Tag Archives: online prairie ecology

Five Reasons to Hike the August Prairie

“No story lives unless someone wants to listen.”– J.K. Rowling

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Each year, I see the prairie as having a certain personality. Sparkling! Energetic. Another year it might be tranquil. Welcoming. I know this is an overlay of my personal feelings about the year, unrelated to the prairie itself. The prairie is utterly indifferent to my mood. Indeed, the prairie has many moods of its own, which change from minute to minute.

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2020 on the prairie has been colored by COVID: from the lack of prescribed burns (all that old standing plant matter!), to the increased traffic on the trails, to the nervousness I feel when I see lots of hikers on a narrow path. When I begin a hike, mask at the ready, it’s a far different experience than it was in August of 2019.

It would be easier than I’d like to admit to let that tension keep me at home, or spoil the joy I usually feel in hiking the tallgrass.

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I go out anyway. I mask up when I need to; then find times (early and late) and spots on the prairie where I can be alone. And each time I go on a prairie hike, I don’t regret it.

There’s always a new discovery.  Shifts of weather. A different slant…

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…on what is pretty familiar after hiking this prairie for 22 years. There are always new ways of seeing things.

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Sometimes, when you’ve walked the same trails for years, you have a preconceived idea of what you’ll find. The danger is this: when you think you already know what you’ll see, you may overlook something special.

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I try to remember to keep my eyes open. My mind open. And my heart open to what I might experience each time I walk in the tallgrass.

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You, too?

With that in mind, let’s explore the tallgrass together and discover five reasons to hike the prairie in August.

#1. Plants Have Stories. This Friday I’m teaching the second half of a class called Prairie Ethnobotany; the big “e” word simply means the study of how people interact with plants throughout history. Each prairie plant has a story to tell. Each “story” has as many “pages” to it as we are willing to read. Prairie plants have so many fascinating ethnobotanical tales to tell.

Think of big bluestem. Did you know that big bluestem is Illinois’ state grass? Or that its nickname is “turkey foot?” bigbluestemhorizontalfogSPMA11020WM.jpg

It was once considered a good substitute for knitting needles—not difficult to imagine, when you look at its jointed stems.

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Big bluestem was known as the ice cream of the prairie for livestock—it was that delicious to cows and horses! Ironically, early settlers knew that where big bluestem grew, the land was suitable for farming.

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I love to hear the stories that my students tell me about their ethnobotanic relationships with plants. Check out Larry and Arlene Dunn’s terrific story here in their blog post from “Acornometrics” about rattlesnake master, one of the stars of the August prairie.

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Maybe, as you walk the prairie in August, you’ll want to write a haiku about a plant, as Larry did in this blog, and for one of our assignments. Share your haiku with me in the comments, if you do write one.

#2. Insects have stories, too! As I walk the prairie, I discover stories about the insects that inhabit it. Some insect stories are cheerful; the business of butterflies and beetles and bees, nectaring and pollinating.

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Other insect stories may be a bit frightening. This black horsefly feeds on blood—any blood—wherever she may find it. Her mouth parts cut open flesh, leaving a painful sore behind. Ouch! I move past quickly. Nothing to see here, Miz Blackfly.

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Beauty and grace, as well as a strong instinct for survival, are what I read in the dragonfly stories. Like this widow skimmer. Fierce. And exquisite. What a powerful combination!

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However, not all insect stories have a happily-ever-after ending.

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But each story tells us something important about the life of the August prairie community.

#3. Take a Hitchhiker Home. No, we’re not talking ticks here. Well, maybe we are. Sort of. Tick trefoil is another star of the August prairie. Many plants have strategies to help them disperse to new locations to diversify their gene pool. One of these strategies is to attach themselves to our shirts or socks and hitch a ride. Tick trefoil is one of my favorite hitchhikers. Those lovely lavender blooms!

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Those intriguing seed pods. Brush against them, and you’ll arrive home, covered with enough tick trefoil seeds to plant a monoculture in your yard. I’ve spent hours pulling the seeds off of my clothes, only to find the seed pods I miss show up in the lint trap of my dryer.

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Pick a tick trefoil leaf and you can also paste it, corsage-like, to your lapel. And look at those flowers. The unmistakable blooms of a legume. They remind me of my sugar snap pea flowers and green bean flowers in the garden, only in stunning violet.

