Tag Archives: prairie cordgrass

A New Year in the Tallgrass

“Joy as I see it involves embracing life. … Joy isn’t the opposite of sorrow, but encompasses and transcends sorrow. You know you’re truly connected with yourself when you’re experiencing joy.” — Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge

*****

Where did 2019 go? The time passed so quickly.

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This year we saw changes on the prairies we love. After the prescribed burns that torched the tallgrass…

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… we marveled at the new growth soon after.

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Watched the early pasque flowers bloom….

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and then, set seeds for the future.

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We stood amazed at the constellations of shooting star, bent and humming with bumble bees.

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Then, were astonished at the July wildflowers. Sure, we seem them each summer. But each year seems like a miracle.

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Now, at the end of December, the prairie has its own sort of loveliness. The beauty of sky and clouds…

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…the delights of a single seedhead.

Pasture thistle.

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Bee balm.

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Blazing star.

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Each prairie plant has a different method of making seeds and ensuring its future. Each has  a story to tell.

Remembering the familiar cycle of prescribed fire, new growth, flushes of color, and fruition of seed are all comforting at the close of the year.

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It comforts us as we remember how, in 2019, we wrote our own stories. Some of us lost people we loved. Had surgery. Battled cancer. Made new friends. Laughed a lot. Cried a lot, too. Weeded, seeded. Planned and worked to make those plans—both on the prairie and off—a reality. Celebrated the successes. Resolved to learn from the failures.

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In 2019, there were the surprises and vagaries of weather. Remember the big snow in April? Then, the cold and wet through the middle of June. Blazing hot in July. Snow on Halloween. Sixty degree days in December. Through it all, the prairie sailed on. The tallgrass  prairie was built for these extremes.

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Woven through 2019 was joy. True joy. The kind that is hard-won. The prairie, with its glories and challenges, defeats and delights, reminds us of this. Fire brings growth. Deep roots hold firm, drawing from long-held reserves when unexpected events throw the season out of kilter. The prairie survives.

It survives, also in part, because of people with vision.  Each prairie is a story of sweat and joy; patience and persistence. Of survival. Like a Polaroid snapshot, stewards and volunteers bring struggling remnants back into sharp focus.

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Many saved at the eleventh hour.GensburgMarkhambigbluestemWM122719.jpg

2019 was the continuing story of people who care enough to preserve places that aren’t always easy—at first glance–to understand. When I drive by the roughly 105-acre Gensburg-Markham prairie on congested I-294, set aside in 1971, I wonder what most commuters whizzing by this precious remnant think about it. Do they know what was saved, and why it matters? Do they wonder why it was never developed? Or is it just a blur in their rear view mirrors as they speed to their destinations?

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Do the people who drive by the 91-acre Sundrop Prairie, dedicated in 2000 and part of the Indian Boundary Prairies in Markham, IL, know what a treasure these acres contain?

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The tallgrass grows and changes. Our understanding of their importance evolves. And yet, the prairies continue on, as they have for hundreds of thousands of years. There’s a comfort in knowing that when we’re gone, the prairies will continue to survive and thrive under the care of future generations.

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I think of these things as I hike a prairie trail at Fermilab in the last days of the year. According to the Chicago Tribune, “In 1975 when he heard that Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, near Batavia, was looking for suggestions on what to do with the thousands of acres it owned, Bob Betz sat down with then-director Robert Wilson and went over his vision of having a restored prairie on the property. ‘And when Dr. Wilson asked how long it was going to take, Dr. Betz said, ‘Ten, 20 or maybe 30 years,’ then Dr. Wilson said, ‘Well, we better get started this afternoon.’ ” From these beginnings, beautiful prairies were planted and now thrive at Fermilab.

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Prairie remnants like the Indian Boundary Prairies—Sundrop and Gensburg-Markham— require people to discover them, bring them to the attention of the rest of us, and then, care for them with prescribed fire and stewardship. They require organizations like the Nature Conservancy and Northeastern Illinois University and others, and the generous donations of individuals, to ensure their protection. They require vision. And action. I think of Bob Betz, and his work with the Indian Boundary Prairies, as well as with Fermilab’s natural areas.  I think of the volunteers who undertake a hundred different tasks to maintain prairies today.

