Tag Archives: prairie photography

Reading the Tallgrass Prairie

“We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on there.” –Annie Dillard

****

Welcome to the Tuesdays in the Tallgrass annual “Tallgrass Prairie Book Roundup.” With wind chills in the single digits here in the Chicago region and the fireplace going nonstop this week, curling up with a book and a mug of something hot and delicious has never sounded better.

Rough blazing star (Liatris aspera), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

For this roundup, I looked for books I’ve not featured before in the past seven years. It was a daunting task. I’ve previously shown some of the more noteworthy prairie reads, such as John Madson’s Where the Sky Began or Chris Helzer’s charming small format Hidden Prairie, or Paul Gruchow’s eloquent Grass Roots: The Universe of Home and other must-reads. This year, for help with some lesser-known and a few out-of-print books, I turned to my local library in Glen Ellyn and the Sterling Morton Library at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL. These libraries never disappoint. Along the way, I also encountered some prairie books geared toward older elementary and middle-school kids, and a fantastic DVD about prairies.

Showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa), Crosby’s front yard prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Whether you’re a prairie steward or volunteer, an avid hiker, an armchair naturalist, or someone who loves to read and learn about the natural world, I believe there’s a book here for you! (Can you tell I used to own a bookstore?) Let’s go for a hike through the world of prairie books, and see what we might find.

*****

If you’re interested in Native Americans and a more scholarly understanding of how they managed prairie, the first essay in the edited volume City of Lake and Prairie: Chicago’s Environmental History (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020) is not to be missed. “Native Peoples in the Tallgrass Prairies of Illinois” by Robert Morrissey argues that “…the primary agents in shaping the midwestern landscape since the ice age were people, the architects of prairie… .” Morrissey adds that “Native peoples of the Midwest did not simply use the nonhuman environment as they found it… .” This turns upside down the idea that indigenous people moved through the prairie, but left no impact.

Anyone who desires to understand prairie history needs to read this essay. I know it expands my view of Native American management and its role in the prairie seen today, and informs the way I teach prairie ecology. Morrisey’s primary sources, included as notes at the end of the book, are additional rabbit trails that will fill your winter reading hours. Plus, there’s an excellent essay in the book on educator and prairie advocate May T. Watts.

And speaking of scholarly…check out Harold W. Gardener’s technical manual Tallgrass Prairie Restoration in the Midwestern and Eastern United States: A Hands-On Guide (Springer, 2011). Gardner organized the “Prairie Dawgs” volunteers near Peoria, IL, and he and his his wife purchased half a mile of the right of way of Burlington Northern Railroad near Brimfield, IL, a prairie remnant that had become degraded, working to improve the health of the prairie. He later moved to Carlisle, PA, where he maintained seed beds for about 150 species.

Dr. Gardner described more than 200 species of prairie plants, their preferred soils and planting conditions, and seed germination and seed collection strategies, as well as a seed collection time table. He included some of his own experiences with the plants (for example, “This author has found it difficult to restore Queen-of-the-Prairie from seed.”) I particularly enjoyed his writing on “Fire Management” and what can go wrong; as he wrote of one prescribed fire— “An additional lesson was learned; roads are not always reliable firebreaks.” I also appreciated some of his frustrated asides. In one section on “Control of Alien Plants” he wrote “It is difficult to refrain from adding editorial remarks about the USDA bureaucracy.” For most of us, the $170-plus price tag for this book puts it out of reach. So I extend my gratitude to the Sterling Morton Library for shelving it so I could access it without cost.

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

While at the Sterling Morton Arboretum this week, the always-awesome library collections manager Rita Hassert showed me this book by the influential prairie restorationist pioneer Dr. Robert Betz (1923-2007), architect of the FermiLab prairie in Batavia, IL, in 1975. I had no idea this book existed! Self-published posthumously by his wife Eleanor, there are limited number of copies in circulation in the Chicago Region; the Sterling Morton has a copy for in-library use only as the binding is fragile. In the short time I was able to spend with the book, I was fascinated by this slice of prairie restoration history and the roll call of people who helped influence restoration in the Chicago Region (shout-out Floyd Swink and Ray Schulenberg, to name just two).

I can’t wait to return to the library to spend a long afternoon at one of the reading tables, finishing the book and taking copious notes. And who knows—maybe a copy will turn up at a used bookstore in the future! I’ve had no luck finding this book for purchase, used or otherwise. But that’s an excuse to spend more time in the beautiful Sterling Morton library this winter.

Better luck: locating this out-of print book, Tallgrass Prairie: The Inland Sea (Lowell Press, 1975). I found a kindred spirit in author, naturalist, and photographer Patricia Duncan, whose words will resonate with any prairie aficionado. There is very little written about the tallgrass prairie in winter, so I was delighted to discover a few paragraphs and photos of the season. She wrote, “On the coldest days, I will trudge through the deep path worn by motorcyclists, and I barely get a dozen steps along before I must stop for a picture of the light coming through the ice-covered stems of big bluestem… .”

The cover of the library book I received had lost its dust jacket over the years since it was published in 1979, and the interior photographs also show its age. My, oh my, how photography has improved in books! That said, the photos are a slice of a time now past; a “remnant” of almost half a century ago. The grandeur of the prairie, almost half a century later, shines through the despite the limitations of photography and the publishing process of the time.

When Duncan began with a quote from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (the same quote which kicks off this blog post), I was hooked. After three pages, a used copy of this book was on the way to my house. It’s fairly easy to find online. Duncan’s book is a little slice of prairie history. I can’t wait to take a deeper dive into her book over the holidays.

How often have you looked at a prairie plant at this time of year and wondered which part was the actual seed? At a recent presentation on native plant gardening I gave to the Antioch Garden Club, one of its members enthusiastically recommended The Prairie in Seed. I was delighted to find it at my Glen Ellyn Library, and have already put it on my Christmas list.

