Tag Archives: nature

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

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org, 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. 

Spring on the Prairie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Those skies! Or should we look down…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Purple meadow rue shows off its distinctive leaf forms.

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

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

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

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

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

Sounds familiar.

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

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…and gentians and bee balm emerging alongside shooting star.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not even a pandemic can change that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking for Light on the Prairie

“The…world becomes even more beautiful the closer you look. All it takes is attention and knowing how to look.” – –Robin Wall Kimmerer

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What stories does a feather have to tell?

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Jeff and I are hiking Belmont Prairie; our last hike, it turns out, for a while. As we follow the shallow stream to where it disappears…

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…the feather comes into focus at my feet. It looks unreal, with its polka-dotted edge and its graceful arch. Such a lovely silken feather, lying in the mud. I wonder. Who did it belong to? Later, I text a photo of it to a birder friend. Downy or hairy woodpecker, he tells me, most likely. I wonder at the stories this feather could tell.

Once, this feather embodied flight. It provided warmth and waterproofing. Now, it is grounded. Soon, it will disappear into the prairie soil and be unremembered. Except by me.

I’ve felt sad this week. A deep grief. There has been so much loss.

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My usual remedy for sadness and uncertainty is to go to “my” prairies and walk, journal, and think. But the options for hiking have narrowed this week. My prairie stewardship is on hold because of our shelter in place orders. One prairie where I lead a regular work group is closed. Another, requires extensive travel, and I’m no longer comfortable with the idea of driving 90 miles each way. Scientific research and monitoring is halted until the end of the month. Or longer.

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And now, a walk on Belmont Prairie—not far down the road from where I live—is becoming an adventure of the sort I don’t want. Narrow trails. Too many hikers.  Each of us is painfully aware of not getting too close to the other.

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Today, instead of enjoying my walk here, I feel tense.  A hiker appears in front of me, wearing earbuds. I step deep into the tallgrass and we smile at each other as he passes. Too close. Another arrives on a bike. Seeing me, she veers away. A bridge requires single file passage. Because there has been no prescribed burn due to the shelter in place, it’s difficult to see someone until we almost run into each other.

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This, I come to understand as I walk, will be my last hike here for a while. Looks like our backyard prairie may be the best place for Jeff and me during the next few weeks.

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Later, I try to sit with my grief over yet another loss. The loss of beloved places. I try not to ignore my feelings. Not set them aside. But I let myself feel this grief for a few moments. It’s slightly terrifying. My old ways of coping by “going for a hike on the prairie”  are no longer available. I realize I have a choice. I can be angry at what’s closed off to me. I can be depressed at what’s been taken away. Or…

I can be grateful for what I do have.

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I don’t want you to think I’m being Polyanna-ish about this. I’ve been mad this week, and I’ve been sad. I mourned when my  stewardship work was put on hold; and cried again when my other prairie was closed to visitation, science work, and stewardship. These were good decisions by good organizations—made for the health of people. But tough for those of us who love a particular place. Each loss hurt—to not see the emerging pasque flowers bud and bloom, to miss the first crinkled shoots of wood betony pushing through the prairie soil. To not watch the killdeer return. The emerald scrub brushes of newly-emerging prairie dropseed will be long and lush before I’m hiking those trails again.

belmontprairiebackside420WM.jpgThe solace of these familiar and beloved places is no longer available to me. I can choose to continue to be unhappy about this.  Or I can take account of what I do have.

What I do have is a backyard. I have my walks. ‘Round and ’round and ’round the block we go each morning, Jeff and I, soaking up the surprisingly diverse natural world of our neighborhood. Grassy lawns full of common wild violets, our Illinois state wildflower.

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Lawns–some full of diversity, others chemical-ed into monocultured submission. Some are power-edged sharply along sidewalks with volcano-mulched trees, aggressively brought to obedience.

Others are softer, more natural. An eastern-cottontail munches clover in one yard against a backdrop of daffodils. We hear loud cries, and look up as sandhill cranes fly over, somewhere above the bare silver maple limbs etched across blue skies and altocumulus clouds. Like stained glass windows to another world we can only dimly perceive.