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Other preserves, like Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL–which has both remnant and planted prairies—shows the rewards of focused funding and care since 1986 by the Nature Conservancy Illinois and later, joined in that care by Friends of Nachusa Grasslands. I think also of the 100-acre Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum just outside of Chicago, and the volunteers, including myself, who dedicate time each season to cut brush, plant new natives, and collect seeds. Such different prairies! Each one irreplaceable.

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Now, it’s time to close another chapter in the life of the prairies. 2019 is a wrap.

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2020 is waiting. So much possibility!

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So much good work to do. So much joy to look forward to.

*****

The opening quote is included in the book, Poemcrazy: Freeing Your Life with Words by Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge. It’s one of my favorite books on writing; I re-read it at least once a year.

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Sundrop Prairie, Midlothian, IL: prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; greening up after the prescribed burn, top of Dot’s Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL: pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens) in bloom, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatiilla patens) in seed, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; July at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; the end of December at Fermilab Natural Areas, interpretive trail, Batavia, IL; pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; blazing star (probably Liastris aspera), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Sundrop Prairie, Midlothian, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Sundrop Prairie, Midlothian, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Sundrop Prairie, Midlothian, IL; backlit prairie plants (unknown), Sundrop Prairie, Midlothian, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; Illinois nature preserve sign, Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; Sundrop Prairie in December, Midlothian, IL; Gensburg-Markham Prairie with bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), grasses, and wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; Fermilab interpretive trail edges at the end of December, Batavia, IL; Carolina horsenettle (Solanum carolinense), Fermilab interpretive prairie trail, Batavia, IL: prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; Wilson Hall from the interpretive trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL;  interpretive trail at Fermilab Natural Areas at the end of December, Batavia, IL.

***

Please join Cindy at one of her upcoming classes or talks in the new year!

Nature Writing and Art Retreat, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, February 22 (Saturday) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Cindy will be facilitating the writing portion. Register here.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26.  Details and registration here.

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum. For details and registration, click here. 

Happy New Year! Thank you for reading. See you in 2020.

Thinking in “Prairie Time”

“The strongest of all warriors are these two — Time and Patience.” — Leo Tolstoy

******

It’s a hot day for our prairie team to clear the main visitor trail.  The 90-plus humid mornings and torrential rains have resulted in lush vegetation. The path? Forbidding, overgrown. Visitors walk up to the trail entrance and turn away, put off by the idea of bushwhacking. Who would blame them? Trail clearing is overdue.

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For hours, volunteers work at a snail’s pace, bent over, carefully clipping back wildflowers and grasses to make an accessible path. At the end of the muggy, hot morning, it’s finally time to quit.

“Gosh, that was fun!” said one volunteer, cheerfully, drenched with sweat. Fun? 

She must have seen the look on my face, because she added, “Every week, when we pull weeds, I feel like I don’t see any results.  Sometimes, it seems like years on the prairie pass before we see any progress at all! But when we clear the trail, it’s instant gratification.”

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It’s true.  Instant gratification is unusual in the tallgrass. Sure, once in a while, a brush cutting day or big garlic mustard pull can yield tangible results. When we collect seeds of some prolific grasses or wildflowers, like pale purple coneflower, we have some momentary satisfaction. palepurpleconeflowerWM818

But the time it takes to develop a healthy, functioning prairie community—with all its associated insects, birds, and plants—is the work of decades, if not a lifetime.

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Thinking in “prairie time” requires recalibration of everything society primes us for. Post something on social media? Instantly, “Like! Like! Like!” follows. Too busy to cook? Drive-through restaurant windows put hot food in your hands in minutes. Not so on the prairie. On one tallgrass site where I am a steward supervisor, we battle an agricultural weed called sweet clover. I’ve pulled clover there for 15 years, and I’ve never seen an end to it. For the first time this season, the battle seems almost over. Because of this, our team was able to turn our attention to some other invaders. Giant ragweed. Curly dock. And lately, Japanese hedge parsley, which looks a lot like Queen Anne’s lace.