Although I have featured other books on seed collection in this roundup before, I appreciated the detailed information on seed readiness and seed size and appearance here that is a valuable resource for any prairie steward, prairie volunteer, seed saver, or native plant gardener. The silhouette of the seed stalk is also helpful for identification for collection.

University of Iowa’s Bur Oak Books series is full of good reads like this one, and as a prairie steward and native plant gardener, I’m excited to add it to my Christmas list.

A prairie wildflower guide I’ve missed in my previous round-ups is Don Kurz’s Falcon Guide Prairie Wildflowers (2019). Many of us have the older Falcon Guide by Doug Ladd (there were at least two editions, and I own both) that have happily seen us through learning prairie plants over the years. This one is touted as its “spiritual successor.”

Although I was surprised by some of the color assignments in the book (pasque flowers, for example, are only under found under “white” and not listed under lavender or purple), it’s a lovely guide that will help introduce prairie wildflowers to a new generation of readers. I need to add it to my library as I have prairie ecology students who buy it as an initial introduction to their prairie experience. I’m glad Falcon continues to keep variations of the Prairie Wildflowers field guides in print.

What about younger readers? For elementary and middle schoolers, there are some beautiful and informative books on prairie available. In The Prairie Builders: Reconstructing America’s Lost Grasslands, Sneed Collard introduces kids (and adults, too!) to how a prairie restoration happens from vision to implementation, using Iowa’s Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge as the centerpiece of the story.

I especially enjoyed the stories of stewards working to protect and cherish our tallgrass prairies. The book’s photographs feature plenty of people as well as tallgrass plants and critters. I especially enjoyed the photos and essays on the reintroduction of the rare regal fritillary butterfly, a species I’ve only seen at Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL. Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge is on my bucket list!

Any adult who wants a basic overview of how prairies are managed and how restorations are done will also enjoy this book. I especially appreciate Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge as its “Friends” group it is one of the sponsors of Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit, a book I co-authored with Tom Dean. Thank you, Friends of Neal Smith!

Older elementary or middle school kids who are science-minded or who have to write a book report will find Life in a Grassland (2003, Twenty-First-Century Books) jam-packed with classroom-type information on the grassland ecosystem. It would also make a good homeschool science text. While it doesn’t specify that it is about “tallgrass” prairie, it does offer a wealth of ideas about North American grasslands that will be of help to any adults who want to understand how a prairie works.

The interior pages brought back memories from my own early science classes (Consumers! Producers! Decomposers!). It’s a good refresher for adult prairie volunteers, and a nice introduction to anyone who is new to the tallgrass prairie.

On a more literary note, I was excited to find an essay on tallgrass prairie sandwiched among the coral reefs and jungles in Greek writer Julian Hoffman’s book, Irreplaceable, a look at the wild places and creatures disappearing around the globe.

Hoffman visits Konza Prairie in Kansas, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Illinois, and a Native American resource center in Chicago as research for the book. It’s helpful to see how he places the loss of tallgrass prairie in the context of other ecosystem and species losses enumerated in the book, and a reminder to prairie volunteers, stewards, and staff why we do the work we do.

Too tired to read?

Although it’s not a book, Jeff and I recently checked out “America’s Landscape” (2005, Bullfrog Films) from the library on DVD. Both of us were riveted to this documentary, which includes an interesting selection of extra scenes not to be missed. Wes Jackson, Daryl Smith (Tallgrass Prairie Center), Dayton Duncan, Nina Leopold, and many others speak on camera in juxtaposition with luscious prairie cinematography.

If the wind chill temperatures are too frigid for you to think about an actual prairie hike this winter, this might be a nice alternative. Or, if you have a prairie steward group whose workday is cancelled due to inclement weather, you won’t go wrong hosting a screening of this fascinating film.

******

There are a few new prairie books on the horizon as well as these older ones. I’m anticipating Benjamin Vogt’s Prairie Up: An Introduction to Natural Garden Design, which is slated for release in late January of 2023. I’ve featured Vogt’s previous book A New Garden Ethic in previous round-ups. If you garden with natives at home, you’ll want to take a look. And of course, I hope you’ll check out my books—all five of which include stories about prairie—as you make your Christmas lists this year. Find or order them from your favorite independent bookseller.

Want more tallgrass prairie book recommendations? Explore a few of the previous “Tuesdays in the Tallgrass” books featured at these links for more reading and gift-giving ideas:

Reading the Tallgrass Prairie 2021

Prairie Literature 101

The Tallgrass Prairie: Annual Books Edition

A Year of Reading Prairie

The vast tracts of original tallgrass prairie are gone, but we continue to work to restore what is left. We plant prairies in our forest preserves, our arboretums, and our yards. But what about the tallgrass prairie books? John T. Price, the editor of “The Tallgrass Prairie Reader” tells us that “the relative absence of prairie literature and writers in the American canon…is another kind of extinction.” How can we ensure the stories of the tallgrass prairie continue to be told? By reading and supporting books that celebrate and introduce people to the tallgrass prairie, whether through your local library or purchasing them and adding them to your bookshelves. Or sharing them with friends and family!

Sky blue aster (Symphyotrichum oolentangiense), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

What prairie book has made a difference in your life? Which are your favorite reads? Please add yours in the comments section below. I’m a pushover for a tallgrass book recommendation. And—other than hiking the prairie in winter, I can’t think of a better way to spend the season.

Here’s to prairie…may its stories live on.

Happy reading!

*****

The opening quote is by Annie Dillard, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Pilgrim of Tinker Creek, one of my top ten books of all time. This quote is also included in the opening of Patricia Duncan’s lovely book, Tallgrass Prairie: The Inland Sea, included in the book round-up above.

