Tag Archives: prairie remnant

Rainy Day on a Remnant Prairie

“I feel like it’s raining…all over the world.”—Tony Joe White

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Rain lashes the tallgrass prairie.

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

Wet. Wild. Windy, with gusts of 50 mph. I plunge my hands deep into my coat pockets and put up my hood.

It’s a day for hiking. A day for contemplation.

Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

I’m walking Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, a small remnant prairie of 10-plus acres sandwiched between houses, a golf course, and apartment complexes. There are shopping centers and recreation parks. Railroad tracks and an interstate. This prairie remnant is a favorite of mine. It is as old as time itself.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

It co-exists with the people and the trappings of civilization and development. Peaceably.

Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

I think about the people who saved this tiny remnant prairie. They saw something special when they looked at it; something irreplaceable.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

We don’t know how to replicate a remnant prairie that functions in the same ways as the prairies we create from scratch. Sure, we plant prairies. And that’s a good thing. I’m a steward on a planted prairie, and it is full of delights and marvels. But it’s not a remnant prairie. There are very few high-quality remnants left in Illinois. Each one is unique. Each one is a small masterpiece of survival.

American Lady butterfly (Vanessa virginiensis) on blazing star (Liatris aspera), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

As I hike, I think about the Bell Bowl Prairie remnant at Chicago-Rockford International Airport.

It’s slated for destruction November 1.

Belmont Prairie Parking Lot, Downers Grove, IL.

Less than one week away.

I’m no activist. I like to live without conflict. And yet. I can’t get Bell Bowl Prairie out of my mind.

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

The prairies have given me a lot over the past 23 years. Places to walk, to write, to go to when I need to sort out my thoughts. I teach prairie classes. Give programs on prairie. Write prairie books—and write about the tallgrass here each week. I sketch prairie. Take my children and now, my grandchildren on prairie hikes and prairie picnics. The prairies have always been there for me. Now, it seems, I need to be there for them.

The questions in my mind come thick and fast.

“Do you love the prairie?”

Monarch migration, Wolf Road Prairie, Westchester, IL.

“Does the rasp of big bluestem and Indian grass swaying in the October winds send a tingle down your spine?”

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

“Do you delight in the crystallized compass plant rosin? Do you love to tell the story of how Native American children chewed it like Wrigley’s Spearmint gum? Do you marvel at all the stories these plants have to tell us?”

“Do you walk the prairie in the rain, admiring the way it brings out contrast in the grasses and seedheads?”

Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

“Are you grateful for what Wendell Berry calls “the peace of wild things” in the world, in a time when so much is conflict and unrest?”

I ask myself these questions and more. What kind of world do I want to leave my children and grandchildren? Am I willing to step outside of my comfort zone to leave them things that really matter?

Henslow’s sparrow (Centronyx henslowii), remnant at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (2018).

So much about the future is unknown.

We build upon the past. But what happens when we lose our heritage?

Leadplant (Amorpha canescens) with tiny pollinator, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

There is a lot I don’t know. There is much that I don’t understand. But I do know this: Each small “cog” and “wheel” has meaning as part of the whole. The wild things—even those in the middle of developments, or maybe especially those—are worth caring about.

Citrine forktail damselfly (Ischnura hastata), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

When we lose any member of the prairie community—plants, birds, pollinators—-we lose something priceless.

Hinsdale Prairie remnant, Hinsdale, IL.

Aldo Leopold wrote in his foreword to A Sand County Almanac: “Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth its cost in things natural, wild and free.”

Eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus) on bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Crosby backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

We have a finite number of prairie remnants in North America. There is no original prairie anywhere else in the world. Once each remnant is gone, it is gone forever. There are no “do-overs.”

St. Stephen Cemetery and Prairie remnant, Carol Stream, IL.

I’m thankful people spoke up and this remnant I hike today—Belmont prairie—was saved. I’m thankful for so many other wild places, including the prairie remnants, that were preserved through vision and the power of people’s voices. I say a few of the prairie remnant names out loud, speaking them as a prayer. Nachusa Grasslands. Hinsdale Prairie. St. Stephen. Wolf Road Prairie. Great Western Prairie. It grieves me to think of Bell Bowl Prairie missing from this list. Losing these wild places hurts everyone. This is one wild place that doesn’t have to be lost.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL.

As uncomfortable as it is sometimes to speak out, I owe the prairies this space today.

Thank you for listening.

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How Can I Help 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 International 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! Make a quick call, tweet or FB a note to your friends. Time is running out.

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Tony Joe White (1943-2018) whose quote opens this post was nicknamed “The Swamp Fox” and wrote a number of songs, including “Poke Salad Annie,” made famous when Elvis Presley and Tom Jones both did covers. He also wrote songs covered by Tina Turner (“Steamy Windows” and “Undercover Agent for the Blues”). But my favorite is “Rainy Night in Georgia,” from which the opening line is taken. Listen to the beautiful version by Brook Benton here.

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.

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!

*****

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.

*****

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!

