Tag Archives: Prairie Ecology online

The Tallgrass Prairie: A Cabin Fever Cure

“I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure in the landscape—the loneliness of it—the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it; the whole story doesn’t show.”–Andrew Wyeth

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There’s something about a Midwestern cold snap. Suddenly, I have an urge to bake bread. Read books by the fireplace. The coffeemaker perks from dawn until dusk.

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I halfheartedly look for my hiking boots to go for a prairie hike, then pause. Wind howls around the house and rattles the windows. My weather app tells me  the “real-feel” temperature is minus 16 outside.  I go back to my book. Wimp! I scold myself. But I feel a deep desire to hibernate.

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As the snowfall ended and hypothermic temperatures dissolved Monday into manageable levels, indoor pleasures palled. I had read through a large stack of library books over the weekend, baked more sourdough bread than Jeff and I could ever possibly eat, and drank enough coffee and tea to keep myself awake for a month.  Cabin fever. Now, I was ready for a prairie hike.

You too? Let’s go.

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Jeff and I arrived at Belmont Prairie Monday to find an empty parking lot. Looks like a prairie hike isn’t on most people’s agenda. Snow underlies the prairie, with the occasional frozen pool showing the effects of sleet and rain over the weekend.

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Grasses are bowed by drifts.

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Others are upright, but shorn of their seedheads, like these big bluestem.

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It looks like January—winter at last—on the prairie, from the bare trees on the rim of the tallgrass to the golds of the grasses.

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The prairie is mostly quiet, except for the occasional skein of Canada geese calling overhead.

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As we hike, we see a few tracks here and there, showing that at least one person has trekked these paths since Saturday. Mostly, the paths are full of a different kind of print. Squirrel tracks. Deer. The occasional mouse or vole hole. As we move down the trail, Jeff grabs my arm. Look! Five white-tailed deer bound away. We watch them go, blurs in the distance.

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This prairie remnant—untouched by the plow and left undeveloped—holds a treasure-trove of native plants.

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Each in its particular stage of senesce. Each with its own particular allure.

Carrion flower.

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Bee balm—or wild bergamot as some prairie stewards like to call it—is everywhere. Its scientific name, Monarda fistulosa, is apt: fistulosa means “hollow reed” or “tubular.” No wonder hummingbirds and hummingbird clearwing moths swarm this plant in the summer.

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Pewter-colored wild quinine is as pretty in January as it is in bloom. Gardeners would call these plants “winter interest.”

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Ditto for rattlesnake master, whose yucca-like leaves have interesting texture and a rough-hewn elegance.

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Some of the rattlesnake master seedheads remind me of straw-colored dahlias.

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Not everything I admire is native. Even though Queen Anne’s lace is an invasive, I always enjoy it in January. I love its structure. Later, in the growing months, I’ll weed it out on the prairie and in my backyard. But for now, I can see its delicate grace.

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The clouds begin to break up, and the sun suddenly throws the prairie into sharp relief.

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We’ve reached the far side of the preserve now, and the stream is just ahead.

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The bridge is a bit treacherous, but I’ve got Yaktrax on for the first time this season.  These rubber stabilizers pull on over my hiking boots and help me keep my footing on the ice. Today, they are a complete mismatch, as I’ve lost one each from two different pairs (one has a strap, one is without). But they see me across the icy trails and bridge without mishap.

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The creek through Belmont Prairie, full after Saturday’s rains, is mostly frozen now.

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I stop and take a closer look.

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Ice art is everywhere, a dance between ice and thaw. It’s as if the prairie grasses have scribbled designs in the stream.

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I love the abstract shapes and delicate traceries. Some seem to reflect the clouds of a prairie sky.

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The melted places add their own filigreed patterns.

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The tips of growing plants—blue flag iris, perhaps?—are barely visible, spearing through the ice and snow.

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Green plants! Signs of life. They make me think of spring. But—hold on. I don’t want to rush this season. We need the snow cover and cold each year for the health of the tallgrass. Winter is an important chapter in the prairie’s story.

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I can’t help the jolt of happiness I feel, though.  The green plant tips seem to hold a promise. Spring is coming.