*****

Join Cindy for her last program of 2022!

Wednesday, December 7, 2022 (6:30-8:30 p.m.) 100 Years Around the Arboretum. Join Cindy and Award-winning Library Collections Manager Rita Hassert for a fun-filled evening and a celebratory cocktail as we toast the closing month of the Arboretum’s centennial year. In-person. Register here.

Those Spellbinding Tallgrass Trails

“There was still a little green in the grasses, and the dry tops of the fall grasses genuflected in the wind.” —Paul Gruchow

*******

It’s the last Tuesday in October on the prairie. What an incredible week it’s been! No tricks. Lots of treats.

Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL. Note the squiggly marks left by a leaf miner (possibly Stigmella intermedia or Caloptillia rhoifoliella), which becomes a moth at maturity.

Let’s go for hike and see.

Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

I’m hiking close to a planted prairie kame, a mound of gravel and sand deposited by the glaciers.

Prairie kame (on the right), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Prairie kames seem to pop up lately, wherever I hike. Earlier this month, it was a kame in Kane County. (Try saying that three times fast). Today, it’s a kame here at the DuPage County Forest Preserve.

Prairie kame, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Two kames in one month? A welcome occurrence.

Prairie kame interpretive sign, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

The trails by the prairie are lined with tree color.

Sugar maple (Acer saccharum), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

It would be a shame to walk quickly, and not take time to admire the leaves. Look at that sumac! It’s a jeweled kaleidoscope. Change your point of view and watch the light play with the colors and patterns.

Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Beautiful? You bet. This sumac is native but a bit aggressive, so a mixed blessing on the prairie. Speaking of which…look at those tints and tones; shades and hues.

Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Smooth blue asters, a pop of color.

Smooth blue aster (Symphyotrichum laeve), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

So many asters here that I struggle to identify! My iNaturalist app says to choose between common blue wood aster, Drummond’s aster, and a few others on the aster in the photo below. I’m still unsure; there’s a little “taxonomic instability”—as Illinois Wildflowers notes—between some of the species.

Aster (Symphyotrichum sp.), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

New England asters pump purples. At least there is one aster species easily identifiable!

New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

More sumac glows, as beautiful as any flower.

Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

And the grasses! Let’s talk about the grasses. Look at the little bluestem…

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

…Indian grass…

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

…paired with “spook-tactular” switchgrass.

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) in foreground; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) in background, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Bewitching big bluestem.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Sideoats grama—the state grass of Texas and an Illinois native—are all at peak.

Sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

The seeds of rosinweed mimic the recent flowers, now spent.

Rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Everywhere, the prairie wildflowers have gone to seed. A sea of fluff.

Wildflowers, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

The winds and rain will put paid to the glorious autumn foliage this week.

Sugar maple (Acer saccharum), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

I’ll keep the images of hiking this prairie trail tucked away in my mind to delight in this winter. When the snow flies, I’ll close my eyes and remember the colors…

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

…and be haunted by the memories…

Sugar maple leaves (Acer saccharum) on the prairie kame trail, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

…of this glorious autumn day in the prairie.

*****

The quote that kicks off this blog post is by Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) from his essay “Autumn” from Journal of a Prairie Year. His prairie essays are among my favorites, especially “What the Prairie Teaches Us” from Grass Roots: The Universe of Home. Both books are published by Milkweed Editions.

*****

Upcoming Programs and Classes

Saturday, November 5, 2022 (10-11:30 am) —Winter Prairie Wonders, hosted by Wild Ones of Gibson Woods, Indiana, in-person and via Zoom. For more information on registering for the Zoom or for in-person registration, visit them here.

Saturday, November 12, 2022 (1-2:30 p.m.) Add a Little Prairie to Your Garden, hosted by the Antioch Garden Club, Antioch, IL. Free and open to the public, but you must register. For information and to inquire about registering for the event, visit the Wild Ones here.

Wednesday, December 7, 2022 (6:30-8:30 p.m.) 100 Years Around the Arboretum. Join Cindy and Library Collections Manager Rita Hassert for a fun-filled evening and a celebratory cocktail as we toast the closing month of the Arboretum’s centennial year. Register here.

Farewell, September Prairie

“Tallgrass in motion is a world of legato.” — Louise Erdrich

*******

September closes out the month with sunny afternoons. Crisp evenings. Nights dip into the 40s. Flannel shirts make their way to the front of the closet, although my sandals are still by the door. It’s a time of transition.

Wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium) and Ohio goldenrod (Oligoneuron ohioense), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

About an hour before sunset this weekend, I saw a sundog to the west from my front porch. So bright!

Sundog, Crosby’s house, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Down south, hurricane season is in full swing. Here, in the Midwest, the air teases with the promise of… frost? Already?

Common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum) with an unidentified insect (possibly Neortholomus scolopax), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Surely not. And yet. Who knows?

Sky blue aster (Symphyotrichum oolentangiense), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

In the garden, the green beans have succumbed to fungal rust. Although my beans have flirted with it before, I think my decision to grow pole beans too densely on a trellis without good air circulation likely led to the disease. My bean season has come to an end, it seems. Ah, well. Wait until next year.

The cherry tomatoes continue to offer handfuls of fruit…

Sungold cherry tomatoes (Lycopersicon esculentum ‘Sungold’), Crosby’s garden, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…and the mixed kale, planted this spring, seems delighted with the cooler weather.

Mixed kale (Brassica oleracea), Crosby’s garden, Glen Ellyn, IL.

In the herb garden, the sweet basil, thyme, dill, and Italian parsley are at their peak.

Italian parsley (Petroselinum crispum), Crosby’s garden, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The promise of coming frost means the rosemary needs to come inside. Rosemary is a tender perennial in my garden zone 5B, and needs to spend the winter by the kitchen sink.