Saving Bell Bowl Prairie

Given the fragile nature of landscapes with high natural quality, there is no substitute for their preservation and proper management. No amount of de novo restoration can obviate concern over their passing.—Gerould Wilhelm

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“Save the Bell Bowl Prairie.” What? I was perplexed. “Bell Bowl Prairie?” Where was that? Suddenly, last week, there were news references everywhere to this prairie, about to be destroyed in an expansion project at the Chicago-Rockford International Airport. I’ve hiked many prairies in Illinois—but this was not one of them. So I began reading.

Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

I learned that Bell Bowl Prairie is a remnant dry gravel hill prairie. Uh, oh. While I find this exciting, is there nothing less sexy than “dry gravel hill prairie” to those who don’t know and love prairies? I kept reading.

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. Nachusa is a mix of remnant and planted prairie.

I discovered that the Bell Bowl Prairie is a “high-quality Category 1 Natural Areas Inventory Site.” It is a remnant prairie. What does that mean, exactly? And why does it matter?

Baltimore Checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton) at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

A remnant is simply a tract of original tallgrass prairie that has never been plowed or developed. At one time, Illinois had almost 22 million acres of original tallgrass prairie. The Illinois Natural History Survey estimates we have only about 2,300 high quality acres of original remnant prairie left in Illinois. Where did our original prairies go?

Cornfields and tallgrass prairie, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Much of the fertile tallgrass prairie was lost to agriculture after the invention and mass marketing of the John Deere plow in the mid-1800’s. At the same time, as early European settlers moved in, the fires that kept the tallgrass prairie healthy—fires set by lightning and Native Americans—were suppressed. Shrubs and trees quickly took over. Developments were built that included “prairie” in the names of streets, businesses, and apartment complexes, even as they erased the very prairie from which they took their name.

Street sign, Flagg Township, Ogle County, IL.

Are these developments bad things? Was John Deere a terrible man?” Of course not. We need places to live and to work. I love to eat, and I bet you do, too. And yet.

Twelve-Spotted Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula pulchella), Greene Prairie, Madison, WI.

Even as we gained agriculture and homes and shops we lost something valuable. We didn’t realize how valuable it was, until the eleventh hour, when the original prairies were almost completely eradicated. As Joni Mitchell sings, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”

Chasing monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) at Wolf Road Prairie—a prairie remnant—in Westchester, IL.

What was left were small patches of prairie. Remnants. And remnant prairies, as Gerould Wilhelm, co-author of Flora of the Chicago Region, tells us, are irreplaceable.

Hiking the Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, an Illinois remnant prairie in Downers Grove, IL.

The Bell Bowl prairie may be destroyed by the Chicago-Rockford International Airport in Illinois in the airport’s November expansion. Why does it matter? With all of our advances in learning to plant and restore prairie, we haven’t learned how to replicate an original remnant. Remnant prairies are finite natural resources. You can’t plant another one. When we lose a prairie remnant, it is gone forever. And Bell Bowl Prairie, because it is a remnant prairie, cannot be replicated. We can’t replace this prairie.

Searls Prairie, Rockford, IL.

Why can’t we dig up the soil and move the prairie remnant to another location? Would that work? Experts say no. Moving pieces of the Bell Bowl Prairie would destroy it. And many of the creatures there, including the federally endangered Rusty Patched Bumble Bees, would be in peril.

The federally-endangered Rusty Patched Bumble Bee (Bombus affinis), Big Rock, IL.

Balancing the needs of people and the natural world is fraught with tension. There’s nothing wrong with an airport expansion. Until it takes away one of the last pieces of the prairie we have in Illinois. Until it erases an important part of our heritage. Until “The Prairie State” no longer protects our landscape of home.

Illinois license plate—the “Prairie State.”

How can you help save the Bell Bowl Prairie? Check out the links included at the end of this post. And then close your computer, turn off your phone, and go for a hike on a prairie close to you. While you’re there, say a little prayer for the Bell Bowl Prairie. That this prairie will be here for our children. Our grandchildren. Our great-grandchildren. Whether or not they ever see the Bell Bowl Prairie, future generations will know that we cared enough to make a difference by speaking up.

Exploring the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

They’ll know we said, “This matters.”

Writes Gerould Wilhelm in Flora of the Chicago Region:

“If we continue to preserve and manage remnant landscapes, one can hope that if nascent generations and generations yet unborn develop an abiding empathy for the free-living world of nature, perhaps there will be enough diversity to begin to knit together and reclaim lands around us with much of their comely diversity and complexity. Perhaps, one day, children could grow up, seeing themselves as part of nature, in an environment so beautiful and composed that it can inspire not only the healing of the landscape but the nourishing of the human soul as well… .”

Exploring Wolf Road Prairie, a remnant in Westchester, IL.

I’ve never stepped foot on the Bell Bowl Prairie. And I never need to do so. It’s enough to know these precious remnants still exist in Illinois.

Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, a remnant prairie in Downers Grove, IL.

Bell Bowl Prairie is slated for destruction. There’s no time to waste. What are we waiting for?

Let’s save it.

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Want to learn more about Bell Bowl Prairie and what you can do to ensure it survives for future generations? Explore the links below:

Join the Facebook Group: Save the Bell Bowl Prairie

Consider this information from Strategies for Stewards from Woods to Prairies

Read Cassi Saari’s excellent blog post about the Bell Bowl Prairie.