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As we hike back to the car, I’m grateful for the bracing prairie hike. Glad to see the beauty of the ice and snow. Grateful—yes, really—for the cold that blew so many cobwebs out of my mind. I feel rejuvenated. My mind is clear.

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Cabin fever? Not me. Not anymore.

Thanks, tallgrass.

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Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) was a controversial painter specializing in realism. Love his work—-or find it cheesy—he was an important figure in the popular culture of the mid-1900s. His most famous painting is probably Christina’s World. Charles Schulz fans will remember in Schulz’s “Peanuts” comic strip that when Snoopy’s dog house burned down, Snoopy replaced his Van Gogh with a Wyeth painting. Wyeth received the National Medal of Arts in 2007.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken this week at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL (top to bottom): ice crystals on the prairie trail; ice crystals on prairie grass;  trail through Belmont Prairie; view in to Belmont Prairie; grasses in snow; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); mixed grasses and trees; Canada geese (Branta canadensis); white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus); pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida); carrion vine (Smilax spp.); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa);wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium); invasive Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) trail through Belmont Prairie; trail through Belmont Prairie; bridge over the stream; stream through Belmont Prairie; stream through Belmont Prairie; ice art, ice art; ice art; ice art with growing tips of unknown plant; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica); unknown plant; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans).

Please join Cindy at an upcoming event or class this winter:

THE TALLGRASS PRAIRIE: A CONVERSATION, January 30 (Thursday) 9-11:30 a.m.  University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum, Curtis Prairie Visitor Center–Auditorium, Madison, WI. More information and tickets here.

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. Sold Out. Waiting list –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.  

See more at http://www.cindycrosby.com

November Prairie Focus

“Young prairie plants put down deep roots first; only when these have been established do the plants invest much energy in growth above ground. They teach us that the work that matters doesn’t always show.” -Paul Gruchow

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The cold, gray days of November are here. Beautiful? Yes, in their own way. They offer time for reflection on a year mostly past.

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The sky becomes a slate backdrop to plants which spike and angle and curve. Like silhouette cut-outs.

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Grace notes. Some more interesting now in seed and shape than they were in bloom.

It’s easy for me to overlook what’s good about November. Easier to long for sunshine and warmth; for the fireworks of July wildflowers—purple leadplant spikes and bright orange butterflyweed and lemon-yellow coreopsis. The fresh emerald spikes of grasses pushing through the dark prairie soil in spring. Or even the golds and violets of the autumn prairie.

Seems like we missed part of that season with our early snows.

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As I walk, I think of John Updike’s poem, November:

The stripped and shapely

Maple grieves

The loss of her

Departed leaves.

The ground is hard,

As hard as stone

The year is old

The birds are flown…..

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Much of what I see on the prairie is a matter of focus. In November, I have to remind myself that beauty is here. That the work of restoration is moving forward. It’s a more difficult season than spring when everything is full of promise and possibility. The “prettiness” and promise of the prairie is more obvious in the warmer months. November’s calibration of what constitutes headway, success on a prairie, is different.

Gray. Beige. Black. Brown. The prairie smells of wet earth. Snowmelt. Decay. You’d think this would be distressing, but it’s strangely pleasant. Invigorating.  It’s the fragrance of a work in progress. The cycling of nutrients. The prairie finishes its work of the growing season, then lays the groundwork for the future.

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Sometimes, I look at the November prairie and all I see is the unfinished work of a prairie steward. The native brambles taking over, arcing their spiny branches across the prairie and shading out wildflowers.

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It’s discouraging. Impatience surges. Are we really making a difference here? Or are we like Sisyphus, rolling a boulder uphill, only to have it roll back.

Then, I remember. There was a time when I didn’t  think about these “brambles” because the invasive buckthorn, honeysuckle, and sweet white and yellow clovers were consuming all my stewardship hours. It’s a luxury  now to have most of these problem plants licked (Hubris, don’t strike me down!) and room to think about how to tackle new management  issues.

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Despite my self-reassurance, as I hike I see other potential issues. Are the native grasses dominating the wildflowers? Is the false sunflower spreading too aggressively  in the corner by the bridge?