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In the cracks of the driveways and the sidewalks blooms a tiny flower. I’m not sure if it’s early Whitlow grass or common chickweed. My iNaturalist app isn’t sure of the ID either. I count the petals, and when I return home, consult my field guides. Chickweed has five petals, deeply cleft—which look like ten at a glance, my guide tells me. Early Whitlow grass, I read, has four petals, deeply cleft, looking as if they are eight petals.

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Chickweed it is!

As I walk, I think about the backyard that will be my “hiking spot” for the foreseeable future. When we moved in, and I met our neighbor Gerould Wilhelm, co-author of Flora of the Chicago Region, I asked his advice. What was the best way to learn native plants of our area? He told me, “Key out one plant in your backyard a day, Cindy. By the time a year has passed, you’ll know 365 plants.” It was great advice, and I took it—for a while. Then I quit. Now might be the time to put my backyard ID into more regular practice.

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I walk through my yard, looking. Over there in the prairie patch—new growth of rattlesnake master and shooting star. And —oh no—buckthorn! Garlic mustard has infiltrated the prairie patch, pond, and garden beds. While my attention was elsewhere doing my stewardship work removing invasives the past few years, these bad-boy plants crept into my yard.

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As I slosh through the wetter areas of the yard, I’m reminded that our house is on the downslope of three other homes in our suburban subdivision. Water, water, everywhere. Our raised beds have helped us solve the problem of growing vegetables in the “swamp.” My little hand-dug pond, sited at the lowest point of the yard, holds some of the water and provides great habitat for western chorus frogs, dragonflies and damselflies, and marsh marigolds which came into bloom a few days ago on the perimeter.

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One of the outflows of all this water is the mosses that accumulate.  But what kinds of mosses? With mosses on my mind, I ordered a  “Common Mosses of the Northeast and Appalachians,” recommended by Dr. Andrew Hipp.  (If you haven’t checked out his thoughtful and intelligent woodland blog, give it a look!) Mosses are…. difficult. I begin with a simple moss that appears in the cracks of our neighborhood sidewalks and backyard patio.

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I follow with a photo of a moss from my Belmont hike.

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Hmmm. It’s a good book. But I can see identifying mosses is going to be a challenge. There’s no instant gratification, and it’s a lot more difficult than ID’ing the chickweed. But, it’s a potentially absorbing activity that I can look forward to over the next few weeks in my backyard. I like having something new to focus on that’s available to me.

After a while, I put the mosses book aside and sit in a patch of sunshine. A cardinal pours out his heart to his lady-love. Goldfinches chitter and chat, then swarm the thistle feeder, resplendent in their brightening plumage.

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It’s good to feel a connection with my backyard. A kinship with the natural world.  ID’ing mosses—feeling the warmth of the sun, listening to birdsong—reminds me that I’m not alone. I needed that reminder right now.  You, too?

We’re in this together.

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Keep looking for the light. It’s there.

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Keep watching for signs of hope. Pay attention.

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Hope and light are all around us. We only need to look.

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The opening quote is from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s (1953-) Gathering  Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses (2003). She is best known for Braiding Sweetgrass, but her earlier book is still my favorite.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): downy or hairy woodpecker feather, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; stream trickling to an end at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; trail by Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; raccoon (Procyon lotor) tracks, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; footbridge over the stream through Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; Jeff hikes Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; common blue violet (Viola sororia sororia); silver maple (Acer saccharinum) with sky and clouds, author’s neighborhood, Glen Ellyn, IL; common chickweed (Stellaria media), author’s neighborhood, Glen Ellyn, IL;   bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), invasive Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) and native rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; unknown moss (but hopefully not for long!), author’s neighborhood, Glen Ellyn, IL; unknown moss (but hopefully not for long!); Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; goldfinches (Spinus tristis) at the feeder, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; sun halo over author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL: unknown rock on my neighborhood walk, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Thanks to John Heneghan for help with the bird feather ID.

