“It’s possible to understand the world from studying a leaf. You can comprehend the laws of aerodynamics, mathematics, poetry and biology through the complex beauty of such a perfect structure.” — Joy Harjo
We wake up to fire and ice.
Worn-out leaves are alight with dawn; brushed with frost.
The grass crackles with freeze as the rising sun illuminates each blade, sparks of light on a frigid morning. Swamp milkweed’s silk seed tufts are tattered almost beyond recognition by the night’s sharp whisper.
Joe Pye weed becomes nature’s chandelier.
Prairie cordgrass arcs across my prairie planting, stripped bare of seeds.
Our small suburban backyard, as familiar to me as my breath, is transformed into something mysterious.
Tallgrass prairie plant leaves, furred with frost, take on new personas.
Seedheads bow under the weight of the cold snap.
The ordinary becomes extraordinary.
What a wild weather ride you have taken us on!
What a month of wonders you’ve given us to be grateful for.
See you next year, November.
Joy Harjo (1951-) is our 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States. A writer of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, her words are often autobiographical, and incorporate myths and folklore. Her poetry makes you think (“I could hear my abandoned dreams making a racket in my soul”). Her books include Catching the Light, Poet Warrior, Crazy Brave, and An American Sunrise. I love this line from Secrets from the Center of the World where she writes, “I can hear the sizzle of newborn stars… .”
Join Cindy for her last program of 2022!
Wednesday, December 7, 2022 (6:30-8:30 p.m.) 100 Years Around the Arboretum. Join Cindy and award-winning Library Collections Manager Rita Hassert for a fun-filled evening and a celebratory cocktail as we toast the closing month of The Morton Arboretum’s centennial year. In-person. Register here.
“Tallgrass in motion is a world of legato.” — Louise Erdrich
September closes out the month with sunny afternoons. Crisp evenings. Nights dip into the 40s. Flannel shirts make their way to the front of the closet, although my sandals are still by the door. It’s a time of transition.
About an hour before sunset this weekend, I saw a sundog to the west from my front porch. So bright!
Down south, hurricane season is in full swing. Here, in the Midwest, the air teases with the promise of… frost? Already?
Surely not. And yet. Who knows?
In the garden, the green beans have succumbed to fungal rust. Although my beans have flirted with it before, I think my decision to grow pole beans too densely on a trellis without good air circulation likely led to the disease. My bean season has come to an end, it seems. Ah, well. Wait until next year.
The cherry tomatoes continue to offer handfuls of fruit…
…and the mixed kale, planted this spring, seems delighted with the cooler weather.
In the herb garden, the sweet basil, thyme, dill, and Italian parsley are at their peak.
The promise of coming frost means the rosemary needs to come inside. Rosemary is a tender perennial in my garden zone 5B, and needs to spend the winter by the kitchen sink.
Meanwhile, while the prairies in my region are dominated by tallgrass, our backyard prairie patch is adrift in panicled asters, new England asters, and—sigh—Canada goldenrod going to seed. Where have my grasses gone? A few lone cordgrass stems are about all I see. I’m a big fan of goldenrod, but not Canada goldenrod, that greedy gold digger. At least the pollinators are happy.
In the midst of the tangle of asters, a lone prairie dock lifts its seed heads more than six feet high. Most of my Silphiums–prairie dock, compass plant, and cup plant—kept a low profile this season. There are several prairie dock plants in the prairie patch, but only one flowered.
Despite the Canada goldenrod run amuck in the backyard, I’m delighted with the three new goldenrods I planted this season in the front: Ohio goldenrod, stiff goldenrod, and showy goldenrod. Of the three, the showy goldenrod has surprised me the most. Such splendid blooms! I’ve seen it on the prairie before, almost buried in tallgrass, but in the home garden it really shines.
The bumblebees are nuts about it.
As I amble around the yard, admiring the colors with which autumn is painting the world, there’s a glimpse of red. A cardinal flower? Blooming this late in the season? It’s escaped the pond border and found a new spot on the sunny east-facing hill. What a delightful splash of scarlet, even more welcome for being unexpected.
October is so close, you can almost taste the pumpkin spice lattes and Halloween candy. The prairie plantings shimmer with seed. The natural world is poised for transition. A leap into the dark. Shorter days. Longer nights. A slow slide into the cold.
Transitions are never easy.
But there are so many wonders still to come.
