“While we are born with curiosity and wonder, and our early years full of the adventure they bring, I know such inherent joys are often lost. I also know that, being deep within us, their latent glow can be fanned into flame again by awareness and an open mind.”–
I’m thinking about the above quotation as I hike through prairie snow. The temperature? Below zero. Not an optimal day for outdoor adventures. But after more than five decades of wanderings—and at the beginning of a new year—I’ve been wondering. How do I keep my sense of curiosity and wonder in a cynical world? How do I “fan the flame;” “stay aware” as Olson writes? It’s so easy to become insular.
Then, I look around.
Time outdoors. Perhaps that’s always the answer.
Even a short walk in the brutal cold is a mental palate cleanser. It sweeps clean the heavy holiday fare. Too much travel. Noise. Not enough time to think.
I breathe in. The air sears my lungs; seeps into my gloves, painfully nips my hands. Then all feeling recedes.
Above me, the wild geese fly in formation over the prairie, calling to each other. The sound carries clearly in the cold, crisp air. I inhale again, and feel the fuzziness in my mind begin to dissipate.
I think of Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese.” When I worked as a ranger on a wilderness island, one of my many non-glamorous tasks was sweeping the visitor center floor at the end of the day. As I’d push the broom, back and forth, back and forth, I’d try memorizing a new poem each week, written on a card in my pocket. It made the task more pleasant. “Wild Geese” was one poem I memorized that became a favorite.
Lost in remembrance, I almost miss what’s under my feet. The prairie and meadow voles have been busy tunneling through the snow, on a seed-finding mission.
The short winter list of prairie birds and animals are easier to name than the lengthy roll call of plant species. Winter plant ID is a guessing game. The once-familiar wildflowers have shed their leaves and bleached their colors. Some I can be fairly certain of, like these thimbleweeds, with their tufts of seeds in various stages of blow-out along a sheltered edge of the prairie.
Or the pasture thistle, in its familiar spot next to the path.
The compass plant leaf, even when cold-curled like a bass clef, is unmistakable.
But other wildflowers, sans identifying colors, scents, or leaf shapes, are a mystery. Is this one an aster? Sure. But which one? I realize how limited my naturalist skills are every winter.
Such a jumble of seasonal botanical leftovers! All in various stages of decay. Monarda? Check. Blackberry canes? Check. And is that tiny curl a bit of carrion flower vine? But which species?
Hours could be spent in this fashion; looking, listening, hypothesizing, thinking, remembering. It takes so little to rekindle the spark of curiosity and wonder. To wake up. To be refreshed.
Just a short hike. A moment’s attention toward what’s happening around your feet. A glance at the sky.
And suddenly, you feel it: the embers of curiosity and wonder begin to glow again.
Sigurd F. Olson (1899-1982) wrote nine books, including my favorite, The Singing Wilderness. Many of his essays are about the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and North Woods, and a few are about the prairie. Some include beautiful scratchboard illustrations from artist Francis Lee Jaques, who was born in Illinois. Olson was a conservation activist and one of the greatest advocates for natural areas in recent times. The quote that begins this blog post is from his book, Listening Point.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): West Side bridge, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Orland Grassland, Forest Preserve Districts of Cook County, Orland Park, IL; Orland Grassland, Forest Preserve Districts of Cook County, Orland Park, IL; fence line at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Canada geese (Branta canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie vole (Microtus ochrogaster), or meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus) tunnels, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant leaf (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; aster (unknown species), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blackberry canes (probably Rubus argutus), bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), and carrion vine (Smilax, unknown species), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Saul’s Lake Bog and Prairie, Land Conservancy of West Michigan, Rockford, MI; sunrise, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL.