“Most of life’s problems can be solved with a good cookie.”—Ina Garten
Our first month of 2023 is almost in the books, and what a beautiful month it’s been.
What? you may ask. Yes, you heard that right.
Sure, there have been some gray skies.
Some bitterly cold January mornings.
Moments when we felt as if we couldn’t see what was ahead.
And—perhaps a little less snow than we might have liked over the course of the month…
…although these last few days have brought the bright white stuff back to our winter here in the Chicago Region.
But consider the colors of the prairie wildflowers and grasses this month.
The stark beauty of prairie plant architecture.
January has its own rewards, even if they are more understated than the other eleven months. But you’ll find them. If you look for them.
Although January is almost in the rear view mirror…
…the year is still in its raw beginnings. Think of what lies ahead! More adventures. New things to discover.
Imagine all the intriguing ways the prairie will unfold over the course of the next eleven months.
Who knows what stories we’ll have to tell?
How will you spend the last day of January 2023? Today is our final chance to add to the “January” chapter of our lives before we turn to February.
I know I’m going to bake a few cookies—chocolate chip—as a defense against the bitter cold. (You, too? Let me know your favorites.)
Then, I’m going to tuck a few warm cookies in my pocket and go for a short hike on the prairie. Gloved, hatted, and mittened, of course. It’s so cold! But I want to remember this January. Who knows what stories are out there, waiting to be read on the prairie?
Ready? Let’s go!
The opening quote is from Emmy-Award winning Ina Rosenberg Garten (1948-), known to multitudes as the Food Network’s “Barefoot Contessa” since 2002, when her show debuted. She has worked at the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, where she wrote nuclear energy budget and policy papers for President Gerald Ford and President Jimmy Carter. While in Washington, she purchased and renovated old houses in the area, earning enough profits to purchase an existing food store called “Barefoot Contessa.” Her The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook, which was published in 1999, sold more than 100,000 copies in its first year. Try her creamy potato-fennel soup—it’s a great winter warm up.
Calling all writers! We have a few spots left for the Nature Writing Workshop at The Morton Arboretum—-four Thursdays in person (6-8:30 p.m.), beginning Feb.2 (this week!). Please join us, even if you can’t make all four sessions. Having trouble getting that New Year’s Resolution writing project underway? Join us! Read the full class description and register here.
Winter Prairie Wonders — Tuesday, February 7, 10-11:30 a.m. Discover the joys of the prairie in winter as you hear readings about the season. Enjoy stories of the animals who call the prairie home. Hosted by the Northbrook Garden Club in Northbrook, IL. Free to non-members, but you must register by contacting NBKgardenclub@gmail.com for more information.
Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Fliers –— Wednesday, February 8, noon-1:30 p.m. Hosted by Countryside Garden Club in Crystal Lake, IL. (Closed event for members)
The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Charm Shop— Thursday, February 9, 12:30-2 p.m. Hosted by Wheaton Garden Club in Wheaton, IL (closed event for members).
Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers— February 20, 7:15 p.m-8:45 p.m. Hosted by the Suburban Garden Club, Indian Head Park, IL. Free and open to non-members. For more information, contact Cindy through her website contact space at http://www.cindycrosby.com.
Bell Bowl Prairie in Rockford, IL, needs your help! Find out more on saving this threatened prairie remnant at SaveBellBowlPrairie.
“He who tells the prairie mystery must wear the prairie in his heart.”—William Quayle
It’s that time of year; the time we put away the old and look forward to something new. Have you made a few New Year’s resolutions? As a prairie steward, gardener, and nature lover, many of my resolutions involve the natural world. Here are half a dozen New Year’s resolutions from my list.
1. I will visit more cemeteries…cemeteries with remnant prairies, that is.
Every time I stumble across a cemetery with remnant prairie, I’m deeply moved. The diversity of flora. The sense of history.
It’s a reminder that people and prairie are deeply intertwined. And yet, I haven’t been as intentional about seeking these prairies out as I’d like to be.
Cemetery prairies evoke a sense of loss and antiquity that is a different feeling I find at other remnant prairies. Because many of these cemeteries were planted into original prairie, then uncared for, the prairie community is still relatively intact.
We can learn a lot from these botanical treasures. In 2023, I hope to hike more of the small cemetery prairies in all four seasons. If you have a favorite cemetery prairie, please tell me about it in the comments.