*****

Cindy’s Speaking and Classes

Cindy’s classes have moved online! For updates on classes and events, please go to http://www.cindycrosby.com. The next “Tallgrass Prairie Ecology” class online begins in early May through The Morton Arboretum. See more information and registration  here. The website is updated to reflect current conditions. A free spring wildflower webinar is also in the works! Watch for a link on Cindy’s website, coming soon.

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 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. 

A Holiday Hike in the Tallgrass

“If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere.”—Laura Ingalls Wilder
*****

It’s 50 degrees. Can it really be December?

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Jeff and I took a break from wrapping gifts this weekend and went for a hike on the Belmont Prairie, a small remnant in Downer’s Grove, IL. The weather was flawless.

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We were greeted immediately.

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As a prairie steward, deer aren’t a welcome sight. But I enjoyed the fluid grace of this white-tail in motion as it bounded into the treeline. Nearby, flattened grasses showed where the deer may have spent the night.

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Many prairie plants in December are almost unrecognizable. Goldenrod leaves , shaped by weather and age, look like ribbon curls. Remember old-fashioned ribbon candy? It was a staple of my childhood holidays. This stage of the plant brings it to mind, albeit with a little less color.

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Goldenrod gall rosettes are as jaunty as spring wildflowers. It’s difficult to believe an insect is the artist behind this creation.

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The bright sunshine and deep shadows of early afternoon throw familiar plants into unfamiliarity. Rattlesnake master leaves, toothed and deeply grooved, bear little resemblance to the juicy green foliage of spring and summer.

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The rattlesnake master seedheads are brittle and alien-esque in the bright sun.

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Prairie dock leaves remind me of an elephant’s trunk.

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I hum tunes from “The Nutcracker” when I see these picked-over pale purple coneflower seedheads on the prairie. This one looks like a ballerina in a stiff tutu with her hands in the air.

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I love the backlit drum major’s baton of the round-headed bush clover…

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…and the weathered beads of wild quinine, like tarnished silver that needs a little polishing.

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On this unseasonably warm day, I think of the Schulenberg Prairie where  I’m a steward and the volunteer hours my team spent weeding and cutting; planting plugs and seeding this year. Many of them, through patient ID work, discovered several new plant species. By coming out to the prairie at night, we were able to ID almost a hundred moth species new to our site this season. Patiently, volunteers made progress on invasive plant removal. We renovated our prairie display beds. Made our prairie more visitor-friendly. All reasons to celebrate.

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There were some disappointments. I think of a few tasks undone. The seeding that didn’t work out. The back-ordered equipment that never arrived.  New signs that were damaged and now, need to be replaced. All part of caring and preserving precious prairie places. Beautiful places like the prairie where I’m hiking today.

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It’s good to take a moment and pause before the new year begins, with all its planning and possibilities. To feel joy over a year well spent. To be grateful for the many people and organizations who make these prairies possible through their hard work, vision, and support.

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To be grateful for the progress we made. Always, it seems our efforts are three steps forward, two steps back. But always…progress. Worth celebrating.

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, and a Wonderful New Year to All!

******

Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose quote opens this post, was the popular author of the “Little House” children’s series. I’ve been reading Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder this week and am struck anew by the hardships and difficulties families experienced through westward expansion, the Dustbowl years, and the Great Depression. Quite a different perspective than I had reading these books as a child! Winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize.

*****

All photos this week copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL, unless noted otherwise (top to bottom) : thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica); view from the trail looking toward subdivision; white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus); flattened prairie grasses; goldenrod leaves (Oligoneuron rigidum); goldenrod gall rosette (Rhopalomyia solidaginis);  rattlesnake master leaves (Eryngium yuccafolium), rattlesnake master seedheads (Eryngium yuccafolium); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); pale purple coneflower seeds (Echinacea pallida); round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata); wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), the prairie in December; milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pappus; Christmas ornament, author’s yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

*******

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. 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. 

