“I like to think of landscape not as a fixed placed but as a path that is unwinding before my eyes, under my feet.” –Gretel Ehrlich
Spring comes to the tallgrass prairie with rains that soak and flood the newly-burned earth, urging wildflowers to bloom. Illinois’ state flower, the blue violet, is one of the first to color the prairies and woodlands.
Pussytoes on the prairie are not far behind.
On the wet prairies, marsh marigolds butter the streams and ponds.
Water is the key to this lush profusion of prairie color. Illinois receives almost 40 inches of rain in a good year, nourishing the wildflowers and giving the grasses and wetlands a boost.
But the story of prairies and rain begins almost a thousand miles west of Illinois, high in the Rocky Mountains. April here is full of precipitation of a different sort.
Mule deer forage in the snow-glazed grasses for something green and nourishing.
Birds scan their surroundings for insects and seeds.
As the storms move over the Rockies, snow and rain water the western slopes.
As storms move west to east over the mountain range, the eastern or leeward side is in the “rain shadow.” Simply put, a “rain shadow” means less precipitation falls here. The prairie grasses on this side of the mountains adapted to drier conditions.
As the weather systems move further east…
…more precipitation falls across the Great Plains, eventually with help from the moist Gulf of Mexico air.
Mixed grass prairies grow where there is increased rain, taller and more robust than the shortgrass prairies in the rain shadow. As rains become more abundant, they help nurture the rich tallgrass prairies of the Midwest.
These tallgrass prairies seem a long way from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.
So different. So separate.
Yet, they’re connected. Mountains and tallgrass. For it is here, in the snow-capped Rockies, that we begin to understand what shapes our prairies.
The opening quote is from “Landscape,” introduction to Legacy of Light by Gretel Ehrlich (1946-). Her book, “Solace of Open Spaces,” movingly chronicles her life on the rural Wyoming prairie.
All photos and video clips copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) blue violet (Viola sororia) plantain-leaved pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; April snowstorm video clip, Divide, CO; mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) in spring snowstorm, Divide, Colorado; mountain bluebird (Sialia currucoides) Divide, Colorado; storm coming in over Divide, Colorado; rescue grass (Bromus catharticus), Divide, Colorado; spring snowstorm in Divide, Colorado; spring snowstorm in Divide, Colorado; blazing star (Liatris aspera) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Wyoming ground squirrel (Urocitellus elegans), Divide, Colorado; Pike’s Peak, Divide, Colorado.