Join an online meeting tonight, Tuesday October 12, from 6-7:30 p.m. Click here.

Read this piece about the Bell Bowl Prairie from WTTV.

Tell others about Bell Bowl Prairie, so they can help too!

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Gerould Wilhelm is co-author with Laura Rericha of Flora of the Chicago Region: A Floristic and Ecological Synthesis, an indispensible guide to floristic quality and plant and insect associations for any steward in the Chicago Region. The quotes from Flora of the Chicago Region here are used with his permission.

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Join Cindy for a program or class!

Tomorrow—Wednesday, October 13, 10-11:30 a.m. (CT): “A Cultural History of Trees in America” ONLINE! Offered through The Morton Arboretum. Join Cindy from the comfort of your couch and discover the way trees have influenced our history, our music and literature, and the way we think about the world. Register here.

Friday, December 3: WINTER PRAIRIE WONDERS–ONLINE10-11:30 a.m. (CT)Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass! 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. Registration information here.

Hello, October Prairie

The little bluestem was exquisite with turquoise and garnet and chartreuse; and the big bluestem waved its turkeyfeet of deep purple high against the October sky, past the warm russet of the Indian grass.” — May Theilgaard Watts

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Drip. Drip. Drip.

Rain at last. A welcome opening to October! Sure, we’ve had a few intermittent showers just west of Chicago in September, but rainfall is far below normal. The garden shows it. My prairie patch—so resilient—is also suffering. No amount of watering with the hose is quite the same as a good cloudburst.

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

Ahhhh. The air smells newly-washed…as it is. As I walk the neighborhood, the leaves drift down, released by wind and water.

Fallen leaves, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Welcome, rain! Stay awhile. We need you.

Road through Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Dry conditions suit prairie gentians. They linger on, adding their bright color to an increasingly sepia landscape.

Prairie gentian (Gentiana puberulenta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Goldfinches work the pasture thistles.

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Bright male goldfinches of spring and summer are gradually changing to the olive oil hues of autumn and winter. When I see them working over the seed pods in my backyard, I’m glad I left my prairie plants and some garden plants in seed for them. They love the common evening primrose seeds.

American goldfinches (Spinus tristis), Crosby backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL. (File photo)

This past week, the dragonflies put on a last-minute show. Most will be gone in mid-October; either migrated south, or their life cycle completed. It’s been great to see meadowhawks again. Usually ubiquitous in the summer and autumn, this group of skimmers have gone missing from my dragonfly routes on both prairies where I monitor this season. Suddenly, they are out in numbers. Mating in the wheel position…

Autumn meadowhawks (Sympetrum vicinum) in the wheel position, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

…then flying to a good spot to oviposit, or lay eggs. Everywhere I turn, more autumn meadowhawks!

Autumn meadowhawks (Sympetrum vicinum) in “tandem oviposition”, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Ensuring new generations of meadowhawks to come on the prairie. A sign of hope. I love seeing that brilliant red—the bright scarlet of many of the species. Autumn meadowhawks have yellow-ish legs, which help separate them from other members of this difficult-to-identify group. The white-faced meadowhawks have, well…. you know.

White-faced Meadowhawk (Sympetrum obtrusum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

The face is unmistakeable. Many of the meadowhawks are confusing to ID, so I was grateful to see my first band-winged meadowhawk of the year last week, with its distinctive amber patches.

Band-winged Meadowhawk (Sympetrum semicinctum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

If only all meadowhawks were this easy to distinguish as these three species! It’s a tough genus. I’m glad they showed up this season.

Other insects are busy in different pursuits. Some skeletonize plants, leaving emerald cut lace.

Skeletonized riverbank grape (Vitis riparia) leaf, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

Northern leopard frogs, now in their adult stage, prepare for hibernation. As I hike through the prairie wetlands, looking for dragonflies, they spring through the prairie grasses and leap into the water.

Northern leopard frog (Lithobates pipiens), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Whenever I see them, I’m reminded of the Frog & Toad books I love to read to my grandchildren, and the value of true friendships, as evinced in those stories. Strong friendships, worth hanging on to.

Familiar bluet (Enallagma civile), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

As we begin to navigate our second pandemic autumn, I feel a renewed gratitude for close friends, an appreciation for family, and an appreciation for the peace and solace to be found in the natural world.

False solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum),Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

I can’t wait to see what the prairie holds for us in October.

Schulenberg Prairie trail, Lisle, IL.

Why not go see for yourself?

*****

The opening quote is from Reading the Landscape of America by May Theilgaard Watts (1893-1975). Watts was the first naturalist on staff at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, and a poet, author, and newspaper columnist. Her drawings and words continue to illuminate how we understand a sense of “place.”

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Join Cindy for a program or class!

Wednesday, October 13, 10-11:30 a.m. (CT): “A Cultural History of Trees in America” ONLINE! Offered through The Morton Arboretum. Join Cindy from the comfort of your couch and discover the way trees have influenced our history, our music and literature, and the way we think about the world. Register here.

Friday, December 3: WINTER PRAIRIE WONDERS–ONLINE10-11:30 a.m. (CT)Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass! 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. Registration information here.