The opening quote is from Louise Erdrich (1954-) and her essay “Big Grass” in The Tallgrass Prairie Reader (2014) edited by John T. Price (and originally from a Nature Conservancy collection Heart of the Land: Essays on Last Great Places, 1994). It’s one of my favorite essays in prairie literature.
Join Cindy for a program or class this autumn!
Friday, October 14, 2022 (10-11 a.m.)—-A Brief History of Trees in America. Discover the enchanting role trees have played in our nation’s history. Think about how trees are part of your personal history, and explore trees’ influence in American literature, music, and culture. Hosted by the Elgin Garden Club and the Gail Borden Public Library District, Main Branch, 270 North Grove Avenue, Meadows Community Rooms. In person. Free and open to the public, but you must register. Find more information here.
“Mystery whispered in the grass, played in the branches of trees overhead, was caught up and blown across the horizon line in clouds of dust at evening on the prairies.” — Sherwood Anderson
Come walk with me. The prairie is calling. Who knows what we’ll see?
The prairie is awash in wildflowers.
Pale purple coneflowers bounce like badminton birdies across the tallgrass. Large elephant ears of prairie dock vie with the clear blue-violet spiderwort blooms, which open in the mornings and close when the sun is at its zenith.
Look along the trail. See the pale wild petunias? They pioneer their way along the path edges, and are a host plant for the buckeye butterfly. Oddly enough, they aren’t a close relative of the petunias we see in cultivated borders and flowering baskets.
Look up! See the clouds roll in across the unbearably bright prairie sky.
Kneel down and there’s a whole world waiting to be discovered. Tiny creatures hide in the petals of smooth phlox…
…or buzz along the just-opened flowers of leadplant.
Yet despite all the hustle and bustle, there is peace here.
It’s also cooler this week after days of brutal heat and humidity. Such a respite. A relief.
Let’s walk to the bridge over Willoway Brook and sit for a while.
Dangle your feet over the bridge. Look into the stream. The shadows of cruising stream bluet damselflies ripple when the sun breaks through the clouds.
Nearby, the female ebony jewelwing damselfly is poised for courtship. The male is just a few feet away, waiting to woo her.
Other damselflies cover the vegetation in tandem, bumper-to-bumper. It’s rush hour.
Variable dancer damselflies offer a contrast in male and female Odonata coloration. Entomologists call this “sexual dimorphism,” which, simply put, means the female is different than the male in some way that doesn’t have to do with reproduction. In this case, color.
The American rubyspot damselfly stakes out its claim…
…while a twelve-spotted skimmer dragonfly rests in the shade.
Watch out for turtles! A dragonfly or damselfly would be a tasty snack for this red-eared slider.
Life for damselflies and dragonflies is tenuous. The snap of a turtle’s jaws or smack of a bird’s beak and—it’s all over. But what glorious sparks of color these insects give to the summer prairie during their brief time here! They are rivaled in color only by the wildflowers, which are building toward their colorful summer crescendo.
Prairie coreopsis are splashes of sunshine across the prairie. Ants investigate the new buds.
New Jersey tea, one of my favorite prairie shrubs, froths and foams like a cappuccino.
Carrion flower—-that strange member of the prairie community—twists and turns as it vines toward the sky. I inhale, and get a good sniff of the fragrance that spawned its name. Whew!
Culver’s root is one of the most elegant prairie wildflowers, and a magnet for pollinators. Today, though, it’s mostly bare of insects.
There’s so much to discover on the prairie at the end of June.
Why not go for a hike and see?
Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941), whose quote kicks off this blog post, was best known for his short story cycle Winesburg, Ohio (also adapted as a well-known play). The quote was taken from The Tallgrass Prairie Reader, edited by John Price.
Join Cindy for a Class or Program!
Wednesday, June 29: “100 Years Around the Morton Arboretum” –with Cindy and Library Collections Manager and Historian Rita Hassert. Enjoy stories of the past that commemorate this very special centennial. Join on Zoom June 29, 7-8:30 p.m. by registering here.
Thursday, July 14 (Zoom online) and Friday, July 15(in person field class): “Beginning Dragonfly and Damselfly Identification“: Discover these beautiful insects through this two-part class, offered by The Morton Arboretum. Space is limited — register here.
“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.”– John Steinbeck
‘Tis the season for the winter Olympics; the perfect way to spend February’s frigid days. We cheer for the skiers and snowboarders, admire the elegance of the figure skaters, get rowdy with the hockey players, and puzzle over the curling competition. “Hog Line”? “Pebble”? Curling is a mystery. The Olympics remind me of our collective resilience. So much dedication! So much drive.