After a Prairie Storm

“Today is wet, damp, soggy and swollen…The grass loves this world swamp, this massive aerial soup. You can see it grow before your eyes.”  — Josephine W. Johnson

*****

Thunderstorms rumble away, moving purposefully east. There is a last flash of lightning.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

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Waterlogged again. The prairie attempts to soak up the most recent deluge. Willoway Brook overflows with run-off, carving a muddy swath through the bright grasses.

The spring prairie wildflowers are tougher under these hard rain onslaughts than you might think. Momentarily freighted with water, they rebound quickly and stand ready for pollinators. Shooting star begins its business of setting seed. Magenta prairie phlox opens new blooms. Golden Alexanders are an exercise in prairie pointillism, dabbing the sea of green with bright spots.

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Rain has soaked the prairie for weeks. It’s a lesson in patience. I’ve cancelled prairie workdays for my volunteers; put off pressing prairie projects, waiting for a drizzle-free morning. On Thursday, I took advantage of a rare bit of sunshine to hike some prairie trails.  I should have brought my kayak.

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On Sunday, I walked the same trails during another break in the storms, marveling at the just-opened wildflowers. Other than a few hot pinks and the blast of orange hoary puccoon, the early spring prairie blooms seem to favor a pale palette. Pure white starry campion has opened, as have the first snow-colored meadow anemones. Blue-eyed grass stars the prairie whenever the sun appears…

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…closing when it clouds up, or there’s a downpour.

This weekend I spotted pale penstemon, sometimes called pale beardtongue, for the first time this season. Bastard toadflax bloomed at its feet.

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Cream wild indigo is having a banner year. Its silver-leaved mounds of pale yellow pea-like blooms are stunning on the prairie. At Jeff and my wedding reception 36 years ago, we served cake, punch, mixed nuts, and butter mints in pastel green, pink, and yellow. Remember those mints? They’d melt in your mouth. When I see cream wild indigo, I think of those yellow butter mints—a dead ringer for the indigo’s color.

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Wild strawberries also put a tingle in my taste buds, although I know the flowers often fail to fruit. Even if the bloom does produce a tiny strawberry, it will likely be gobbled by mice or other mammals before I get a chance to taste it. The animals will scatter the seeds across the tallgrass in their scat.

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Virginia waterleaf is in full display, dangling its clusters of bell-shaped blooms. Pink to pale lavender flowers are common, but I see a few bleached white. I read in iNaturalist that when the blooms are exposed to sun, they quickly lose their color.  I wonder—when was there enough sunshine in May for that to happen?

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The yellows of wood betony are almost all bloomed out now, and even the bright pinks and lavenders of shooting star seem to fade and run like watercolors in the rain.

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May storms will—hopefully—produce lush grasses and prolific summer wildflowers as the days lead us to summer. The first monarchs and other butterflies which seem to appear daily will appreciate the nectar-fest just around the corner. I think ahead to the grasses stretching to the sky; the bright yellows and purples of summer flowers.

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Keep your fingers crossed. Sunshine is surely on the way.

*****

Josephine W. Johnson (1910-1990), an environmental activist and nature writer whose quote opens this post, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1935 for her novel, Now in November. In  The Inland Island (1969), she pens observations about the natural world in a month-by-month framework.

*****

All photos and video this week are taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): false Solomon’s seal (Smilacina racemosa) video clip of Willoway Brook, after the storm; golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea); flooded trail;  blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum) pale penstemon or beardtongue (Penstemon pallidus) with bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata) in the lower left corner; cream wild indigo (Baptisia bracteata); wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana); Virginia waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia; trail to the prairie in the rain.

*****

Cindy’s Upcoming Classes and Events:

Saturday, June 1, 1-4 p.m.–The Tallgrass Prairie: A Conversation—talk, book signing and bison tour. The talk is free and open to the public but you must reserve your spot. (See details on book purchase for bison tour). Register here — only eight spots left for the bison tour (limit 60).