2. I will conduct backyard trials of cultivars with natives, side by side.
One of the most-requested programs I give to organizations is “Add a Little Prairie to Your Yard.” Inevitably, program attendees ask about “cultivars” or “nativars.” Plants like double echinaceas. Unusual colored butterfly milkweeds with pretty names. These plants look like native prairie plants….but are they?
Well yes…and no. My take-away on these “nativars” has been to stay away from them, especially the floral doubles, as I wrote in my blog post “The Trouble with Milkweed” in April 2022. But I’ve not actually tested them in my garden against their wild cousins. In 2023, my hope is to plant at least two different native cultivars side by side with their truly native relatives. Then, I’ll collect some observational data throughout the growing season.
What pollinators visit the cultivars and true natives—or don’t visit? Do birds seem to use the cultivars as much as the natives? All the anecdotal evidence says the natives will out-perform the cultivars in pollinator-attraction and wildlife use. I’m excited to find out for myself.
3. I will learn more names for cloud types in the prairie skies.
One of the most underrated joys of hiking the tallgrass prairie is the big-sky views.
The clouds are an ever-changing extravaganza of shape, motion, style, and light.
I know a few of the basic terms for clouds—cumulous, stratus, cirrus—and their kin, the contrails, condensed water from aircraft, but there is so much more to learn.
With cloud-naming in mind, I plan to revisit one of my favorite books, The Cloudspotters Guide to increase my vocabulary and cloud know-how. Fun!
Nimbostratus? Stratocumulus? Mackerel sky? Here I come.
4. I will plant an oak.
When Jeff and I moved to our home in the Chicago suburbs more than two decades ago, the only tall trees in the small backyard were arborvitae. Almost 25 years later, there are still not many other trees in our yard. Early on, I planted a ginkgo (a sentimental favorite I wouldn’t plant today, as its value to wildlife is fairly nil). I also replaced our lost green ash with an Accolade elm, an approved street tree in our township that looks good and is well-behaved, as street trees need to be. As I became a little wiser about trees and pollinators, I put in a pawpaw tree, host to the zebra swallowtail butterfly caterpillar and the pawpaw sphinx moth.
But I’m ready to risk. I plan to purchase my oak from Possibility Place in Monee, IL, where I’ve had good luck with native shrubs. (See resolution #6). At 60-plus years old, I realize this slow-growing oak isn’t going to be instant gratification for me. Rather, this will be a tree planted for future generations to enjoy, and hopefully, an instant host for the many insects oaks host, which will nurture the birds living in and passing through our area.
Where will I put an oak in our small yard? Hmmm.
A challenging problem to think about and puzzle over this winter.
5. I will keep a regular eBird list.
Is there anything so joyful during the long Midwestern winter months as watching birds? Several of my friends are active eBird listers, and I’ve always admired their knowledge of what species are showing up where in Illinois. (Shout out John and Tricia!). If you’re not familiar with eBird, it’s a free data base hosted by Cornell University where you can list your bird sightings and photos from your backyard, or on a prairie hike. It then combines your data with other sightings so ornithologists can gain a greater understanding of what birds are where, and how species are thriving or declining.
Last winter, more than 200 common redpolls landed at once at our backyard feeders in what was an unusual irruption for this species in Illinois.
This daily show outside our kitchen window during some of the longest, coldest days of winter was quite a spirit lifter! It renewed my interest in sharing my sightings with others through eBird. When I report my “backyard birds,” I know my common sparrows, starlings, blue jays, and cardinals and other backyard regulars are part of a greater effort. I’m one of many citizen scientists contributing to an important conservation tool. In 2023, I hope to monitor my backyard feeders at least once a week and report my sightings.
Will the redpolls will show up again this winter? Fingers crossed.
6. I will expand our native plantings.
When we purchased our home in 1998, there was little in the turf-grassed yard except the aforementioned arborvitae and a lot of rosebushes and yew. Today, we have a diversity of native plants…
…as well as a vegetable garden and some traditional garden favorites. Over the past few decades, we’ve chipped away at the turf grass, adding a small pond. We’ve left just enough backyard grassy areas for yard games and walking paths.
Each year, we try and tackle a different planting project. After removing the invasive burning bush which came with our home, our resolution in 2021 was to “plant native shrubs.” We added American hazelnut, spicebush, native honeysuckle, witch hazel, and buttonbush.