Outside my back door, the squirrels practice Olympic moves at the bird feeders. Flocks of juncos and goldfinches bump each other from the thistle tubes. Woodpeckers (red-bellied, hairy, downy) fly in for the suet, while the chickadees, cardinals, and nuthatches peck at the sunflower and safflower seed. This week—at the recommendation of our birding friends—I add two finch “socks” to our smorgasbord. A day later, half a dozen common redpolls showed up. Our first!
Despite their name, they are anything but common. We have an irruption in our area this winter. I’ve not paid much attention to redpolls in the past, so I take a few moments to read up on them at Cornell’s All About Birds. Redpolls may make tunnels in the snow—up to a foot long—to stay warm, I learn. While they will eat sunflower seeds, redpolls love thistle socks (like the ones pictured).
These Arctic tundra and boreal forest birds can survive cold spells of up to minus 65 degrees Fahrenheit, I discover. Yikes! And I thought it was cold in Illinois.
Despite the lure of our backyard bird feeder Olympics and the 24/7 coverage of the ongoing competition in Beijing, Jeff and I left the house to hike PrairieWalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, a small park in Lisle, IL.
It feels good to be outside. The air is cold; much more frigid than the temperatures would suggest. But there is plenty to take our minds off the bitter weather. The looped path we hike is planted with prairie natives in various degrees of winter decomposition. Age has its own sort of loveliness.
Dragonflies patrol the pond in the warmer seasons. I know that under that frozen surface, the nymphs wait for spring. But on this day, it’s all about the snow.
February skies. Icy paths. I’m grateful for my Yaktrax that keep me from sliding around. The snow-covered pond provides a backdrop for the silhouettes of prairie natives.
The colors of the Indian hemp pods and stems remind me of the redpolls. Subtle—with a dash of scarlet.
Switchgrass, the color of caramel, gets me thinking about lunch. Or maybe just dessert. Or dessert instead of lunch.
It’s a frozen landscape. Yet there is motion in the sway of a vine…
…the sprays of prairie cordgrass…
…and the peel of bark on a tree planted alongside the path.
There is movement in the explosive form of a rosette gall…
…and in the chorus of gray-headed coneflower seeds along the shoreline.
Every winter walk is full of surprises. Is it worth missing a few Olympic events for?
You be the judge.
The opening quote is from Travels with Charleyby John Steinbeck (1902-1968), the author of 33 books—many of which were required reading in my high school. His book, The Grapes of Wrath, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1939 and the National Book Award. Steinbeck also won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.
Join Cindy for a class or program this winter!
February 26 — Plant a Little Prairie in Your Yard for Citizens for Conservation. Barrington, IL. (10 am-11am.) Open to the public with registration.
February 26 ––Conservation: The Power of Story for the 2022 Community Habitat Symposium: Creating a Future for Native Ecosystems at Joliet Junior College. Tickets available at (https://illinoisplants.org/). (Afternoon program)
March 3–Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online –enjoy this online class with assignments over 60 days and one live Zoom together. Digitally explore the intricacies of the tallgrass prairie landscape and learn how to restore these signature American ecosystems. Look at the history of this particular type of grassland from the descent of glaciers over the Midwest millions of years ago to the introduction of John Deere’s famous plow to where we are today. We will examine different types of prairie, explore the plant and animal communities of the prairie, and discuss strategies specific to restoring prairies in this engaging online course. Come away with a better understanding of prairies and key insights into how to restore their beauty. You will have 60 days to access the materials. Register here.
***Thank you John Heneghan and Tricia Lowery for the thistle sock recommendation for redpolls. It worked!
“Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder.” — E.B. White
Happy February! January 2022 has come and gone, and with it the realization that I haven’t set in motion some of my New Year’s resolutions. I thought I would have accomplished more of them by now.
But—I’ve been readingAtomic Habits, a new book about getting stuff done, and I’m a little less discouraged by what I haven’t accomplished yet. I’ve got a plan for February. There’s always tomorrow.
One habit that hasn’t been difficult to maintain is hiking, despite the cold. This weekend, Jeff and I headed for the Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, a remnant black soil prairie not far from our home.
I love the juxtaposition of city and tallgrass at this site. The sky seems so immense.
So much sunshine! So much snow. It almost calls for sunglasses. We shield our eyes with our hands instead.
The clouds look newly-laundered in the cold, fresh air. It’s a lovely day to be outside, despite the chilly temperature.