August’s Prairie Alphabet

“There is another alphabet, whispering from every leaf, singing from every river, shimmering from every sky.”–Dejan Stojanovic

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Do you know your August prairie ABC’s? Let’s go for a hike in the tallgrass together and take a look at a few.

A is for Ashy Sunflower, a harbinger of late summer.

Ashy sunflower (Helianthus mollis), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

B is for Big Bluestem, Illinois’ state grass; Missouri’s as well.

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

C is for Tall Coreopsis, in full bloom at a prairie near you. Collecting seeds from this plant in October is an exercise in smelly hands. Such a pretty plant; such stinky seeds.

Tall Coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

D is for Dragonfly, those glints of glowing color across the grasses.

Halloween pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

E is for Echinacea, the purple coneflower, attracting pollinators. Its sister plant, the pale purple coneflower, is more likely to be found on prairies in my area.

Rusty-patched bumblebee (Bombus affinis), on purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Big Rock, IL.

F is for Flowering Spurge, Euphorbia corollata, in the same genus as poinsettia.

Flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollota), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

G is for Gaura, one of the few August pinks.

Biennial gaura (Guara biennis), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

H is for Hawk, which spirals on thermals high overhead. Sometimes, a little reminder floats down into the tallgrass.

Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) feather Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

I is for Indigo, now going to black-podded seed. Will the weevils save any seeds for us? Difficult to know. This pod has been ransacked.

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

J is for Joe Pye Weed, that butterfly magnet on the prairie’s edges.

Tiger swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus) on Joe pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

K is for Kankakee Sands, where bison roam.

Bison (Bison bison), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

L is for Liatris, in full purple splendor this month.

American Painted lady (Vanessa virginiensis) on rough blazing star (Liatris aspera) Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

M is for Monarch, the Midwest’s poster child for pollination and conservation. Glad they are having such a good year in Illinois.

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on unknown thistle, Franklin Creek State Natural Area, Franklin Grove, IL.

N is for New England Aster; the first blooms are all the buzz on the prairie.

New england aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

O is for Oenothera biennis, the common evening primrose, that staple of every farm lane and roadside wildflower stand. It’s native and occurs in every county of Illinois.

Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis), College of DuPage East Side Study Area, Glen Ellyn, IL.

P is for Prairie Dropseed. Love the smell? Or hate it? People are divided! I’m a fan.

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Q is for Queen Anne’s Lace, that pretty invasive that is celebrated in a Mary Oliver poem and the impetus for many volunteer workdays on the prairie.

Queen anne’s lace (Daucus carota), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

R is for Ragweed, an unwelcome native. Poor, innocent goldenrod! It often takes the rap for ragweed’s allergy-producing pollen. Aaaahhhhhh-choo! Although goldenrod isn’t completely innocent. It’s a take-over specialist on the tallgrass prairie.

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Wolf Road Prairie, Westchester, IL.

S is for Silphiums; the cup plant, prairie dock, compass plant, and rosin weed. They are having a banner year in my part of prairie country.

Cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), Crosby backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

T is for prairie Trails, that lead to adventure.

Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

U is for Underground, where prairie roots plunge 15 or more feet deep, sequestering carbon. Like an upside-down forest.

Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

V is for Vervain, both blue and hoary.

Blue vervain (Verbena hastata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

W is for Waterways; the ponds, streams, and rivers that cradle life on the prairies.

Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

X is for sphinX moths, which pollinate rare plants like the eastern prairie fringed orchid. Here’s one enjoying a wild bergamot bloom.

Snowberry clearwing moth (Hemaris diffinis) on wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Y is for Yellow. The prairie is sprinkled with gold this month.

Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Z is for the Zip and Zag of black swallowtail butterflies, fluttering from flower to flower.

Black swallowtail butterfly (Papilio polyxenes asterius), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Now you know my August ABC’s. How many of these plants and prairie critters can you find on a prairie near you? What favorites would you add to my August prairie alphabet? Leave me a comment below, and let me know. Then go for a hike and see them for yourself.

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Dejan Stojanovic (1959-), whose quote opens this blog post, is a Serbian poet.

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Join Cindy for a class or program!

August 17, 7pm-8:30 pm —in person —“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Bloomingdale Garden Club, Bloomingdale, IL. Please visit http://www.bloomingdalegardenclub.org/events-new/ for more information and Covid safety protocol for the event and for current event updates.

September 9, 9:30-11 am– in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Oswego Hilltoppers Garden Club, Oswego Public Library. Please visit the club’s Facebook page for guest information, event updates and Covid protocol.

New to the prairie? Want to introduce a friend or family member to the tallgrass? Check out The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction (Northwestern University Press). No jargon, no technical terms — just a fun guide to navigating prairie hikes and developing a deeper relationship with the beautiful grasslands that make the Midwest special.

B is for Bison at Nachusa Grasslands

“At once [the buffalo] is a symbol of the tenacity of wilderness and the destruction of wilderness…it stands for freedom and captivity, extinction and salvation.”—Steven Rinella

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Let’s take a hike “where the buffalo roam.”

Bison (Bison bison).

