Tag Archives: prairie cordgrass

‘Tis the Season of Prairie Grasses

“There is nothing in the world so strong as grass.” —Brother Cadfael

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I’m baking sourdough bread and humming Van Morrison’s song “When the leaves come falling down.” It’s mid-November, but the trees glow. Today’s wind and snow are conspiring to loosen leaves from their moorings.

West Side, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Through my kitchen window, I see my prairie patch covered with yellow silver maple leaves from my neighbor’s yard. The gold flies through the air; sifts into Joe Pye weeds, cup plants, prairie cordgrass, culver’s root, and compass plants. When it comes time to burn next spring, these leaves will help fuel the fire.

When the leaves come falling down.

When the leaves come falling down.

Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

Outside, the air is sharp and earthy. It smells like winter. Daylight grows shorter. The last chapter of autumn is almost written.

In an open meadow, a coyote stalks and pounces. Missed! It’s a field mouse’s lucky day.

Coyote (Canis latrans), Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Mallards paddle ponds in the falling snow, oblivious. Their emerald heads shine like satin. Mallards are so common in Illinois we rarely give them a second glance. But oh! How beautiful they are.

Mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos), Lake Marmo, Lisle, IL.

I scoot closer to the water for a better view. A muskrat startles, then swims for the shoreline to hide in the grasses.

Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus), Lake Marmo, Lisle, IL.

Across the road in the savanna, virgin’s bower seed puffs collect snowflake sprinkles. Bright white on soft silk.

Virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

The savanna is striking in the falling snow.

Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

But I only have eyes for the prairie. November is the season for grass.

Indian grass.

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Big bluestem.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL. (2019)

Prairie dropseed.

Prairie dropseed (Panicum virgatum), and leadplant (Amorpha canescens), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

So much grass.

In My Antonia, Willa Cather wrote of the prairie:

“… I felt motion in the landscape; in the fresh, easy-blowing morning wind, and in the earth itself, as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping, galloping …” 

Bison at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. (2016)

In Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie, John Madson told us that weather extremes favor grasses over trees. No wonder the Midwest, with its wild weather vagaries, is a region of grass.

Bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (August, 2020)

In her essay, “Big Grass,” Louise Erdrich writes: “Grass sings, grass whispers… . Sleep the winter away and rise headlong each spring. Sink deep roots. Conserve water. Respect and nourish your neighbors and never let trees get the upper hand.

Grass.

In November, grass slips into the starring role.

The best fall color isn’t in the changing leaves.

It’s here. On the tallgrass prairie.

Why not go see?

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The quote that kicks off this post is from An Excellent Mystery by Ellis Peters, the non de plume for scholar Edith Mary Pargeter (1913-1995). She was the author of numerous books, including 20 volumes in The Cadfael Chronicles; murder mysteries set in 12th Century England. I reread the series every few years and enjoy it immensely each time.

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Join Cindy for a class or program!

Winter Prairie Wonders: Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass! Dec. 3 (Friday) 10-11:30 am (Central): Make yourself a cup of hot tea, snuggle under a warm afghan, and join prairie steward and writer Cindy Crosby virtually for this interactive online immersion into the tallgrass prairie in winter. See the aesthetic beauty of the snow-covered grasses and wildflowers in cold weather through colorful images of winter on the prairies. Follow animal tracks to see what creatures are out and about, and see how many you can identify. Learn how birds, pollinators, and mammals use winter prairie plants;  the seeds for nourishment and the grasses and spent wildflowers for overwintering, protection, and cover. Then, listen as Cindy shares brief readings about the prairie in winter that will engage your creativity and nourish your soul.  This is scheduled as a Zoom event through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.

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Just in time for the holidays! Northwestern University Press is offering The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction and Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History (with watercolor illustrations by Peggy MacNamara) for 40% off the retail price. Click here for details. Remember to use Code Holiday40 when you check out.

Please visit your local independent bookstore (Illinois’ friends: The Arboretum Store in Lisle and The Book Store in Glen Ellyn) to purchase or order Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit for the holidays. Discover full-color prairie photographs and essays from Cindy and co-author Thomas Dean.

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Save Bell Bowl Prairie! Visit the website to find out how you can help keep this critical remnant from being bulldozed in Illinois. One phone call, one letter, or sharing the information with five friends will help us save it.

October Serenade

“Mornings were cooler and crisper than before. The ever-lengthening shapes of afternoon shadows seemed drawn more irresistibly into the night. Fields were rough and tweedy, as though an old brown woolen jacket had been thrown over them to ward off the chill.” — Vincent G. Dethier

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Oh, wow, October. The prairie is stunning. Although it’s not to everyone’s taste.

Cup plants (Silphium perfoliatum) and sumac (Rhus glabra), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

“No flowers,” say some of my friends. Yes, the blooming flowers now are few. Goldenrods. Asters.

Sky blue aster (Symphyotrichum oolentangiense), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

They melt into the grasses, slowly becoming invisible. Going. Going. Gone—to seed.

Mixed wildflowers and grasses, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Most prairie wildflowers have closed shop for the season.

Prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Finished. Finale.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

They surrender to the inevitable with elegance.

Late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Ravenous insects glean whatever is left for the taking.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) with milkweed bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus), Great Western Prairie, Elmhurst, IL.

So many insects.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) with unknown insect (possibly the four-humped stink bug Brochymena quadripustulata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

They make themselves at home in the prairie wildflower remains.

Ball gall on goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum) Great Western Trail, Elmhurst, IL.

Seeds ripen.

Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Days shorten.

Sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Autumn trickles through my fingers.

Schulenberg Prairie and savanna edge, Lisle, IL.

Each day seems over before I’ve fully woken up. I remind myself, “Pay attention!” But—the prairie is beginning to blur. I rub my eyes and try to focus. So many seeds. So much grass.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

It’s all about the grass.

Prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Loops and whoops and swoops of grass.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Even my old enemy, the invasive reed canary grass on the prairie, shimmers in the morning dew.

Reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

In her eloquent essay in The Tallgrass Prairie Reader, Louise Erdrich writes: “Tallgrass in motion is a world of legato.”

Prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

The wind sighs as it sifts the grasses. The coda is near.

Schulenberg Prairie in Lisle, IL.

What new wonders will unfold?

Natural hybrid between the compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) and prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum)–sometimes referred to as Silphium pinnatifidum, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

I only know this: The wonders will be more nuanced. Less easily available as immediate eye candy than when in the growing season. But no less remarkable.

White wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

We’ll have to pause. Think. Absorb. Take time to look. To really look.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Why not go for a hike and see? Now. Before the snow flies?

Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

The prairie is waiting.

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Vincent G. Dethier (1915-1993) was an entomologist and physiologist, and the author of Crickets and Katydids, Concerts and Solos from which the opening blog post quote was taken. This is a delightful book and accessible to anyone who loves natural history, or who has found joy in the grasshoppers, crickets and katydids of the tallgrass prairie. It takes a little extra work to find the book at your library. Well worth the effort.

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Thanks to Nature Revisited Podcast for their interview with Cindy about dragonflies and prairie! Click here to listen to it on Youtube.

Thanks to Benedictine University for airing: Conservation: The Power of Story with Cindy as part of their Jurica-Suchy Nature Museum “Science Speaker Series.” See it on Youtube here.

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Thank you to Mark and Jess Paulson for their tour of the Great Western Prairie this week. I was so grateful to see it through your eyes!

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Join Cindy for a Program or Class!

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology: Opens online Monday, Nov.1 –Are you a prairie steward or volunteer who wants to learn more about the tallgrass? Do you love hiking the prairie, but don’t know much about it? Enjoy a self-paced curriculum with suggested assignments and due dates as you interact with other like-minded prairie lovers on the discussion boards. Then, join Cindy for a live Zoom Friday, November 12, noon to 1 p.m. CST. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. See more details here.

Winter Prairie Wonders: Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass! Dec. 3 (Friday) 10-11:30 am (CST): Make yourself a cup of hot tea, snuggle under a warm afghan, and join prairie steward and writer Cindy Crosby virtually for this interactive online immersion into the tallgrass prairie in winter. See the aesthetic beauty of the snow-covered grasses and wildflowers in cold weather through colorful images of winter on the prairies. Follow animal tracks to see what creatures are out and about, and see how many you can identify. Learn how birds, pollinators, and mammals use winter prairie plants;  the seeds for nourishment and the grasses and spent wildflowers for overwintering, protection, and cover. Then, listen as Cindy shares brief readings about the prairie in winter that will engage your creativity and nourish your soul.  This is scheduled as a Zoom event through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.

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Save Bell Bowl Prairie!