Thursday, June 6, 6:30-9 p.m. —The Tallgrass Prairie: A Conversation—talk, book signing and picnic social at Pied Beauty Farm in Stoughton, WI. See details here. 

Friday, June 14 — Dragonfly and Damselfly ID, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, 8:30-11 a.m. (Sold out)

Just added! Friday, June 28–Dragonfly and Damselfly ID — The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL  8-11:30 a.m. (more details and registration here).

Find more at cindycrosby.com

Advice from John Muir

“Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” –John Muir

 

***

You might not be able to climb a mountain, or spend a week in the woods in December, as the opening quote from John Muir advocates. But, a short walk in the winter prairie savanna does “wash your spirit clean.” Come hike with me and see why.

What is a prairie savanna, anyway? Very simply put, it’s a place that’s less dense than a forest, and has its own suite of plants. You may see tallgrass prairie plants, animals, birds, or critters you recognize here, as well. Especially on the edges.

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Look around. In Conrad Station’s black oak savanna at Kankakee Sands in northwestern Indiana, there are traces of human habitation. People once remade this landscape into a place for commerce. But now — with the help of volunteers  and caring people –nature has reclaimed the savanna.

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Dried fern fronds arch over the crunchy fallen leaves.

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A recent rain beads mullein leaves with water drops.

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Oaks, shorn of their fall finery, are decorated with shelf fungi. Elf staircases?

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Seeds…so many seeds. The plant leaves curl as they dry, perhaps more beautiful in death than in life.

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Towers of fungi rise from the savanna floor.

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There are “muffins” everywhere. Mystery mushrooms? What could they be?

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These kinds of questions  will give you many happy hours flipping through ID books later at home. After much searching in field guides, the “muffins” turned out to be purple-spored puffballs.

Moss spangles the trail.

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Oak apple galls dangle from trees, their wasp-y occupants long since fled.

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Open one,  and marvel at the “web” that once held a tiny developing oak apple gall wasp safely inside.

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On your prairie savanna hike, you’ll see things you know. You’ll also discover new plants and other living things you can’t easily find names for. All it takes to “clean your spirit” is a little curiosity; a little energy.

You don’t have to hike alone — ask a friend or two to explore with you. Talk about what you discover.

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Who knows what is waiting for you on your December walk in the prairie savanna?

Wherever you are — make time to go see. Take John Muir’s advice. It will “wash your spirit clean.”

***

John Muir (1838-1914)  is known as the father of our National Parks. His love for the outdoors and activism on behalf of natural areas have been formative and inspirational for many naturalists, including myself. Although some find his superlatives heavy slogging, his books have been read by millions and have decorated many a dorm room poster. His words continue to inspire people today to develop a relationship with the outdoors, and care for the natural world.

Read more about the history of Conrad Station Savanna at The Nature Conservancy’s website:

http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/indiana/placesweprotect/conrad-station-history.xml

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby; taken at Conrad Station’s black oak sand savanna at Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Newton County, IN (top to bottom): starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) lifting off on the savanna’s edge; sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina) fronds; common mullein (Verbascum thapsus) leaves; various polypore (bracket) fungi (Family: Polyporaceae); unknown seedhead; white polypore (bracket) fungi (Family: Polyporaceae); purple-spored puffballs-late stage (Calvatia cyathiformis); haircap moss (Polytrichum spp.); oak apple gall (Amphibolips confluenta) on black oak (Quercus velutina); open oak apple gall (Amphibolips confluenta); hikers exploring the savanna (Homo sapiens). 

Giving Thanks in the Tallgrass

“Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.” – attributed to Kurt Vonnegut

***

Why would anyone walk the prairie in November? Come and find out.

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See the sandhill cranes, headed south, as they have done from time out of mind. They tell us one season is done; another is unfolding. Are you listening?

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Marvel at the curve of a dried compass plant leaf, which once took its directions from the sun.

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Enjoy the sweep of prairie sky over the bleached grasses. So much contrast!

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Watch the seeds of many different plants lift and float on a breath of wind.