I’ve been pulling the Queen Anne’s lace from my backyard prairie this month as well, especially around a second-year planting that includes Kankakee mallow. For years, I’d admired it on the prairie….KankakeeMallowspma818wm copy

…and coveted it for my own backyard prairie plot. I found it at a local garden center specializing in natives. The first season, I had a few blooms. Beautiful!

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This year, the bunnies nipped it back until all I had were short, leafy stalks.

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Disappointing. But, as I often remind myself, thinking in “prairie time” is mostly about patience. Same with the cardinal flowers. That flaming color! I always anticipate it. Some summers, my pond and wet prairie has an abundance of screaming scarlet. The hummingbirds go wild! Then, thecardinalflowerCROSBYbackyard81318wm next season, the flowers disappear.

 

Ah, well. Wait until next year.

The prairie reminds me to think in terms of years, not just the immediate.  But, ironically, the prairie also reminds me that every moment is precious.  I know to stop and admire the wildflowers which change from day to day…

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… or pause in my work to marvel at a gathering of swallows, swooping and diving….

 

…or linger at Clear Creek to enjoy the bright blue of a springwater dancer damselfly.  If I rush off, thinking “I’ll look at that next time I’m here,” there is often no “next time.” I miss the moment.

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Then I think of “prairie time” as these moments; small snapshots of color and light and motion I can carry with me in my memory.

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How elastic time is! How odd it is, as well. Something we move through without conscious thought most days. Yet, how treasured time should be.  As I grow older, the idea of time has taken on new meaning. Want to aggravate me? Say you are “killing time!” Time is much too precious to waste.

The prairie teaches me different ways to think about time. It reminds me that the long-term results are worth forgoing instant gratification.  It also prompts me to remember the importance of paying attention to the moment—the fleeting nature of time. Two very different ways to understand the how I’m spending my life.

Two ways of thinking about living in “prairie time.”

***

Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) is a Russian writer who is widely regarded as one of the finest to ever wield a pen. The opening quote is from his 1869 epic, War and Peace. He believed in passive resistance; his ideas were said to have influenced Martin Luther King Junior and Gandhi. War and Peace is thought to be one of the great novels in literature; its title has passed into colloquial use. Tolstoy had a rather tumultuous life; he was excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church, and his marriage to his wife, Sophia, was generally considered to be desperately unhappy. They had 13 children, only eight of which survived to adulthood. Tolstoy died of pneumonia at 82.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL;  pale purple coneflower seedheads (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Kankakee mallow (Iliamna remota) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Kankakee mallow (Iliamna remota) author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Kankakee mallow  (Iliamna remota) author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) and sweet Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; video of barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) congregating on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; springwater dancer damselfly, male (Argia plana), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

America’s Favorite (Prairie) Pastime

“A baseball weighted your hand just so, and fit it…When you hit it with a bat it cracked – and your heart cracked, too, at the sound. It took a grass stain nicely….” — Annie Dillard

 

For baseball fans, July means the season is building to a crescendo. So it is also in the tallgrass.

July throws out every possible pitch on the prairie: thunderstorms, scorching hot days, high winds, foggy mornings, cool evenings. It keeps you slightly off-balance. Guessing. Unsure of what the next day or—even hour—in the tallgrass might bring.

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In the prairie wetlands, egrets crouch; umpire the prairie ponds and streams.

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Cup plants have hit their stride. Towering and aggressive–up to 10 feet tall—their cheerful flowers team up with compass plant and prairie dock blooms to splash yellow across the prairie.

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Their perfoliate sandpapery leaves catch rainwater for thirsty goldfinches and other birds. Think of a scratchy catcher’s mitt.