I’m chasing dragonflies at one of my favorite preserves in Illinois: Nachusa Grasslands. Approximately two hours west of Chicago, Nachusa Grasslands is a 3,800-acre mosaic of tallgrass prairies and savannas. Woodlands and wetlands. Today, as a dragonfly monitor at Nachusa with access inside the bison unit, I hope to collect Odonate data at one of my favorite pond routes. But the bison have other plans for my morning. As I wade into the wetland surrounding the pond, admiring the dragonflies…

Common whitetail dragonfly (Plathemis lydia).

…I hear a bellow. Uh, oh. That’s the sound of a bison bull kicking up some trouble.

Bison (Bison bison) herd.

When you’re working in a bison unit, you don’t wait around when you hear that sound. I immediately head for my car. It doesn’t take long. Here they come!

Bison (Bison bison).

Mamas. Papas. Baby bison.

Bison calf (Bison bison).

They make a beeline for my dragonfly pond, ready to join the frogs and cool off on this sunny morning.

Young green frog (Lithobates clamitans).

I enjoy watching them wade into the water and graze on the juicy vegetation. But time passes. My plans for collecting dragonfly data this morning are shot. These bison aren’t going anywhere soon.

Bison (Bison bison).

I make myself comfortable in the car, hoping they’ll eventually move on. I don’t get out. Bison are one of the most dangerous animals in North America. Males may weigh more than 2,000 pounds. And—they’re fast! I’ve watched them tear across the prairie at top speeds of 30 mph for no apparent reason. It’s important to respect these incredible animals.

Bison (Bison bison).

I only take photos of bison with a zoom lens from the safety of my vehicle. Even then, while working in the bison unit, I’m careful to keep my car a good distance away.

Bison calf (Bison bison).

Bison can jump, too! Up to six feet. They won’t let a fence keep them from something they really, really want to do. I admire that kind of determination.

I’m grateful for the bison at Nachusa—and not only because I enjoy watching them. Without them, the prairie is incomplete. They are an important piece of the prairie puzzle. As they wallow and churn through the prairie with their hooves…

After the bison came through.

…they create spaces for other members of the prairie community to thrive.

Chickweed geometer moth (Haematopis grataria)).

Bison grazing habits may also free up space for prairie wildflowers.

Great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica).

They also fertilize the prairie with their dung. Bison patties! Good stuff for prairies.

Blazing star (Liatris spp.).

Time passes. The bison show no sign of leaving. Looks like it’s going to be “Plan B” today. I start the car and back up, then turn around on the gravel two-track. I’ve got plenty of alternatives besides this pond for a dragonfly-chasing hike. So many exciting areas to explore!

Summer at Nachusa Grasslands.

With so many wildflowers in bloom at Nachusa…

Monkeyflower (Mimulus ringens).

…and plenty of other interesting prairie creatures around….

Short-horned grasshopper (Family Acrididae).

… my alternative hike on the prairie this morning will still be time well spent.

Summer at Nachusa Grasslands.

The bison are fun to see, but they’re only a bonus on a trip to Nachusa. There is so much else to discover!

Why not go for a hike and see it for yourself?

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The opening quote is from American Buffalo: In Search of A Lost Icon by Stephen Rinella (2008).

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All photos in this week’s blog are from Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Visit Nachusa Grasslands, and see the bison herd from the road pull-offs or from the beautiful new outdoor Prairie Visitor Center. Know bison safety protocol before you go: find it here. Respect the bison, and always observe them from a safe distance outside the bison unit. Want a closer look? Join Nachusa Grasslands bison tours during the “Autumn on the Prairie” celebration Saturday, September 18 to get an inside-the-bison unit view. For more information on public hiking trails and bison, visit Friends of Nachusa Grasslands’ website.

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Join Cindy for a class or program this summer!

August 17, 7pm-8:30 pm —in person —“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Bloomingdale Garden Club, Bloomingdale, IL. Please visit http://www.bloomingdalegardenclub.org/events-new/ for more information and Covid safety protocol for the event and for current event updates.

September 9, 9:30-11 am– in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Oswego Hilltoppers Garden Club, Oswego Public Library. Please visit the club’s Facebook page for guest information, event updates and Covid protocol.

New to the prairie? Want to introduce a friend or family member to the tallgrass? Check out The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction (Northwestern University Press). No jargon, no technical terms — just a fun guide to navigating prairie hikes and developing a deeper relationship with the beautiful grasslands that make the Midwest special.

The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction is available from your favorite independent bookseller.

The Prairie Skies in March

“Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them.”–Aldo Leopold

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High winds. First green growth. Warm sunny days, alternating with blustery snowstorms. It’s migration season.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) and a sun halo over Cindy’s backyard prairie this weekend.

This week, Jeff and I walk the Belmont Prairie in Downers Grove, Illinois, a 10-acre remnant hemmed by homes, soccer fields, highways and railroad tracks.

More than 300 species of plants and animals are found here. We go to see what emerges in the warmer temperatures of mid-March. At a glance, the prairie looks much as it did all winter. No prescribed burn has touched it yet.

But look closely. The first weedy black mustard’s emerald leaf florets lie flat against the prairie soil. An insect flies low and slow. Too quick for me to slap an ID on. Blue flag iris spears through the muddy waterway that winds through the dry grass and spent wildflowers. Signs of spring.