2022 was the year I vowed to plant a little prairie in the front yard. We succeeded in a modest way. It’s not a large planting, but it gives us a lot of joy. We also get a few unexpected visitors.
In 2023, I hope to plant natives on the east-facing side of our house. Presently, it’s home to our air conditioner unit and compost bin, and…dare I say it? Fairly unsightly. We removed an invasive Japanese barberry a decade or so ago that was the only shrub in that location. This winter, I’m researching native plants, shrubs, and trees that can take half-day shade and standing water as our subdivision runoff goes right through this area. Maybe a swamp oak? Any ideas? I’d love to hear what worked for you if you have a spot like mine on the side of your house that needs attention.
Now that I’ve shared a few of my New Year’s resolutions, I feel a sense of accountability to make them happen. Good intentions, but the road to you-know-where is paved with some of my past ones. We’ll see how it goes.
What are your prairie resolutions for the New Year? I’d love to know. Maybe you have some of the same ones as I do. Let’s all enjoy more hikes outside, pay attention more closely, plant for the future, tune in to some of the smaller members of our natural world (insects, fungi, lichen) and enjoy the way the sky changes from minute to minute in this beautiful place we call home.
Good luck with your resolutions, and happy hiking!
The opening quote is by William Quayle (1860-1925), who penned such books as Prairie and the Sea and A Book of Clouds. Another favorite quote by Quayle: “You must not be in the prairie; but the prairie must be in you.”
Join Cindy for a Class or Program this Winter
The Tallgrass Prairie in Popular Culture—Friday, January 20, from 10-11:30 a.m. Explore the role the tallgrass prairie plays in literature, art, music—and more! Enjoy a hot beverage as you discover how Illinois’ “landscape of home” has shaped our culture, both in the past and today. Class size is limited. Offered by The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL; register here.
Nature Writing Workshop— Four Thursdays (February 2, 9, 16, and 23) from 6-8:30 p.m. Join a community of nature lovers as you develop and nurture your writing skills in person. Class size is limited. For more information and to register visit here.
Illinois Prairie needs you! Visit Save Bell Bowl Prairie to learn about this special place—one of the last remaining gravel prairies in our state —and to find out what you can do to help.
***Note to readers: All undated photos were taken this week.
“But if we don’t understand and care for the smaller manifestations of wildness close at hand, how can we ever care for the great wildernesses?” —Conor Gearin
Temperatures hover around zero in the Chicago region. The “Winter Storm to End All Storms” seems to have fizzled out in a matter of less than half a dozen inches. And here I sit, in 70-degree weather. In Florida. There’s a part of me that’s sad to miss the first real snow of the season. A small part of me. (A very teeny, tiny part.)
But there’s solace knowing that this week, I’m absorbed in learning the names of birds, blooms, dragonflies, shells, and other flora and fauna of southwestern Florida. This region, which I’ve visited for almost 45 years, doesn’t hold the same place in my heart as the Illinois tallgrass prairie, my landscape of home. But hiking here reminds me of the breadth and depth of diversity of the natural world, and the joy of discovery. Here’s a postcard to you:
Hello from Florida! Visiting this tropical region in December and January jolts me out of my sense of normalcy about what “winter” looks like. It reminds me that the way I experience life in this season in the Chicago region is completely different than how my neighbors to the south experience it. What a change from the Midwestern prairie! Displacement—a complete change—is a good reset for me to begin a new year.
Here are a few of the wonders I see on my hikes:
My first Mangrove Skipper.
The Great Pondhawk. A new dragonfly species for me!
Another “lifer” is the Mottled Duck, paddling through the mangroves. (Don’t know what a “lifer” is? Take this quiz.)
Ducks are easy to overlook, when there are these birds around. Roseate Spoonbills!
Wow. Such shocking pink. They look like they were run through the wash in the whites load with one red sock, don’t they?
Only the hibiscus rivals it here for color.
And—of course—there are pelicans.
So many pelicans. A flock of pelicans is called a “pouch of pelicans” or sometimes, a “squadron of pelicans. Fun!
Swimming near the pelicans is a mama manatee and her baby.
Four—or are there five?—are at the marina. I learn manatees are large, gray-ish aquatic mammals that feed on sea grasses. They can weigh up to 1,200 pounds, similar to a bison! Baby manatees stay with their moms for up to two years. Boat collisions pose a threat to this species, so hanging out by the boat docks, as these manatees are doing, isn’t a great idea. (Read more about manatees here.)