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Big bluestem shoots up overnight, waving its turkey-footed seed heads. As Illinois state grass, it deserves an all-star role on the July prairie.

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Cordgrass blooms, subtle and easy to miss.

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But with the prairie roster overflowing with wildflowers…

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…big bluestem and the other grasses are sometimes overlooked, just as utility players often are beside their flashier teammates. Just wait until October, they seem to whisper.

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Gray-headed coneflowers shake out their lemon petal pennants, cheering on the season.

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In a few weeks, their gray seed heads will become dry and brittle with an amazing scent: an anise-citrus prairie potpourri. Mmmm.

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Joe Pye weed fills the prairie savanna with clouds of pale lavender. Their floral scorecards are marked with yellow tiger swallowtails and other butterflies, crazy for the nectar.

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Buckeyes surf the grasses; pop up along the paths.

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And every prairie clover bloom seems to sport a bee or butterfly.

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America’s favorite pastime might be baseball.

But the prairie in July knows how to hit a home run.

*****

The opening quote is from Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood (1987), her memoir of growing up in Pittsburgh. Among the awards Dillard has won for her writing is the Pulitzer Prize for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), a sustained non-fiction narrative about the beauty and terror of the natural world.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): fog over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; great egret (Ardea alba), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), with unknown bee, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie blooms, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Schulenberg prairie grasses at sunset, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; gray-headed coneflower seed heads (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  white prairie clover (Dalea candida) with wild indigo duskywing butterfly (Erynnis baptisiae most likely, although this is a difficult genus to ID), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Wild Things

“Two great and conflicting stories have been told about (wildness). According to the first of these, wildness is a quality to be vanquished; according to the second, it is a quality to be cherished.”–Robert Macfarlane

So often, we settle for “pretty” when we think about place. And yes, the prairie can be pretty, and full of pretty things. Great blue lobelia. Creamy white turtlehead blooms.

“Wild” makes more demands of us.  It changes our idea of beautiful. The prairie as a wild place asks us to be uncomfortable in order to experience it.  To be scratched, sore, tired, and bitten.

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Wild may be more subtle than pretty. It asks us to look at the sweep of a prairie landscape; the nuances of color and movement.

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It pushes us to pay attention to small things, that may otherwise easily slip below our radar.

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To be wild is sometimes unsafe. Prairie dropseed lures us with its buttered popcorn smell, while tripping us up with its silky grasses and mounded roots. Early European settlers called prairie dropseed, “ankle breaker.”  To cross a prairie in that time, with your belongings packed into your wagon, was to enter the wild. A place of hazards.

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Other plants, like the prairie cordgrass towering over your head, slash bare skin with razor-like leaf cuts if you venture too close. Its nickname: “rip gut.”

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And yet…look again. So many delicate blooms amid the rough and ready grasses! You pick your way carefully, still conscious of the perils.

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Beauty and terror co-exist, side by side.

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The idea of “wild” invites us to marvel over less-appreciated creatures, who have a certain ferocious allure.

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The wildness of prairie may seem empty. The openness of sky and grass leaves us vulnerable to whatever is “out there.”

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You feel the eyes of a thousand inhabitants of the natural world watching.

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You stand, a solitary figure in the tallgrass. No other person in sight. Prairies, like other wild places, give us room to be alone with ourselves, without white noise and distractions. And perhaps this is the most terrifying demand of all from wild places. But for those who make the journey, it is the most satisfying reward. What will you discover?

Why not go, and find out?

*******

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom) great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) and white turtlehead (Chelone glabra linifolia), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL: great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele) on pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) , Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  September colors at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; familiar bluet damselfly (Enallagma civile) , Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie dropseed, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata) , Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet wood sorrel (Oxalis violacea) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) and bee (Megachile spp.), Nachusa Grassland, Franklin Grove, IL; banded garden spider (Argiope trifasciata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; September at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; common buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Robert Macfarlane (1976-) penned the opening quote, which is from his book, The Wild Places. He is a contemporary British writer, and winner of the Boardman Tasker Prize for literature.