Please visit www.savebellbowlprairie.org to learn about the planned destruction of a special gravel prairie remnant by the Chicago-Rockford Airport in Rockford, IL. Ask them to reroute their construction. Discover how you can help save this home of the federally-endangered Rusty Patched Bumble Bee. The remnant is slated for bulldozing on November 1. Every small action by those who love prairies will help!

Prairie Snow Messages

“…How swiftly time passes in the out-of-doors where there is never a moment without something new.”– Sigurd Olson

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It starts with graupel. Icy pellets of rimed snow. Soft hail. The graupel rattles the windows. Pelts the patio. Bounces like tiny ping-pong balls across my backyard and into the prairie patch. The winter storm is here.

Graupel, Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Four mourning doves swoop onto the porch. They peck-peck-peck the scattered millet seed around the bird feeders, then shelter under the eaves. Darkness falls. The wind rattles the windows. And at last, it begins to snow.

A light snow cover has blanketed the prairies this week. Critters leave clues to their identities.

Eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) or fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) tracks, Lambert Lake, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The prairie grasses, overshadowed by wildflowers most of the year, find snow is the perfect backdrop to showcase their charms.

Prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), Prairie Walk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Snow is a stage for tallgrass shadows and silhouettes to play upon.

Cordgrass (Spartina pectinata) and gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Turkey tail fungi sift snow, letting it powder each arc of nuanced color.

Turkey tail fungi (Trametes versicolor), Lambert Lake, Glen Ellyn, IL.

In shrubs and thickets, black-capped chickadees shelter from the storm. They know how to endure.

Black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

From a distance, Indian hemp seems stripped of all but pod and stem.

Dogbane or Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Come closer. A few seeds still cling to the scoured pods, ready to set sail in the high winds.

Dogbane or Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), Prairie Walk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Everywhere is something to spark wonder. “Even an adult can grow in perception if he refuses to close the doors to learning,” wrote Sigurd Olson in Reflections from the North Country. There are stories to be listened to…

Ash tree (Fraxinus sp.) with emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis) gallery, Lambert Lake, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…messages to be read in the midst of the snow, if only we can decipher them. If we keep the doors to learning open.

Emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis) gallery, Lambert Lake, Glen Ellyn, IL.

When the doors to learning stand open, what is there to discover?

Perhaps, diversity is beautiful.

Mixed prairie grasses and forbs, Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Or, Think of future generations, not just of the needs or desires of the moment.

Lambert Lake, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Remember the past, but don’t get stuck there.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Prairie Walk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Embrace change, even when it’s difficult. It usually is.

Lambert Lake, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Appreciate what you have today…

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

…it may not be here tomorrow.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

The choices we make aren’t always clear or easy.

Mixed forbs, Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

There are a lot of gray areas.

Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

But it’s never too late to reflect. To listen. To learn.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

And then, to move forward.

Lambert Lake hiking trail, Glen Ellyn, IL.

There is so much to see and think about on the prairie.

Common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

So much to pay attention to.

Coyote (Canis latrans) tracks, Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

So much to consider, on a prairie hike in the snow.

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Sigurd Olson (1899-1982), whose quote opens this post, was born in Chicago and grew up in northern Wisconsin. He is considered one of the most important environmental advocates of the 20th Century. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area—over one million acres in size—owes its preservation to the work of Olson and many others. Olson worked as a wilderness guide in the Quetico-Superior area of Minnesota and Canada, and his nine books explore the meaning of wilderness and the outdoors. He is a recipient of the John Burroughs Medal, the highest honor in nature writing, for Wilderness Days. If you haven’t read Olson, I’d suggest beginning with The Singing Wilderness. A very good read.

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Join Cindy in 2021 for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a complete list of virtual offerings. All classes and programs with Cindy this winter and spring are offered online only. Join me from your computer anywhere in the world.

Begins Monday, February 6 OR just added —February 15 (Two options): Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online--Digitally explore the intricacies of the tallgrass prairie landscape and learn how to restore these signature American ecosystems as you work through online curriculum. Look at the history of this unique 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 the tallgrass prairies, and key insights into how to restore their beauty. All curriculum is online, with an hour-long in-person group Zoom during the course. You have 60 days to complete the curriculum! Join me–Registration information here.