As I watch them surface every few minutes for air, I find myself wondering about the future for this unusual mammal. I think of the Illinois bison at Nachusa Grasslands, Midewin National Tallgrass Preserve, and Fermilab back home, and how bison have been preserved in good numbers at these places after near extinction. Maybe there is hope for the manatees, too.
Bison are the biggest hazard on my prairie hikes back home. But here, it’s a large reptile.
Yikes. They may weigh more than 750 pounds! See you later, alligator.
As the sun sets over the Gulf Coast, I pack my bags and prepare to head home.
I’ll miss the delights of the island’s natural wonders, but my heart is in the tallgrass. I can’t wait to see the prairie with a little snow on it. At last. Even if the temperature is 70 degrees colder than it is here.
Sending you love from the Sunshine State!
The opening quote is from Conor Gearin’s essay “Little Golden-Flower Room: On Wild Places and Intimacy” from the digital magazine The Millions. His essay is included in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2019 (edited by Sy Montgomery), a book I purchased at Gene’s Books on Sanibel Island, one of my favorite independent bookstores. Gearin’s essay beautifully explores one small Iowa prairie remnant.
Need a New Year’s Resolution? Help save Bell Bowl Prairie, an unusual hill remnant prairie that is slated for destruction by Chicago-Rockford International Airport. Your action can make a difference! See how at www.savebellbowlprairie.org
The opening quote is by Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1850-1892). Tennyson likely wrote to distract himself from the tragedies of his life: his eleven siblings suffered from addiction, severe mental illness, and an unhappy home life. Read more about his life and poetry here; or listen to a delightful reading of Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalottfrom a scene with Megan Follows in the 1985 mini-series “Anne of Green Gables.” No matter what your age, check out this Emmy Award winning classic mini-series produced in Canada.
Join Cindy in 2021 for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a complete list of virtual offerings.All classes and programs with Cindy this winter and spring are offered online only.Join me from your computer anywhere in the world.
BeginsNext Week!January 14-February 4 (Four Thursdays) 6:30-8:30 pm CST Nature Writing II Online. Deepen your connection to nature and your writing skills in this intermediate online workshop from The Morton Arboretum. This interactive class is the next step for those who’ve completed the Nature Writing Workshop (N095), or for those with some foundational writing experience looking to further their expertise within a supportive community of fellow nature writers. Over the course of four live, online sessions, your instructor will present readings, lessons, writing assignments, and sharing opportunities. You’ll have the chance to hear a variety of voices, styles, and techniques as you continue to develop your own unique style. Work on assignments between classes and share your work with classmates for constructive critiques that will strengthen your skill as a writer. Ask your questions, take risks, and explore in this fun and supportive, small-group environment. Register here.
February 24, 7-8:30 CST: The Prairie in Art and Literature Online. The tallgrass prairie is usually thought of for its diverse community of plants, animals, and insects. Yet, it is also an inspiration for a creative community! In this interactive online talk, natural history author and prairie steward Cindy Crosby will explore historical and contemporary writers and artists, musicians, and other creatives working in the prairie genre: from Neil Young to Willa Cather to graphic comic artists , quilters, and jewelers expressing the prairie through their work. See the prairie in a new light! Come away inspired to appreciate and express your love of the tallgrass as you enjoy learning about this prairie “community.” Offered by The Morton Arboretum:Register here.
“This life is after all a miracle and we ought to pay fierce attention every moment… .” —Brian Doyle
January on the prairie is underway, a yo-yo between freeze and thaw; snow and sun.
Walking the prairie on a gray windy morning, contrasts are everywhere.
Carrion flower still clutches its inedible fruits; some plump, others desiccated.
Prairie dock leaves evince a weathered beauty that only comes with age and time.
They are unrecognizable from the green elephant ears they were in July. The air smells of wet earth and cold. Grasses whisper in the wind. A hawk silently bullets by, rapt on its prey. The hum of traffic in the distance is the only sound. So quiet. Peaceful.
Until—-scritch scritch scritch. Up in a black walnut tree, a fox squirrel rhythmically gnaws a black walnut. The sound ricochets through the January air. How can a squirrel’s teeth grinding on a nut make so much noise?