Wolf Road Prairie is crossed with sidewalks, the ghost skeleton of a subdivision that was almost built here in the 1920s. The Great Depression put an end to it. Jeff always loves scraping aside the snow to find the old walkways.
Because of the Save the Prairie Society, a group of people who saw the value of this remnant, Wolf Road Prairie was preserved instead of developed again in the 1970s. Rather than a subdivision, we have this wide-open space, with more than 360 species of native plants.
I don’t have anything against subdivisions. I live in one. But as I hike, I am grateful for the vision of those who recognized this high quality prairie remnant for the special place it was, and ensured it lives on. We have plenty of subdivisions in the Chicago region. Almost all our prairie remnants like this one are gone.
On our hike, we bump into Wyatt Widmer, the site steward, and a group of volunteers out cutting brush and herbiciding woody plants. It’s inspiring to see them caring for this 82-acre preserve; the prairie—and savanna and wetland—that has brought Jeff and me so much pleasure for so many years. People are an important part of prairie.
Seeing them working is a timely reminder that the prairies which seem so “natural” are kept healthy and vibrant today by dedicated staff and volunteers and the sweat equity they invest. Today, without people to put fire to the last of the prairies, weed and cut brush, and collect seeds and redistribute them, what’s left of our Illinois prairies would eventually disappear. Prairies need our help.
As I hike, I think about the prairie where I’m a steward. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to finish my management plan with my co-steward and the natural resources staff at the Arboretum where I volunteer. It feels a little overwhelming to get it done. Our 100-acre prairie has endless numbers of potential projects. What to tackle first?
After conducting a plant inventory in 2016, our group is anxious to replace some of the plants that have gone missing; get them back into circulation. But how to choose? Where to start? We also have a brush problem. A reed canary grass issue. And sumac? Don’t get me started.
Seeing these volunteers and the site steward working at Wolf Road Prairie prods me to finish that plan. February is a good time to dream, to make lists, and to be pro-active, rather than re-active. February is a good time to get things done.
I want to be intentional about how the new season on the prairie unfolds.
But of course…
…the prairie has a mind of its own.
No matter how many lists I make, plants I order, or projects I envision, Mother Nature will have a say in what happens this year. There will be random events; occurrences I can’t plan for.
Drought, windstorms, flooding, hungry mammals, and yes—Covid—may all play a role in our 2022 season. Even the best planning won’t ensure 100% execution and success.
But a plan is necessary. And part of my management plan is to be flexible.
To adapt to whatever comes in 2022. To remind myself that when my planning fails, there’s always next year. Keep moving forward. Step by step. Little by little.
Good reminders, for the prairie and for myself. We’ll see how it goes.
The opening quote is from E. B. White (1899-1985), who was the author of several beloved children’s books including Charlotte’s Web.Writers also know him as the co-author of The Elements of Style. Early in his newspaper career, he was fired by The Seattle Times, and later went to Alaska to work on a fireboat. When he eventually joined the staff of The New Yorker, he was painfully shy, and would only come into the office on Thursdays. There, he met his eventual wife Katharine, the magazine’s literary editor, whose son Roger Angell from her first marriage is the baseball writer and fiction editor at The New Yorker today. In the introduction to Charlotte’s Web, White is quoted as saying “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” It showed.
Join Cindy for a class or program this winter!
February 8-March 1 (Three evenings, 6:30-9pm): The Foundations of Nature Writing Online —Learn the nuts and bolts of excellent nature writing and improve your wordsmithing skills in this online course from The Morton Arboretum. Over the course of four weeks, you will complete three self-paced e-learning modules and attend weekly scheduled Zoom sessions with your instructor and classmates. Whether you’re a blogger, a novelist, a poet, or simply enjoy keeping a personal journal, writing is a fun and meaningful way to deepen your connection to the natural world. February 8, noon Central time: Access self-paced materials online. February 15, 22, and March 1, 6:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Central time: Attend live. Register here.
March 3–Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online –online class with assignments over 60 days; one live Zoom together. Digitally explore the intricacies of the tallgrass prairie landscape and learn how to restore these signature American ecosystems. Look at the history of this particular type of grassland from the descent of glaciers over the Midwest millions of years ago to the introduction of John Deere’s famous plow to where we are today. We will examine different types of prairie, explore the plant and animal communities of the prairie, and discuss strategies specific to restoring prairies in this engaging online course. Come away with a better understanding of prairies and key insights into how to restore their beauty. You will have 60 days to access the materials. Register here.
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.