Rosemary (Salvius marinus), Crosby’s garden, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Meanwhile, while the prairies in my region are dominated by tallgrass, our backyard prairie patch is adrift in panicled asters, new England asters, and—sigh—Canada goldenrod going to seed. Where have my grasses gone? A few lone cordgrass stems are about all I see. I’m a big fan of goldenrod, but not Canada goldenrod, that greedy gold digger. At least the pollinators are happy.

Prairie planting, Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

In the midst of the tangle of asters, a lone prairie dock lifts its seed heads more than six feet high. Most of my Silphiums–prairie dock, compass plant, and cup plant—kept a low profile this season. There are several prairie dock plants in the prairie patch, but only one flowered.

Prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Despite the Canada goldenrod run amuck in the backyard, I’m delighted with the three new goldenrods I planted this season in the front: Ohio goldenrod, stiff goldenrod, and showy goldenrod. Of the three, the showy goldenrod has surprised me the most. Such splendid blooms! I’ve seen it on the prairie before, almost buried in tallgrass, but in the home garden it really shines.

Showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) with a common eastern bumblebee (Bombus impatiens), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The bumblebees are nuts about it.

Showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) with three common eastern bumblebees (Bombus impatiens), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

As I amble around the yard, admiring the colors with which autumn is painting the world, there’s a glimpse of red. A cardinal flower? Blooming this late in the season? It’s escaped the pond border and found a new spot on the sunny east-facing hill. What a delightful splash of scarlet, even more welcome for being unexpected.

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

October is so close, you can almost taste the pumpkin spice lattes and Halloween candy. The prairie plantings shimmer with seed. The natural world is poised for transition. A leap into the dark. Shorter days. Longer nights. A slow slide into the cold.

Blazing star (Liatris aspera), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Transitions are never easy.

Butterfly Milkweed or Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

But there are so many wonders still to come.

******

The opening quote is from Louise Erdrich (1954-) and her essay “Big Grass” in The Tallgrass Prairie Reader (2014) edited by John T. Price (and originally from a Nature Conservancy collection Heart of the Land: Essays on Last Great Places, 1994). It’s one of my favorite essays in prairie literature.

****

Join Cindy for a program or class this autumn!

Friday, October 14, 2022 (10-11 a.m.)—-A Brief History of Trees in America. Discover the enchanting role trees have played in our nation’s history. Think about how trees are part of your personal history, and explore trees’ influence in American literature, music, and culture. Hosted by the Elgin Garden Club and the Gail Borden Public Library District, Main Branch, 270 North Grove Avenue, Meadows Community Rooms. In person. Free and open to the public, but you must register. Find more information here.

In Praise of Prairie Pollinators

“Bees do have a smell, you know, and if they don’t they should, for their feet are dusted with spices from a million flowers.”—Ray Bradbury

******

August arrives on the tallgrass prairie.

Summer on the Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Listen! Do you hear the buzz and zip of wings?

Black-and-Gold Bumblebee (Bombus auricomus) on White Prairie Clover, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL (2021).

The patter of tiny insect feet?

Regal Fritillary (Speyeria idalia), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. (2021)

Let’s hear it for the prairie pollinators!

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) Crosby’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL. (2021)

Bees bumble across the wildflowers.

Rusty-patched Bumblebee (Bombus affiinis) on purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) Big Rock, IL. (2021)

Ambling beetles browse the petals.

Margined Leatherwing Beetle (Chauliognathus marginatus) on Common Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), Ware Field Prairie Planting, Lisle, IL (2019).

Enjoy the aimless ants. Marvel over the butterflies, looking like so many windsurfers…

Orange Sulphur butterflies (Colias eurytheme), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (2014).

Stay up late and enjoy the night fliers…

Beautiful Wood Nymph moth (Eudryas grata), Crosby’s prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL. (2019)

…with their beautiful markings.

Possibly Harnessed Tiger moth (Apantesis phalerata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL. (2020)

Seek out the wandering wasps, inspiring awe and a little trepidation.

One of the umbrella wasps (Polistes sp.) on aster (Symphyotrichum sp.) , Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL. (2020)

And these are just a few of our amazing pollinators!

Snowberry Clearwing moth (Hemaris diffinis), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL. (2019)

Where would we be without these marvelous creatures?

Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) on Orange Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (2021)

Three cheers for the prairie pollinators!

Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Long may they thrive.

******

The opening quote for today’s post is by Illinois author Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) from his classic book, Dandelion Wine. This book was required reading in my Midwestern high school English classes back in the seventies, and a wonderful introduction to his more than 27 novels and story collections.

******

Join Cindy for a Program in August!

West Cook Wild Ones presents: A Brief History of Trees in America with Cindy Crosby on Sunday, August 21, 2:30-4 p.m. Central Time on Zoom. From oaks to maples to elms: trees changed the course of American history. Native Americans knew trees provided the necessities of life, from food to transportation to shelter. Trees built America’s railroads, influenced our literature and poetry, and informed our music. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation—and their symbolism and influence on the way we think—as you reflect on the trees most meaningful to you. Free and open to the public—join from anywhere in the world—but you must preregister. Register here.

Late May Prairie Delights

“No gardener needs reminding that life depends on plants.” —Henry Mitchell

*****

There’s nothing quite like finding two of the six branches of your pricey New Jersey Tea plant neatly clipped off. I’ve been babying my native shrub along this spring; bringing it pitchers of water and keeping my fingers crossed that it would leaf out. And it did. Only to be heavily barbered this morning.

I think I know who the culprit is.

Eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL (2021)

Just the other day, Jeff and I saw her (him?) foraging along the fence line among some weeds. Awwwwww. So cute! Ah well. Looks like I need to protect my shrub with some defensive packaging. Wildlife friendly gardens are sometimes a bit…too friendly.