Blue flag iris (Iris virginica shrevei), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

I browse online to find more about the prairie and encounter this on the Downers Grove Park District’s site: “… in April of 1970, Alfred and Margaret Dupree presented a photograph of a rare prairie wildflower to an expert at the Morton Arboretum, as they were interested if it represented possible remnants of a native prairie. Upon inspection, it was found that the field had numerous native prairie species, and with the help of The Nature Conservancy, the owners were tracked down and the land was purchased. After officially becoming a part of the Park District, it was named an Illinois Nature Preserve in March, 1994.” I love it that two people paid attention to this remnant—and took time to investigate. It makes me wonder what we’ll see, if we look closely.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

So much to discover under our feet. But today, the real action is over our heads. The clouds sail fast across the horizon.

A breeze ruffles my hair. The melancholy whistle and the clickity-clack, clickity-clack, clickity-clack of a nearby train fills the air. But there’s another sound vying with the wind, train, and traffic noise. A high pitched babble. Look! There they are.

Riding on the winds above us are the sandhill cranes. Thousands and thousands of sandhills. Chasing a memory of somewhere north where they have urgent business to conduct. Each wave seems louder than the next. They are high—so high—in the sky.

Sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2019)

The sun is merciless; so bright, we often lose them in its glare. The cranes wheel and pirouette; now flashes of silver overhead, now vanished.

All the obligatory words rise to my lips: Prehistoric. Ballet. Choreography. Dance. None seemed sufficient for this performance in the theater of the sky. The cranes assemble into a “V”, then slip into a sloppy “S”. Now they kettle, swirling and twirling. I’m reminded of my old “Mr. Doodleface” drawing board from childhood, where I dragged a magnet across black shavings to put hair and a beard on a picture of a man. The cranes seem like black shavings pulled through the sky in intricate patterns. Circles and lines and angles and scrawls. Changing from moment to moment. But always, that heart-breaking cry.

At home, I page through my field guides and bird books, then check online for more about cranes. I read that they are about four feet tall, the size of a first grader, with a wingspan of more than six feet.

Sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL (2019)

The newer scientific name since 2010 for sandhill cranes is Antigone canadensis. My birding guides, all a dozen years or more old, still have the previous genus name, Grus. The common name “sandhill” refers to this bird’s stopover in the Nebraska Sandhills, a staging area for the birds.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area, Medaryville, IN (2016)

Sandhill cranes can be found in North America, all the way to the extremes of northeastern Siberia. Three subspecies live in Cuba, Mississippi, and Florida year-round, according to Cornell University. These cranes are omnivores, changing their diet based on what’s available. Small amphibians, reptiles, and mammals may be on the menu one day; grains and plants the next.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Horicon Marsh, WI (2019)

The sandhills mate for life, or until one of the pair dies. Then, the remaining crane seeks a new partner.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL (2019)

Although gray, the sandhill crane has a rusty-colored wash on its feathers, caused by the bird rubbing itself with iron-rich mud. The birds have a distinctive scarlet patch on their foreheads.

Sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis), Green Lake, WI (2019)

The form of the crane is one of the first origami shapes many of us learned to make. According to a Japanese legend, if you make a thousand origami cranes the gods will grant you a wish. As I watch them fly over Belmont Prairie, it’s easy to think of what to wish for in the coming year.

As we leave, I find a single bird feather, caught in the tallgrass.

Unknown feather, Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

A crane’s? Probably not. But a reminder of the connection of birds to this prairie remnant.

Later that afternoon, we hang my hammock on the back porch and I swing there with a book, pausing each time to look as the cranes pass overhead.

Crane watching, Glen Ellyn, IL.

A sun halo appears.

Partial sun halo, Cindy’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Magical! How does anyone ever say they are bored when there are clouds, and cranes…and marvels all around us?

Sun halo, Cindy’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The thousands and thousands of sandhills migrating this weekend were barely ahead of Monday’s winter storm.

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

Snow powdered the prairie with fat flakes and turned our world to white.

Crocus (Crocus sp.) Cindy’s backyard prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I wonder if the cranes knew the storm was coming? Prescient sandhills. Smart birds.

Welcome back.

*****

Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) is best known for A Sand County Almanac, from which the quote that kicks off this post was taken. His book was published shortly after his death and has sold more than two million copies. If you visit New Mexico, you can drive through the miles of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness in the Gila National Forest, named for him in 1980. Driving it, you’re aware of the solace of vast and empty spaces, and the importance of conservation. Find out more about Leopold here.

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Join Cindy for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a full list of upcoming talks and programs.

A Brief History of Trees in America Wednesday, April 28, 7-8 p.m. Sponsored by Friends of the Green Bay Trail and the Glencoe Public Library. From oaks to sugar maples to the American chestnut: trees changed the course of American history. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation as you remember and celebrate the trees influential in your personal history and your garden. Registration here.