February 24, 7-8:30 p.m. CST: The Prairie in Art and Literature Online. The tallgrass prairie is usually thought of for its diverse community of plants, animals, and insects. Yet, it is also an inspiration for a creative community! In this interactive online talk, natural history author and prairie steward Cindy Crosby will explore historical and contemporary writers and artists, musicians, and other creatives working in the prairie genre: from Neil Young to Willa Cather to graphic comic artists , quilters, and jewelers expressing the prairie through their work. See the prairie in a new light! Come away inspired to appreciate and express your love of the tallgrass as you enjoy learning about this prairie “community.” Offered by The Morton Arboretum: Register here.

January Prairie Dreamin’

“The bumblebee consults his blossoms and the gardener his catalogs, which blossom extravagantly at this season, luring him with their four-color fantasies of bloom and abundance.” — Michael Pollan

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This week is brought to you by the color gray.

Backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL.

January gray.

Prairie Cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

As I hike the prairie this week, I find myself humming “California Dreamin'”; —All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray… .

Tall Coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Gray is trendy. Pantone made “Ultimate Gray” one of its two “Colors of the Year” for 2021.

Even on a blue-sky prairie hike, the gray clouds aren’t far away.

Pretty or not, all this gray is dampening my spirits. The seed suppliers know how those of us who love the natural world feel in January. And they are ready to supply the antidote.

2021 seed catalogs

Every day—or so it seems—a new seed catalog lands in my mailbox. Within its pages, anything seems achievable. After thumbing through Pinetree or Park or Prairie Moon Nursery, when I look at the backyard, I don’t see reality anymore…

Kohlrabi and Kale, backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL.

… I see possibilities. This year, my raised vegetable beds, now buried under snow and ice, will overflow with beautiful produce. Spinach that doesn’t bolt. Kale without holes shot-gunned into it from the ravages of the cabbage white butterflies. Squirrels will leave my tomatoes alone. No forlorn scarlet globes pulled off the vine and tossed aside after a single bite. I linger over the catalog pages, circle plant names, make lists, and dream.

As for my prairie patch! I have so many plans.

Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa), backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

This will be the year I find a place in my yard where prairie smoke thrives.

Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum), Prairie Walk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Big bluestem, which has mysteriously disappeared over the years from my yard, will be seeded again and silhouette itself against the sky.

Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Hinsdale Prairie, Hinsdale, IL.

The unpredictable cardinal flowers will show up in numbers unimaginable.

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) Nomia Meadows, Franklin Grove, IL.

I see the spent pods of my butterfly weed…

Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…and remember the half dozen expensive plants that were tried—and died—in various places in the yard until I found its happy place.

Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos) and Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Now it thrives. The monarch caterpillars show up by the dozens to munch on its leaves, just as I had hoped.

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) caterpillar, backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

As I walk the prairie trails, admiring the tallgrass in its winter garb, I plan the renovation of my backyard garden and prairie patch this spring. I dream big. I dream impractical.

Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

And why not? Any dream seems possible during the first weeks of January.

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The opening quote is by Michael Pollan (1955) from his first book, Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education. Pollan is perhaps best known for The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Botany of Desire but his debut is still my favorite. I read it every year.

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Join Cindy in 2021 for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a complete list of virtual offerings. All classes and programs with Cindy this winter and spring are offered online only. Join me from your computer anywhere in the world.

Begins This Week! January 14-February 4 (Four Thursdays) 6:30-8:30 pm CST Nature Writing II Online. Deepen your connection to nature and your writing skills in this intermediate online workshop from The Morton Arboretum. This interactive class is the next step for those who’ve completed the Nature Writing Workshop (N095), or for those with some foundational writing experience looking to further their expertise within a supportive community of fellow nature writers. Over the course of four live, online sessions, your instructor will present readings, lessons, writing assignments, and sharing opportunities. You’ll have the chance to hear a variety of voices, styles, and techniques as you continue to develop your own unique style. Work on assignments between classes and share your work with classmates for constructive critiques that will strengthen your skill as a writer. Ask your questions, take risks, and explore in this fun and supportive, small-group environment. Register here.

February 24, 7-8:30 CST: The Prairie in Art and Literature Online. The tallgrass prairie is usually thought of for its diverse community of plants, animals, and insects. Yet, it is also an inspiration for a creative community! In this interactive online talk, natural history author and prairie steward Cindy Crosby will explore historical and contemporary writers and artists, musicians, and other creatives working in the prairie genre: from Neil Young to Willa Cather to graphic comic artists , quilters, and jewelers expressing the prairie through their work. See the prairie in a new light! Come away inspired to appreciate and express your love of the tallgrass as you enjoy learning about this prairie “community.” Offered by The Morton Arboretum: Register here.

