“Every morning I wakened with a fresh consciousness that winter was over. There was only—spring itself; the throb of it, the light restlessness, the vital essence of it everywhere: in the sky, in the swift clouds, in the pale sunshine, and in the warm, high wind—rising suddenly, sinking suddenly, impulsive and playful like a big puppy that pawed you and then lay down to be petted. If I had been tossed down blindfold on that red prairie, I should have known that it was spring.” –Willa Cather
Clouds scud across the February skies. The prairie wind howls. The gray days seem endless.
But wait! Listen closely. There’s a whisper of spring.
Do you hear the crackle of ice melt?
Do you see the skunk cabbage, bruised by the cold? It burns through the leaves and unfurls its rubbery leaves.
Most of the prairie wildflower seeds have vanished. Emptied, the polished shells of milkweed pods grow brittle and loose.
A few of the less delectable wildflower seeds –like carrion flower–hang on, withered and waiting.
Indian grass and other prairie grasses are weather bleached to colorless ghosts.
Still, if you look closely, big bluestem leaves are etched with reds, pinks, chocolates, and yellows.
Sumac holds its flaming scarlet candles aloft…
…while switchgrass throws a party, complete with confetti and streamers.
Near my backyard prairie patch, black-capped chickadees and a cardinal cautiously crunch seeds at the feeder. Startled by a sound, they fly up as one into the maple. There, they tentatively practice their spring mating songs.
Warmer weather is just around the corner.
Can you catch a whisper of spring? Do you see the signs? Look. Listen. We’re almost there.
Willa Cather (1873-1947), whose quote from My Antonia opens this essay, was a Pulitzer Prize winning writer whose books about the Great Plains immortalized prairie for her readers. She hated her birth name, which was Wilella, and she called herself Willie or William. A graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Cather spent most of her adult life in New York City, where she drew on her childhood memories of Nebraska to write stories of the prairie. She was elected a Fellow of the American Arts and Sciences in 1943, although critics dismissed much of her later writing as nostalgic and out of touch with the times. Cather’s best know trilogy of novels, Oh Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Antonia (1918), are classics on the prairie landscape and the immigrants who lived there.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): power lines over the prairie, Timber Ridge Forest Preserve, West Chicago, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Glenbard South High School Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; ice on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), Lake Marmo, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Glenbard South High School Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; smooth carrion flower (Smilax herbacea), Timber Ridge Forest Preserve on the Great Western Trail, West Chicago, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Timber Ridge Forest Preserve, West Chicago, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Glenbard South High School Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), Timber Ridge Forest Preserve, West Chicago, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Glenbard South High School Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) and black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus), author’s backyard feeders by her prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; hiking the Schulenberg Prairie with a butterfly net in February, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.