There is so much to experience on the tallgrass prairie in winter. Here are ten reasons to hike the prairie in January.
10. The drama of winter prairie skies, changing like a kaleidoscope from moment to moment.
9. The sound of water moving through the prairie; music that is more appreciated in January than July.
8. The grace of a single seedhead such as Canada wild rye…
7. …or, the joy of massed individuals, like these large swathes of bee balm.
6. Possibilities for the future in the mowed firebreaks, ready for the prescribed burn to come.
5. The glories of prairie plants that are more interesting in seed than in bloom, such as Illinois bundleflower.
4. Small pleasures like the incredible diversity of lichens on a log in the tallgrass.
3. Large dramas, such as the sweep of the prairie under a dusting of snow.
2. The fascination of following animal tracks and trying to understand their stories written upon the landscape.
1. Ice art, in all its unexpected and temporary forms.
Welcome to a new year on the prairie.
There is so much to anticipate this month.
The opening quote is from Brian Doyle’s (1956-2017) One Long River of Song. If you haven’t read Doyle, this is a good collection to begin with. Known as a “writer’s writer,” Doyle wrote many novels, essays, and poetry collections. He also won numerous awards, including the John Burroughs Medal and four Pushcart Prizes.
All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby and taken this week at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (top to bottom): mosses and snow; bridge to the prairie; carrion flower (Smilax spp.); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); January on the prairie; eastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger); prairie sky; Willoway Brook; Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); mowed firebreak; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis); lichens on a log; prairie trail; coyote (Canis latrans) tracks; ice on the trail; bench on the prairie in the snow.
Please join Cindy at one of her upcoming classes or talks in the new year!
Nature Writing and Art Retreat, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, February 22 (Saturday) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Cindy will be facilitating the writing portion. Sold Out. Waiting list –Register here.
Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26. Details and registration here.
Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum. For details and registration, click here.
“In late December I feel an almost painful hunger for light…It’s tempting to think of winter as the negation of life, but life has too many sequences, too many rhythms, to be altogether quieted by snow and cold.” — Verlyn Klinkenborg
Christmas morning dawns, cold and overcast. The scent of snow is in the air.
On the prairie this week, it’s been mostly sunny. Quiet.
Willoway Brook provides the December soundtrack: water moving fast over rocks. Ice lingers in the shoreline’s shadows.
Wildflower seedheads silhouette themselves along the edges of the stream.
Prairie dock leaves, aged and brittle, offer their own late season beauty. Lovelier now, perhaps, than in their first surge of spring green. Spent. No towering yellow blooms to distract us. The marks of age—wrinkles and splotches—will soon end in a flurry of flames.
Along the edge of the prairie, fragrant sumac fruit could pass for furry holly berries—with a bit of imagination.
Blown out stars of sudsy asters froth along the gravel two-track.
Crumpled leaves of pale Indian plantain create stained glass windows when backlit by the winter sun. The woods are often called “cathedrals'” by writers. A bit of a cliché. But it’s not much of a stretch to call the prairies the same. The tallgrass offers its own benedictions to those who hike it. Especially in solitude.
Flattened by an early November blizzard, the prairie reminds me of the ocean, washing in grassy waves against the coast of the savanna. I think of Willa Cather, who wrote in “My Antonia”: “As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea…and there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow to be running.”
The end of the year is just a breath away.
Who knows what wonders we’ll see on the prairie in the new year? I can’t wait to discover them. How about you?
Happy holidays and Merry Christmas to all!
The opening quote is from Verlyn Klinkenborg’s The Rural Life. Klinkenborg (1952-) was raised on an Iowa farm. He teaches creative writing at Yale University. Listen to Klinkenborg speak about his writing here.
All photos (copyright Cindy Crosby) in the blog post today are from the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, except where noted (top to bottom): bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); theSchulenberg Prairie in late December; Willoway Brook reflections; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) seedheads; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); fragrant sumac(Rhus aromatica); unknown aster; pale Indian plantain leaves (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium); prairie grasses and savanna; sunset at College of DuPage’s East Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.
Cindy Crosby is the author, compiler, or contributor to more than 20 books. Her most recent is "Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History" (Northwestern University Press, 2020). She teaches prairie ecology, nature writing, and natural history classes, and is a prairie steward who has volunteered countless hours in prairie restoration. See Cindy's upcoming online speaking events and classes at www.cindycrosby.com.