Virtual Wildflower Walks Online: Section A: Friday, April 9, 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. CST Woodland Wildflowers, Section B: Thursday, May 6, 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. CST Woodland and Prairie Wildflowers. Wander through the ever-changing array of blooms in our woodlands and prairies in this virtual walk. Learn how to identify spring wildflowers, and hear about their folklore. In April, the woodlands begin to blossom with ephemerals, and weeks later, the prairie joins in the fun! Each session will cover what’s blooming in our local woodlands and prairies as the spring unfolds. Enjoy this fleeting spring pleasure, with new flowers revealing themselves each week. Register here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie: Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm. CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Register here.

A Tallgrass Prairie Thaw

To the mouse, snow means freedom from want and fear…. To a rough-legged hawk, a thaw means freedom from want and fear.” —Aldo Leopold

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Drip. Drip. Drip.

I’m raking snow off our roof when I hear it. The sun broke through the gray haze like a white hot dime an hour ago, and I’m grateful for its feeble warmth. The gutters groan and bend under their weight of ice. I’ve knocked most of the icicles down, pretty though they are—-lining the roof’s edge like a winter holiday postcard.

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

We have a foot and a half of snow on our roof. Uh, oh! For the first time in our 23 years of living in the Chicago Region, we’re concerned enough to borrow a friend’s roof rake and try to do something about it. As I rake, the snow avalanches down the shingles and I’m sprayed with white stuff. It’s like being in a snowball fight with yourself. The squirrels wait in the trees nearby, ready to return to their assault on the birdfeeders when I finish. I try to imagine what they’re thinking.

Fox squirrel (Sciurus niger), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Then I hear it again. Drip. Drip. Drip.

The sound of thaw.

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

The prairie, slumbering under her weight of white, hears the sound. There’s a faint stirring in the ice, especially where the sun strikes in full.

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Winter is far from over; its icy clasp on the prairie will linger for many more weeks. And yet. There’s something in the air this week, despite the cold haze that hangs over the tallgrass.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie in late February, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Certain sounds—that “drip!” Water trickling in a prairie stream under the ice. Snow melt. The smell of something fresh.

Ice on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2019)

A male cardinal sings his courting call. I stop in my tracks. He doesn’t seem to be daunted by the snow flurries, seemingly stuck on “repeat” this week. He knows what’s coming.

Above the ground, the prairie grasses and wildflowers are smothered in snow drifts. They look bowed and broken by the wild weather thrown at them over the past few months.

Cindy’s backyard prairie patch at the end of February, Glen Ellyn, IL.

A few stalwart plants stubbornly defy the storms and stand tall.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Their long roots—-15 feet deep or more—begin to stir. You can almost hear a whisper in the dry, brittle leaves. Soon. Soon.

It’s been a beautiful winter.

Ice on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

But a long one, as winters tend to seem when you’re half past February and not quite close enough to March.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, viewed through the piled parking lot snow at College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Even as the snow is grimed with soot by car exhaust along the streets, there’s beauty. All around, the particular delights of February. The stark silhouettes of grass stems…

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…the prairie’s geometric lines and angles; devoid of frills and flounces.

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

The gray-blues and rusts of the prairie landscape, seem intensified at this time of year. Everything is clarified. Distilled.

Perhaps because of the long grind of the pandemic, this winter has seemed longer and gloomier than usual. Colder. More difficult.

Hidden Lake prairie plantings, Downers Grove, IL (2019).

But when I open the newspaper over breakfast, the headlines seem less grim. A faint whiff of optimism tinges conversations with friends. I feel hope in the air; hope that we are nearing the end of our long haul through this dark night.

Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

My spirits lift when I see the signs, scent the smells, hear the sounds of a new season on the way.

Spring is coming. Do you sense the thaw? Can you feel it?

Dickcissel (Spiza americana), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. (2017)

I’m ready.

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Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), whose quote opens this blog post, is best known for his book of collected essays, A Sand County Almanac, published a year after his death. Today, it is considered a critical foundation for conservation and wilderness thinking. Leopold’s book has sold more than two million copies and influences many who work in wildlife and prairie conservation today. Another favorite quote: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Read more about him here.

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Last Chance to Register for February 24 Program! Join me online from anywhere in the world via Zoom.

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.

Summer on the Tallgrass Prairie

“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass on a summer day listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is hardly a waste of time.” —John Lubbock

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When the pale purple coneflowers bloom on the prairie,  you know summer has arrived.

SPMA61720PalePurpleConeflowerWM

With the blooming of the prairie wildflowers comes their tiny pollinators, dusted in pollen, intent on finding the best nectar sources.

palepurpleconeflowerwithpollinatorBelmontPrairie62020WM

Everywhere, sheets of wildflowers open under the prairie sky. Purple-blue scurfy pea and the non-native but exuberant ox-eye daisies crowd together, a delightful pairing.

BelmontPrairieflowers62020WM

Black-eyed susans are suddenly noticeable, in all different stages of flowering. From bud…

blackeyedsusanBelmontPrairie62020WMWM

To barely open…

blackeyedsusanjustopenBelmontPrairie62120WMWM

…to just opening…

blackeyedsusanBelmontPrairiejustopeningbarely62120WM

…and finally,  a full “open-house” for pollinators.

blackeyedsusanfullbloom62120WMBelmontPrairie copy

Purple milkweed, just about to bloom, waits for monarch caterpillars.

purplemilkweed61720WMSPMA We don’t have much of it on the prairie where I’m a steward, so spotting its bright buds is a delight. It’s a fine contrast to the first blush orange that washes across the butterfly weed. Monarch caterpillars in my backyard and on the prairie seem to prefer this milkweed species.