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I tuck my cold fingers into my pockets and stand on the bridge over Willoway Brook.  Reed canary grass chokes the shoreline. A never-ending problem. Then I look closer. I’m missing the lovely configurations of ice and stream; leaf and stone.

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Just across the bridge is a new “menace.” The past several years I’ve moaned about Illinois bundleflower making inroads into the prairie; it has become a monoculture in spots. Is it a desirable plant? Sure. It belongs on the prairie. But how much is too much? Decisions about how to manage it causes me some frustrating hours. But today, I take a few moments to admire it. Wow. Look at those seed pods.

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There are plants that “don’t belong” on a prairie restoration, and other plants that do, yet get a bit rambunctious. It’s so easy to focus on what’s wrong. Sometimes its tougher to remember what we’ve done well. To focus on the beauty, instead of the chaos.

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Nearby are ruined choirs of cup plants; taller than I am, growth-fueled by rain. Cup plants are the bane of my backyard prairie patch—aggressive thugs that elbow my Culver’s root and spiderwort out of the way.

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But here, on the 100-acre prairie, they are welcome. When I think about it, I realize I’ve not seen them in this area before. They are part of the first waves of prairie plants making inroads in an old field we’re restoring by the Prairie Visitor Center. A sign of success. A sign of progress.

Among the rusts and tans, there are bright bits of color. Carrion flower, now gone to inedible seeds.

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The last flag-leaves of sumac.

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Sumac is also an issue in parts of this prairie. But for now, I relax and enjoy the color.

Nuthatches call from the savanna. The breeze rustles the grasses. Looking over the prairie, focusing on its draining colors and dwindling seedheads…

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… I remember what Paul Gruchow wrote about the tallgrass prairie: “…The work that matters doesn’t always show.”

The day suddenly feels brighter.

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Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) was a Minnesota writer who wrote such beautiful books as Travels in Canoe Country; The Boundary Waters: Grace of the Wild; Journal of a Prairie Year; The Necessity of Empty Places; and Grass Roots: The Universe of Home from which this opening quote was taken. There’s nothing like the power of a good book—especially those passages that stick in your mind and are available when you need them the most.

John Updike’s lovely poem November” is found in A Child’s Calendar, first published in 1965. If you’re unfamiliar with his poetry, check out Facing Nature: Poems, Collected Poems: 1953–1993, and Americana and Other Poems (2001).

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken on the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, unless noted:  Willoway Brook in November; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); maple leaf (Acer saccharum) by the Prairie Visitor Station; silky wild rye (Elymus villosus) and log; prairie under snow in November; common blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides); Willoway Brook; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) and unknown asters; cup plants Silphium perfoliatum); carrion vine (probably Smilax ecirrhata); staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides).

Please join Cindy for one of these upcoming classes or talks:

Saturday, December 7, 1:30-3 p.m.—Sterling Stories from the Arboretum Stacks: Grab a friend and spend a lively hour together sipping hot beverages while you enjoy little-known stories about the Morton Arboretum. What’s that old fountain doing in the library? Why was there a white pine planted in the May Watts Reading Garden? Who is REALLY buried in the Morton Cemetery—or not? What book in the Sterling Morton Library stacks has a direct relationship to a beheading? Why does the library have glass shelves? How has salt been a blessing —and a curse—to the Arboretum over its almost 100 years? Listen as 33-year Arboretum veteran library collections manager Rita Hassert and  Cindy Crosby spin entertaining tales of a place you thought you knew….until now.    A lovely afternoon enjoying little known Arboretum’s stories, and a quiet respite from the holiday hustle and bustle. Register here.

Sunday, December 8, 2-3:30 p.m.: Tallgrass Conversations at Prairieview Education Center, 2112 Behan Road, Crystal Lake, IL 815-479-5779 Book signing after the talk! Free and open to the public.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online wraps up this month! Watch for the next course in March. Registration opens on November 19 here.

Nature Writing continues at The Morton Arboretum, on-line and in-person through November 20. Next session begins March 3, 2020. Watch for registration soon!

Find more at www.cindycrosby.com