern University Press (use coupon code NUP2020 for 25% off), or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during this chaotic time.

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

Bringing Prairie Home

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bees love both species. Me too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It all starts with a single plant.

*****

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

****

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

A Little Tallgrass Tranquility

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

******

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.

******

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

*****

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

*******

Join Cindy for a class online!

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

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

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

*****

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.

****

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.

***

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Strong breezes bend the grasses.

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

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

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

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

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What a difference sunshine and warmth make!

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

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

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

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

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The prairie world has been half-dreaming…

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…almost sleeping.

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It’s time to wake up.

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

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Spring.

*****

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

*****

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.”

******

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

*****

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

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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