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Others drop and scatter. So many different types of seeds on the prairie! Imagine where they will land…

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…and what each seed might become.  Think about how one seed may eventually give life to other living things.

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Marvel at the spiky rattlesnake master seedheads. So much diversity! It’s what makes the prairie rich and interesting.

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Even the polished spheres of goldenrod galls each hold a tiny insect inside. The humblest prairie plant does its part to provide a home and nourishment for the winter for a prairie creature.

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Miraculous, isn’t it? The world holds wonders. So much diversity; all working together. Everything moving forward.

Take time to look. To  remember. Then, to give thanks.

****

The opening quote is sometimes attributed to Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007), shared with me by Carolyn McCready. Vonnegut was a prisoner of war during the bombing of Dresden (1945) and lost many of the people he loved to various tragedies, including divorce, suicide, and cancer. Yet, he still believed the world was a beautiful place.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), St. Stephen’s Cemetery PRairie, Carol Stream, IL; sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) over author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; dogbane or Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; seedheads in the tallgrass at St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; fritillary butterfly (Speyeria spp.) on wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; goldenrod gall, St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL.

Prairie in Unlikely Places

“It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.”–Arthur Conan Doyle

***

When you think of “nature,” do you picture large, sprawling preserves or national parks in other regions, filled with wildlife and unusual plants?

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Yes, these are beautiful destinations. But, the most inspirational places in the natural world aren’t always parks and preserves in other parts of the country. Sometimes, it’s the little places where people are caring for nature that move us the most.

You never know where you’re going to find a small patch of planted or remnant prairie. Like these tallgrass plants, hanging out by a graffitied underpass in Bloomington, Indiana.

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Or prairie plants scattered along old railroad tracks, like these grasses in northern Indiana.

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Recently, I visited the St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie in Carol Stream, Illinois; a tiny prairie remnant off the beaten path. It took me three tries to find it. The view around the prairie might be a clue as to why. Not exactly “pristine” or “untrammeled” nature, is it?

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The forbidding entrance — a gravel road through a cement plant, the road lined with buckthorn — echoed the fortress-like feel of the cemetery. Because of vandalism, the cemetery is surrounded by a high, chain-link fence lined with barbed wire.

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When you look through it, you can see the prairie. Like the cemetery, it’s also surrounded by a high, chain-link fence.

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Bob Jacobsen, the 85-year-old volunteer caretaker for the prairie and cemetery, offered me a short introduction to the tallgrass here. The two acres, he said, were originally purchased and intended to be part of an 1852 German Catholic Church’s cemetery expansion. The cemetery stayed small. The little piece of expansion ground, full of prairie plants, escaped the plow that destroyed most of Illinois prairies when this portion of the state was settled.

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This little remnant is hanging on — but just barely. Jacobsen reminisced about the dilapidated state of the prairie during the 1970s. Moped riders and motorcyclists used the prairie as a racetrack, he told me. The fence he put up offers protection from people who don’t recognize the prairie’s value.

He has a vision for this little two-acre remnant.

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That it might hang on, despite the build-up all around it. That it will continue, despite the odds. He burns it, weeds it, and hopes for others to carry on the legacy of caring for this little prairie patch in an unlikely place.

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“Nature” — and tallgrass prairie remnants like this one– don’t always have the wow factor of a large, protected refuge, vast open spaces, and innumerable wildlife inhabitants.

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But sometimes, it’s the small, carefully-protected tiny remnants or surprising mini-restorations in someone’s backyard that give me the most hope. They are a spark in the dark. A match, which may strike interest, then kindle love and appreciation for the prairie in those who don’t know it well. Learning to understand and nurture the small places are a stepping stone to greater appreciation and care for the big tracts of land we need in our world that are also irreplaceable.

These small patches are unlikely survivors in a harsh environment. Light, in the darkness.