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When I see Illinois tick trefoil in flower and in seed, I know the prairie has begun its slide toward autumn. It’s a bittersweet feeling. The summer of 2020 has been oh-so-short. Or so it seems. What other plants hitch a ride home with you in August?  (Hint: Check your dryer’s lint trap for clues after a hike.)

 #4. Enjoy the Play of Light and Shade. As you hike, see what your eyes are drawn to. Contemplate how plants stand out as individuals, or blend in as an aggregate of masses of color and hue to create a mood. Watch how the light shifts, and blends and changes the prairie palette. Some areas look impressionistic, then a shaft of light throws a particular plant into sharp relief.

In this early August prairie mix….

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…blue vervain takes the spotlight.BlueVervainSPMA8220WM.jpg

In supporting roles are the wispy Canada wild rye…

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…and bee balm and bottlebrush grass.

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Not far off, black-eyed susans and the festive gray-headed coneflowers (below) mix into the prairie edges, adding their yellows as foil to the blues and purples.

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As an art major for a few years in college, I remember learning that yellow and purple are complementary colors on the color wheel. Later, when I took a quilting class, I realized how striking purple and yellow are in combination. The prairie doesn’t need a lesson in color theory to know. It pours out colors and shades of color in an ever-moving kaleidoscope, changing its appearance throughout the day as the sun moves across the sky.  All we have to do to see it is show up.

#5. The Prairie Skies in August have stories to tell. How different the plants look up close…

Ironweed8220SPMAWM.jpg …from when you change  your perspective, and see them against the backdrop of cumulus clouds and blue skies.

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Some plants, like this pale indian plantain, stand out.

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Even the creatures of the prairie community, like this dickcissel, appear in a new light.

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An approaching storm throws the prairie and prairie savanna into a different mood. The bloom colors subtly shift; even the smell of the rain on the way tickles your nose and sharpens your senses. The sounds of the prairie change, from the rumbles of thunder in the distance to the ominous rustling of switchgrass and big bluestem.

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Later in the season, deep fog on the prairie mists it in magic. Serene. Soothing.

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Whether it is hiking the prairie by day…

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…or strolling it in the evening and marveling at another glorious prairie sunset, you’ll know…

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…this hour you set aside to hike the August prairie was time well spent.

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The quote which opens this post is from J.K. Rowling (1965-), author of the Harry Potter series. The series has sold more than 500 million copies, and is considered the best-selling series in history.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby from the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (file photo); compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) with sunflower head clipping beetles (Haplorhynchites aeneus); slanted trail; male eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemus tenera), Arbor Lake, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; praying mantis (Mantid, unknown species–one of the natives? or not? Unsure!), Cindy’s backyard prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL; butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) with big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii);  big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) (file photo); big bluestem (Andropogen gerardii) (file photo); big bluestem (Andropogen gerardii), College of DuPage Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL (file photo); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) (file photo); showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) with unknown beetles; black horse fly (Tabanus atratus); widow skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa) (file photo); widow skimmer dragonfly wings (Libellula luctuosa); Illinois tick trefoil (Desmodium Illinoense); Illinois tick trefoil (Desmodium Illinoense); Illinois tick trefoil Desmodium Illinoense);  light and shade through the Schulenberg Prairie Savanna; blue vervain (Verbena hastata); Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix) and bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata); smooth tall ironweed (Vernonia gigantea);smooth tall ironweed (Vernonia gigantea); pale indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium);  dickcissel (Spiza americana) on great angelica (Angelica atropurpurea), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (file photo); fog on the prairie (file photo, unsure of month); sun and clouds on the prairie; sunset over Cindy’s prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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Join Cindy for an Online Class this Fall!

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” Begin a new session in September 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. 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 from home, supplemented with three evenings of live evening Zoom classes on alternate weeks. Watch for registration information coming soon.

Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Read a review from Kim Smith here. (And check out her blog, “Nature is My Therapy” — you’ll love it!

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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 and other book venues. Order direct through Northwestern University Press and receive 40% off this new book and/or “The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction”— use coupon code SUN40 through August 6. 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.  

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.

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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.