A week of rain and storm followed by days of wind and heat are turning the garden lush and green. Meteorological summer has arrived, and with it, a rush to get the last plastic pots of vegetable seedlings and native plant plugs into the ground.

Plant plugs, Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

It looks like sugar snap pea season is a no-go this year; I’m not sure what happened to my neat circle of seeds around the trellis planted a month ago. One day there were seedlings. The next? Gone.

I can hazard a guess.

Eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL (2016)

*****

Meanwhile, the Illinois prairies seem to be handling onslaughts of weather, “wascally wabbits”, and uneven warmth by flowering magnificently. While collecting dragonfly data at Nachusa Grasslands this week, my monitoring route took me through a surprise surplus of Golden Alexanders. I’ve walked this route many times over the past nine years, but never seen it like this.

Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

It’s been a banner year for this wildflower.

Wild lupine is also in bloom…

Wild lupine (Lupinus perennis) and prairie ragwort (Packera plattensis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

…and colonies of meadow anemone.

Meadow anemone (Anemone canadensis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

The oh-so-pretty-in-pink wild geranium is in full flower, a reminder that I meant to purchase this at some of the native plant sales this spring for the yard. Next year!

Wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

As I hike, I inadvertently disturb the teneral dragonflies and damselflies, deep in the tallgrass. This common whitetail dragonfly (below) almost has its coloration.

Common whitetail dragonfly (teneral), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

The wings are so fresh! Teneral dragonflies are vulnerable to predation until the wings harden (which may taken an hour or so). Nearby I find two tiny damselflies. I think they are sedge sprites, but the eye color doesn’t seem quite right. Maybe it is a teneral? I’ll have to browse the field guides at home to be sure.

Sedge sprite (Nehalennia irene), no blue, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Always new things to learn!

As I hike, the bison are grazing in the distance. I like to keep plenty of space between us, especially during baby bison season.

Bison (Bison bison) Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Less of a concern—but with a big impact— are the beavers. They’ve been busy as…well, you know….on some of my routes. In one area, they’ve constructed a new dam which turned my monitoring stream to a pond.

Beaver (Castor canadensis) dam pond, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

On another route, they’ve built some snazzy housing.

Beaver (Castor canadensis) lodge, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Beaver activity changes water habitat. Moving streams and still ponds usually host different types of Odonata species. It will be interesting to see what unfolds here over the summer, and if site management leaves the beaver dams and lodgings in place. Lots of suspense! Stay tuned.

Pale beardtongue (Penstemon pallida), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

May is migration month, and the soundtrack to my monitoring work is a lesson in listening. A flycatcher lands on a nearby branch. Is it the alder flycatcher? Or the great-crested flycatcher? Or? I’m not sure.

Possibly the alder flycatcher (Empidonax alnorum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

It buzzes a few chirpy notes, then vacates the branch for an eastern kingbird. I try to get the kingbird in focus behind the branch, but finally give up and just enjoy watching it.

Eastern kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

That’s a busy little branch.

Wind gusts pick up, and clouds cover the sky. It’s time to wrap up my dragonfly monitoring work.

Sedge meadow with springs, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

So much is happening on the prairie at the end of May. The prairie is full of sound, color, and motion.

Prairie ragwort (Packera plattensis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Just imagine what June has in store for us. I can’t wait.

*******

Henry Mitchell, whose quote opens this post, wrote several enjoyable garden books which I re-read each year. Mitchell (1924-1993), a Washington Post weekly garden columnist for almost 25 years, is by turns funny, cynical, and reflective. He isn’t afraid to laugh at himself, which is one of the many reasons I love to read him (even if he does extoll the joys of the barberry bush!) The opening quote quote is from Mitchell’s book, One Man’s Garden.

*****

Join Cindy for an event!

Sunday, June 5, 2-3:30 pm: Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers, Downers Grove Public Library and Downers Grove Garden Club. Kick off National Garden Week with this in-person event! Open to the public. Covid restrictions may apply. Click here for more information.

Tuesday, June 7, 7-8:30 p.m.: The Garden’s Frequent Fliers: Dragonflies and Damselflies, Crestwood Garden Club, Elmhurst, IL. (Closed in-person event for members).

Wednesday, June 8, 7-8:30 p.m. Lawn Chair Lecture: The Schulenberg Prairie’s 60th Anniversary. At The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Bring your lawn chair and enjoy sunset on the prairie as you hear about the people, plants, and creatures that have made this prairie such a treasure. Tickets are limited: Register here. (Rain date is Thursday, June 9).

*******

If you love the natural world, consider helping to “Save Bell Bowl Prairie.” Read more here about simple actions you can take to keep this important Midwestern prairie remnant from being destroyed by a cargo road. Thank you for caring for our “landscape of home”!

A Prairie Wildflower Ambassador

“One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between man and nature shall not be broken.” —Leo Tolstoy

*****

I thought I’d missed the rare white lady’s slipper orchids as I’ve hiked the prairies in Illinois this spring. Turns out, they were just running fashionably late.

White lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum), Illinois.

Aha! Here you are. Welcome back.

White lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum), Illinois.

If you look at Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rericha’s amazing reference guide, Flora of the Chicago Region’s entry for the orchid, the blooms aren’t late at all. Their entry notes that this orchid may flower between April 23 and June 2. So “late” is relative—just my own experience. White lady’s slipper orchids are so tiny; not like their bigger cousins, so they are also easy to overlook.

White lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum), Illinois.

In some regions of Illinois, these little orchids are visited by small native halictid bees. The scientific name, Cypripedium is from the Greek, meaning “Aphrodite,” the goddess of love and beauty. The specific epithet, candidum, means “shining white.” Appropriate for this unusual wildflower.

White lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum), Illinois.

The legal status of the small white lady’s slipper is “threatened” in Illinois; it is also ranked as “rare.” White lady’s slippers are also monitored as Plants of Concern through the Chicago Botanic Garden to continually assess their health and abundance in Illinois. (Visit them to see how you can help!) These orchids are jewels of the moist sunny prairies, and don’t handle shade well. When prairie remnants are neglected and left unburned, shrubs and trees take over and reduce the amount of habitat for this wildflower. It’s another reason for us to manage and care for our irreplaceable tallgrass prairies.

Prescribed fire on an Illinois prairie (March 2021).

These lovely orchids are also great ambassadors for conservation. While most folks won’t get too excited about other high-quality plants flowering now, such as bastard toadflax…

Bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata), Illinois.

…. or hairy beardtongue, just about to bloom…

Hairy beardtongue (Penstemon hirsutus), Illinois.

…violet sorrel…

Violet sorrel (Oxalis violacea), Illinois.

…or the common valerian…

Common valerian (Valeriana edulis var. ciliata), Illinois.

…all ranked “eight” or higher in Flora of the Chicago Region’s co-efficiency of conservatism, they will get excited about lady’s slippers (a “10”–of course!). Orchids bring out the desire to protect and save prairies in Illinois. While the various prairie photo locations in today’s blog are left undivulged (for the protection of these lovely wildflowers), knowing the orchids continue to grow and thrive are a delight to our collective imagination. As “wow wildflower ambassadors,” they also help communities preserve prairies where less charismatic critters live, like the tiger moth caterpillars…

Tiger moth caterpillar (possibly the reversed haploa moth, Haploa reversa), Illinois prairie.

…or the eastern wood-pewee, which hangs out along the prairie edges…

Eastern wood-pewee (Contopus virens), Illinois.

…and other creatures which need healthy natural areas to survive. Finding the orchids alive and thriving this spring makes me feel optimistic for the future of the tallgrass prairie.

White lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum), Illinois.

Thanks, orchids.

******

Note to the reader: No locations are given for today’s blog because of the conservation status of the orchid. The photographs above are from several different Illinois prairies.

******

The opening quote is from Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), the author of such works as War and Peace and Anna Karenina. His writing on non-violent resistant influenced Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gandhi. Tolstoy was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature many times and also, the Noble Peace Prize, but never won; these decisions continue to be controversial today.

******

Join Cindy for a program or class! Visit www.cindycrosby.com for more upcoming events, and updates on any Covid changes or requirements for in-person gatherings.

Thursday, May 26, 10:30am-noon: Stained Glass Stories of the Thornhill Mansion, in person at The Morton Arboretum. Open to the public. Register here.

Thursday, May 26, 6:30-8 pm: Add a Little Prairie to Your Garden, hosted by Old St. Patrick’s Church Green Team on Zoom. Register here.

Sunday, June 5, 2-3:30 pm: Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers, Downers Grove Public Library and Downers Grove Garden Club. Kick off National Garden Week with this in-person event! Open to the public. Click here for more information.

Wednesday, June 8, 7-8:30 p.m. Lawn Chair Lecture: The Schulenberg Prairie’s 60th Anniversary. The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Bring your lawn chair and enjoy sunset on the prairie as you hear about the people, plants, and creatures that have made it such a treasure. Tickets are limited: Register here.

*****

If you love the natural world, consider acting on behalf of Save Bell Bowl Prairie. Read more here about simple actions you can take to keep this important Midwestern prairie remnant from being destroyed by a cargo road. Thank you for caring for prairies!

May on the Tallgrass Prairie

“Perhaps it is because we have been so long without flowers that the earliest seem to be among the most beautiful.” — Jack Sanders

******

Gray skies. Tornados. Rainbows. Raw temperatures. Rain.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

What a week it’s been! Not optimal for being outside. Nevertheless, I went out for a “short” hike on the Schulenberg Prairie Monday between rain showers. Two hours later, I didn’t want to go home.

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

There is so much to see on the prairie in May.

Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Common valerian—one of my favorite prairie plants—is in full bloom.

Common valerian (Valeriana edulis var. ciliata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Such a strange, alien-esque sort of wildflower! It is sometimes called “tobacco root” or “edible valerian,” and despite reports of its toxicity, Native Americans knew how to prepare it as a food source. Early European explorers noted it had a “most peculiar taste.” The closer you look…

Common valerian (Valeriana edulis var. ciliata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

…the more unusual this plant seems. Bees, moths, and flies are often found around the blooms.

Common valerian (Valeriana edulis var. ciliata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

A white leaf edge causes the plant appear to glow. Later, the stems will turn bright pink. Gerould Wilhelm in his doorstopper book with Laura Rericha, Flora of the Chicago Region , gives this uncommon plant a C-value of “10.” It’s a stunning wildflower, although not conventionally pretty. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

The prairie violets are in bud and in bloom, with leaves that vary from deeply lobed…

Prairie violet (Violet pedatifida), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

… to fan-shaped.

Prairie violet (Violet pedatifida), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Cream wild indigo, splattered with mud, spears its way toward the sky. Blooms are on their way.

Cream wild indigo (Baptisia bracteata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Long-tongued bumblebees work the purple dead nettle for nectar. This non-native annual in the mint family is aggressive in garden beds and on the prairie’s edges, but we don’t have much of it in the prairie proper.

Possibly the two-spotted bumblebee (Bombus bimaculatus) on purple dead nettle (Lamium purpurem), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Leaves, as well as flowers, offer studies in contrast and color this month. Wood betony is on the brink of blooming.

Wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Queen of the prairie, with her distinctive leaves, is almost as pretty at this stage as it will be in bloom.

Queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Compass plants’ distinctive lacy leaves are May miniatures of their July selves.

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

In the nearby savanna, rue anemone trembles in the breeze.

Rue anemone (Anemonella thalictroides), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

Although they won’t fully open in the drizzle, yellow trout lilies splash light and color on a dreary day.

Yellow trout lilies (Erythronium americanum), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

It’s a time of rapid change on the tallgrass prairie and savanna. Each day brings new blooms. Each week, the prairie grasses grow a little taller. It’s difficult to absorb it all.

Purple meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

But what a joy to try!

Woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata laphamii), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Why not go see?

*****

The opening quote is from Jack Sanders’ (1944-) book, Hedgemaids and Fairy Candles: The Lives and Lore of North American Wildflowers. The book is jam-packed with fascinating lore about some of my favorite blooms. Thanks to Mary Vieregg for gifting me this book–it’s been a delight. A similar book from Sanders is The Secrets of Wildflowers. Happy reading!

****

Join Cindy for a Program or Class

May 3, 7-8:30 p.m.: Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Fliers, at the Winfield Area Gardening Club (Open to the public!), Winfield, IL. For more information, click here.

May 5, evening: 60 Years on the Schulenberg Prairie, Morton Arboretum Natural Resource Volunteer Event (closed to the public).

May 18, 12:30-2 p.m.: 100 Years Around the Arboretum (With Rita Hassert), Morton Arboretum Volunteer Zoom Event (Closed to the public).

June 5, 2-3:30 pm.: Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers, Downers Grove Public Library and Downers Grove Garden Club. Kick off National Garden Week with this in-person event! Open to the public. Click here for more information.

******

Time is running out for a precious Illinois prairie remnant. Save Bell Bowl Prairie! Find out what you can do to help at www.savebellbowlprairie.org

April Prairie Snow

“Snow in April is abominable, like a slap in the face when you expect a kiss.” –Lucy Maud Montgomery

******

It’s been a delightful week, full of adventures. A few days ago, Jeff and I found ourselves in Glenview, IL, to give a talk on prairie ethnobotany for the wonderful Glenview Gardeners and the Glenview Library. We arrived early to go for a hike on the Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie.

Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie, Glenview, IL.

Beautiful interpretive signs connect visitors with the 32-acre remnant prairie and its community, and the more than 160 species of plants, including the Eastern Prairie Fringed Orchid (Platanthera leucophaea).

Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie, Glenview, IL.

It’s a favorite hotspot for birders; a little oasis in the middle of Glenview.

Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie, Glenview, IL.

As I paused to sniff a wild bergamot seed head, still fragrant with mint, joy took me by surprise.

Wild bergmot (Monarda fistulosa), Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie, Glenview, IL.

Sometimes, in the midst of development and growing populations, prairie is recognized as the treasure it is. Kent Fuller Air Force Prairie is proof that prairies and development can co-exist. We can recognize our tallgrass heritage in Illinois, and make a place for prairie in Chicago’s growing suburbs.

View from the pavilion, Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie, Glenview, IL.

On such a gloomy, chilly day—seeing what has been accomplished here—I felt hopeful for the future.

******

Sunday evening, I checked the forecast before I nodded off to sleep.

Forecast April 17, 2022.

Surely nothing will stick.

But when I looked out my bedroom window Monday morning…

A dusting of snow.

Rattlesnake master—that early pioneer of the garden and just-burned prairies—stoically took it in stride.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The non-native violas, which self-seed all around the garden, didn’t seem to mind a little ice.

Violas (Viola sp.) in the snow, Crosby’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Marsh marigolds, weighted with the weather du jour, kept on blooming.

Marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Tucked under the eaves of the house the prairie alum root…

Prairie alum root (Heuchera richardsonii), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…the prairie smoke…

Prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…and the new shoots of prairie dropseed…

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) with spring bulbs, Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…seemed to thrive amid this unexpected turn of weather. It’s only a little snow. What’s the big deal? I could almost hear the plants scolding me for pouting. As I type this on Monday evening, more snow is falling. I’m tempted to complain with the poet T.S. Eliot that “April is the cruelest month,” but I’m going enjoy this twist of temperatures. One of the joys of living in the Midwest is the weather. Always a few surprises. I like that. Mostly.

Never a dull moment on the prairies.

******

The opening quote is from fictional character Anne Shirley, from the series “Anne of Green Gables,” written by Lucy Maud Montgomery (1874-1942).

*****

April Events (find more at http://www.cindycrosby.com)

April 25, 9:30-11am The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Charm Shop with Country Home and Garden Club, Barrington, IL (In person). Closed event. For more information on the garden club click here.

Join Cindy for one, two, or three Spring Wildflower Walks at The Morton Arboretum! Learn some of the stories behind these fascinating spring flowers. April 22 (woodland, sold out), April 28 (woodland) and May 6 (prairie, one spot open) (9-11 a.m.). In person. Register here.

Save Bell Bowl Prairie! Find out what you can do at www.savebellbowlprairie.org .

The Joy of Prairie Snow

“Joyful—now there’s a word we haven’t used in a while.” —Louise Glück

******

Snow! Glorious snow.

Trail across Willoway Brook, the Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

The prairie is adrift with powdery snow, underlaid with ice. Sure, it makes it tougher to get around.

Tracks, Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

But don’t you love how the snow crystals catch in the prairie dock leaves?

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

Do you delight in how bright the world suddenly seems?

Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Do you marvel at how the snow freshens the worn-out and weary? Changes your perspective?

Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL. (2021)

The temperatures are plummeting to minus seven. Minus seven! And yet. It doesn’t matter. Because—that snow!

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL. (2018)

This week, the world still feels out of kilter. Topsy-turvy.

Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

I’ve forgotten what “normal” is.