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Long may those like Bob Jacobsen continue to do their best to keep these small places with original prairie alive and flourishing. And may these remnants and other little prairie reconstructions continue to inspire us to continue our work with prairie. To prompt us to  care for the natural world in the large scenic places. To care for those nooks and crannies full of “nature” in our communities. And, perhaps most importantly, to care for the natural world in our own neighborhoods and backyards, no matter how small they may seem. Paying attention. Making a difference.

***

The opening quote is by Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), the author who created the  Sherlock Holmes detective series.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): snow geese and sandhill cranes, Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, San Antonio, New Mexico; prairie plants and graffiti, Bloomington, IN:  prairie plants along the railroad tracks, northwestern Indiana; cement plant, Carol Stream, IL; warning sign, St. Stephen’s Cemetery, Carol Stream, IL; St. Stephen’s Cemetery tombstones with prairie in the background, Carol Stream, IL; Indian hemp or dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum), St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; wild asparagus seed (Asparagus officinalis), St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; sunset, Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, San Antonio, New Mexico; unknown aster, St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL.

Three Minutes of Hope on the Prairie

“Truly we live with mysteries too marvelous to be understood.”–Mary Oliver

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Forget politics for a moment. Take three minutes to walk with me. Focus on the wonders of the tallgrass prairie in November.

I need a hike where it’s quiet today — don’t you?

November’s Indian summer sighs, then turns and marches toward the cold. Little bluestem throws its confetti of seeds across the tallgrass  in an extravagant last hurrah; a marvel of color and light.

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Look at the sky, a kaleidoscope of clouds forming and reforming in different patterns.

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It’s an ever-changing painting, so easily taken for granted. Put there…for what? For our joy? For our amazement? The least we can do is take time to look.

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Lose yourself in the architecture, colors, and texture of a prairie dock leaf. It is one unique leaf in an infinite number of leaves in the tallgrass, in an infinite number of prairies. Each is its own work of art. Does your mind boggle at the artistry so lavishly displayed?

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Old tree stumps have stories to tell, weathered by the rains and sunshine of thousands of  days. But you have to stop for a moment. Take time to read. And to listen. What story will they tell you?

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In November, the prairie does a strip tease, shedding seeds and leaves. What’s left are the essentials for the perennials to survive the winter, much of their life invisible underground. The seeds promise hope for the future.

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Even the fuzzy caterpillars that slouch and slinky their way through the tallgrass remind us of future transformation. Moth, you wonder? Or butterfly?

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In November, plant structures are more evident, bleached of their summer and early fall colors.

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Trees silhouette themselves against the sky. You admire them, shorn of the distraction of colorful leaves.

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It may feel lonely in the tallgrass in November. You’re aware of your smallness in the grand scheme of the universe.

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The shaggy bison look tough and well-suited to the coming chill. We, however, sometimes feel fragile wondering what the world may have in readiness for us.

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Listen. There is the sound of water. The prairie creek rushes headlong on its way to some far-flung sea. Everything is connected. We’re not alone.

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Under the surface of the cold water, the drab, beetle-like dragonfly nymphs wait for warmer weather. They listen for the signal to stretch out their wings; don their dazzling array of bold hues. The signal for change is months away, so they concentrate on growing. Soon enough all will be warmth and light.

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When we shake our heads over the state of the world, remember. These prairie skies, this grass, the wildflowers, the seeds, those large shaggy creatures and small flying winged ones–and furry ones, too–are also the world.

And what  a beautiful and hopeful place the world can be.

****

The opening quote is from Mary Oliver’s “Mysteries, Yes.” The next lines of the poem read as follows: “Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous to be understood/How grass can be nourishing in the mouths of the lambs/How rivers and stone are forever in allegiance with gravity/ while we ourselves dream of rising.” Mary Oliver (1935-)  is winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and writes extensively about the importance of paying attention to the world around us. The complete poem is included in her book: Evidence: Poems.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie in November, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; old tree stump, Fame Flower knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seed pod, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; great leopard moth (Hypercompe scribonia) caterpillar, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; silky aster (Symphyotrichum sericeum) in November, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  trees in November, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  Clear Creek, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; white faced meadowhawk (Sympetrum obtrusum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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