Prairie Lights

“This is the light of autumn; it has turned on us.”–Louise Glück

*****

I am preoccupied with light; the number of daylight hours is slipping through my fingers. Gradually lessening.

I rise in the dark, and eat dinner at dusk. Where has the light gone?

The trees at the edge of the prairie are alight.

The year is passing quickly.

Sunday evening, as I admired my backyard prairie patch, a white-crowned sparrow appeared. Its bright white striped helmet glowed in the twilight as it sampled seeds spilled from my feeders, under the wands of the blazing star.

This tiny bird has traveled thousands of miles– up to 300 miles in a single night. Now, it’s back from its summering grounds up north in the Arctic and subartic where it nested in the tundra among the lichens and mosses.

The appearance of the white-crowned sparrow tells me winter is only a whisper away.

This world of color won’t be with us long.

The prairie dock leaves are fallen awnings of opaque dotted swiss fabric.

Indian grass surrenders to the shortening days and its inevitable fate. Death above. Life remains, unseen, underground.

Horse gentian—sometimes called “wild coffee” —throws its orange orbs into the mix of prairie seeds as its leaves crumple. Insurance for the future.

The silvered leaves of leadplant fade into oblivion.

New england asters and goldenrod dance their last tango in the tallgrass.

Sumac refuses to go quietly. Look at that red!

The heath asters offer star-shine under arches of prairie cordgrass. Their days are numbered.

Listen! Can you hear the low husky lament of the katydids for a season about to end?

No matter how we cling to what we have, it will eventually be lost to us.

Better to turn the page. Practice release.

October is a bittersweet month; a month that catches fire and burns everything to ashes as it goes.

But oh, what a fire.

And oh, what a light the burning makes.

Store up October now.

Cherish that light.

It will be solace in the months to come.

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The opening line is from poet Louise Glück (1943–), who won a well-deserved Nobel Prize in Literature this past week. It’s the latest of many major prizes she’s earned for her writing including the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for The Wild Iris, a good introduction to her work. Her poems are often harsh; exploring the meaning of suffering and mortality. Read about her life and writing here, or listen to her read some of her poems here.

All photos this week taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (top to bottom): view over the October prairie; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium); sugar maple (Acer saccharum) and staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); bird’s nest; blazing star seeds (Liatris sp.); lichens, one is possibly gold dust (Chrysothrix candelaris) and another possibly hoary rosette (Physcia aipolia); Schulenberg Prairie in October; rose hips (Rosa carolina); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); leadplant (Amorpha canscens); canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) and new england aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angeliae); bridge over Willoway Brook in October; heath aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides) and prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata); one of the katydids (possibly Scudderia sp.); illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis); common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pappus; video of leaf fall, prairie looking into savanna; staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); ladies’ tresses orchid (Spiranthes cernua); Schulenberg Prairie Savanna; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).

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Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization—this autumn and winter.

Literary Gardens Online: Friday, Dec.4, 1-2:30 p.m.CST– Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby from wherever you live in the world for a fun look at great (and not-so-great) gardens in literature and poetry. From Agatha Christie’s mystery series, to Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Goudge, Rumer Godden, May Sarton, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Gilbert, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, and Lewis Carroll–and many more! This class is online. Register here through The Morton Arboretum.

Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.

Chasing Dragonflies Final Cover 620.jpg

Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org, direct from Northwestern University Press (use coupon code NUP2020 for 25% off), or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during these unusual times.

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. 

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

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Where did 2019 go? The time passed so quickly.

Littlebluestem122719SundropPrairieWM

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

pvsburn copy

… we marveled at the new growth soon after.

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Watched the early pasque flowers bloom….

pasqueflowersnachusa2016?WM.jpg

and then, set seeds for the future.

Pasqueflowers51318SPMAWM.jpg

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

shootingstarSPMA51918wm

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…

Fermilab Prairieskies122619WM.jpg

…the delights of a single seedhead.

Pasture thistle.

GensburgMarkhamThistle22719WM.jpg

Bee balm.

monardaGensburgMarkham1219.jpg

Blazing star.

GensburgMarkhamBlazingStar122719WM.jpg

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.