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

But today, that’s okay.

Upright carrion flower (Smilax ecirrhata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Even clearing the driveway to drive to the prairie isn’t so bad, knowing a hike awaits.

Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (2016).

It all feels worthwhile. There are still shadows. But the world seems like a more hopeful place.

Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

Full of possibilities. Potential.

Wolf Road Prairie, Westchester, IL (2019)

Because of the snow.

*****

I’m reading the Pulitzer Prize winning, Nobel Prize winning, the you-name-it-she’s-won-it prize-winning poet Louise Glück’s (1943-) latest, Winter Recipes from the Collective. It’s a cold, dark read, with a little bit of hope. Good January poetry. Read more about Glück here.

******

Join Cindy for a program this winter!

“100 Years Around the Morton Arboretum” — Wednesday, January 26, 6:30pm-8:30 pm. Watch history come to life in this special centennial-themed lecture about The Morton Arboretum. Celebrating 100 years, The Morton Arboretum has a fascinating past. Two of the Arboretum’s most knowledgeable historians, author Cindy Crosby and the ever-amazing library collections manager Rita Hassert, will share stories of the Mortons, the Arboretum, and the trees that make this place such a treasure. Join us via Zoom from the comfort of your home. (Now all online). Register here.

February 8-March 1 (Three evenings, 6:30-9pm): The Foundations of Nature Writing Online —Learn the nuts and bolts of excellent nature writing and improve your wordsmithing skills in this online course from The Morton Arboretum. Over the course of four weeks, you will complete three self-paced e-learning modules and attend weekly scheduled Zoom sessions with your instructor and classmates. Whether you’re a blogger, a novelist, a poet, or simply enjoy keeping a personal journal, writing is a fun and meaningful way to deepen your connection to the natural world.  February 8, noon Central time: Access self-paced materials online. February 15, 22, and March 1, 6:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Central time: Attend live. Register here.

March 3Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online –online class with assignments over 60 days; one live Zoom together. Digitally explore the intricacies of the tallgrass prairie landscape and learn how to restore these signature American ecosystems. Look at the history of this particular type of grassland from the descent of glaciers over the Midwest millions of years ago to the introduction of John Deere’s famous plow to where we are today. We will examine different types of prairie, explore the plant and animal communities of the prairie, and discuss strategies specific to restoring prairies in this engaging online course. Come away with a better understanding of prairies and key insights into how to restore their beauty. You will have 60 days to access the materials. Register here.

A Very Merry Prairie Christmas

“Life regularly persists through winter, the toughest, most demanding of seasons.” –Allen M. Young

******

It’s the Winter Solstice. Light-lovers, rejoice! Tomorrow, we begin the slow climb out of darkness.

Sunrise over Cindy’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

There is still no significant snowfall here in the Chicago region. Jeff and I joke that we know the reason why. We’ve shoveled our driveway by hand the past 23 years, but after three back-to-back heavy snow events last winter we said, “No more!” This summer, we bought a small snowblower. We figured our purchase should guarantee a snow-free winter. (You’re welcome).

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Glen Ellyn, IL.

But…I miss the snow. Despite December 21st being the first official astronomical day of winter, the prairies and natural areas around me seem to say “autumn.” The upside? Without that blanket of white thrown over the prairies, there are so many visible wonders. Plant tendrils…

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

…and their swerves and curves.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Ice crystals captured in a shady river eddy.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

The bridges we regularly hike across are geometry lessons in angles and lines.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Look closely.

Possibly blue-gray rosette lichen (Physcia caesia), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

There is life, even here. The lichens remind me of the tatted lace antimacassars so beloved by my great-grandmothers. It also reminds me I need to learn more lichen ID. Winter might be a good time to focus on that.

The soundtrack of the prairie in late December is the castanet rattle of White Wild Indigo pods…

White Wild Indigo (Baptisia leucantha), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

…and the wind’s sizzle-hiss through the grasses. This December in the Midwest, wind has been a significant force. Harsh. Destructive. Here in the Chicago region, we’ve escaped most wind damage. Yet wind makes its presence known. When I’m hiking into it, my face goes numb. My eyes water. Brrrr. But I love the way it strokes and tunes the dry tallgrass, coaxing out a winter prairie tune.

Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

I admire the seed-stripped sprays of crinkled switchgrass wands…

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

…the bright blue of a snow-less sky, feathered with clouds…

Skies over Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

…the joy of spent winter wildflowers.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

I spy the mallard and his mate.

Mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Feel delight in the murmur of an ice-free stream.

East Branch of the Dupage River, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

The way December puts her mark on grasses, leaves and trees leaves me in awe… and happy.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

All these wonders! All available for any hiker passing through the prairies or woodlands at this time of year—without a single snowflake in the repertoire.

Frost at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Sure, I still check the forecast. Hoping to see snow on the radar. But who needs the white stuff when there are so many other surprises? What a treasure trove of delights December has on offer!

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Why not go out and see them for yourself?

You’ll be glad you did.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Happy holidays and Merry Christmas!

******

The opening quote is from Allen M. Young’s Small Creatures and Ordinary Places: Essays on Nature (2000, University of Wisconsin Press). This lovely book includes dragonflies and damselflies; fireflies, silk moths, butterflies, and cicadas—just a few of the many insects he investigates. Several of his essays first appeared in the Sunday Magazine of the Chicago Tribune. Young is Curator Emeritus of Zoology at the Milwaukee Public Museum.

*****

Need a New Year’s Resolution? Help Bell Bowl Prairie, one of Illinois’ last remaining native prairie remnants, which is about to be destroyed by the Chicago Rockford International Airport. Please go to www.savebellbowlprairie.org to discover easy ways your actions can make a difference.

*****

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to my readers! Thank you for (virtually) hiking with me in 2021.