Butterfly Weed BelmontPrairie62120WM

Non-native nodding thistle—or musk thistle as it is sometimes called—blooms in startling pink, abuzz with a bee or two. It’s almost five feet tall! A show-stopper.

honeybeeon muskthistleBelmontPrairie62120WM

I’ve not seen this thistle before, and wonder how difficult it is to manage. I read that its seeds may remain in the soil for up to ten years. Even in bud, it is so unusual!

muskthistlebud62120BelmontPrairieWM

Prairie sundrops, Oenothera pilosella, are having the best year on the prairie that I’ve seen in more than two decades. Is it the lack of fire this season? Or the wet spring? I’d love to know what conditions have brought it to this state of profusion and perfection. Wilhelm’s Flora ranks its coefficient of conservatism as a “10.”

prairiesundropsOenotherapilosellaSPMA61720WM

Wild coffee—sometimes called “late horse gentian”—offers up its odd flowers to anyone with the patience to look closely. Snowberry clearwing moth caterpillars (commonly called “hummingbird moths”) use wild coffee as a host plant.

wildcoffeeSPMA61720WM

Later, the each of the plant’s orange fruits—called “drupes”—will have three black nutlets resembling coffee beans. 

Prairie-loving creatures are everywhere. The ubiquitous silver-spotted skippers nectar on white wild indigo.

SilverspottedskipperSPMA61720WMwhitewildindigo

Damselflies, like this variable dancer, float dreamlike through the tallgrass.

VioletDancerVariableDancerWM61720SPMA

This has also been a week of dragonflies, perching on old grass stalks and patrolling the prairie airspace. June is a big month for meadowhawk dragonfly emergence.

UnknownfemalemeadowhawkBelmontPrairie62120WM

So many 12-spotted skimmers! They bask in the sunshine.

12spottedskimmerBelmontPrairieWM62120

The butterflies are out on sunny days, brightening the prairies. Monarchs. Cabbage whites. And swallowtails. An eastern black swallowtail butterfly, flapping madly, is intent on finding non-native red clover, a good nectar plant. I’ve tasted red clover myself — so sweet! The butterfly is ragged and tattered. A survivor.

blackswallowtailDickYoung61820WM

In the savannas near the prairies, the bluebirds rest in the shade. They are year-round residents on the prairie here, but I never fail to be astonished by their color. They may raise two broods each season. The young from the later brood will stay with the parents during the winter.

BluebirdSPMA61720WM

I’m grateful for their bright flash of blue glimpsed in any season.

In a woodland close to the prairies, the wood thrush sings its singular tune. It’s my favorite bird song, but a melancholy one, as I know the species is in decline. Read more about its amazing song patterns here.

The bees bump from bloom to bloom, drunk with the possibilities of June.

bumblebeeonscurfypea62120WM

Summer on the prairie is just beginning.

BelmontPrairieinJune2120horizontalWM

Why not go see?

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John Lubbock (1834-1913) was an amateur biologist, with an interest in evolutionary theory and archeology. He and Charles Darwin exchanged correspondence. Lubbock is also thought to be the source for the quote, “We may sit in our library and yet be in all quarters of the earth.” Not a bad way to travel.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (from top to bottom): pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; mixed wildflowers, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta, unknown insect), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens), Schulenberg prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; musk thistle (Carduus nutans) with honeybee (Apis sp.), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; musk thistle (Carduus nutans), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie sundrops (Oenothera pilosella), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild coffee or late horse gentian (Triosteum perfoliatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; variable (or violet) dancer (Argia fumipennis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown female meadowhawk (Sympetrum spp.); Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL;  12-spotted skimmer dragonfly (Libellula pulchella), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; eastern black swallowtail butterfly (Papilio polyxenes asterius), Dick Young Forest Preserve prairie, Forest Preserve District of Kane County, Batavia, IL; eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) at Bliss Woods, Forest Preserve District of Kane County, Sugar Grove, IL; carpenter bee (Xylocopa sp.) on scurfy pea (Psoralidium tenuiflorum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve skies and prairie in June, Downer’s Grove, IL.

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Join Cindy for her upcoming online book event, online dragonfly classes, and online prairie ecology classes:

“Chasing Dragonflies in Literature, Life, and Art” Now Online! Saturday, June 27 10-11:30 a.m. Celebrate the release of author Cindy Crosby’s newest book, Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History through The Morton Arboretum. Cindy will be joined by the book’s award-winning illustrator, Peggy MacNamara,  artist in residence at the Field Museum. Enjoy a talk from the author and illustrator about the book, interspersed with short readings and insights on what it means for us as humans to be at home in the natural world. A Q&A session follows. Register here.

“Dragonfly and Damselfly Beginning ID Online” through The Morton Arboretum. July 8 and July 10 –two morning classes online, with a day in between for you to work independently in the field, then bring your questions back for help. Register here.

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” begins a new session in September! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional ZOOM session. Register here.

Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org and other book venues. Order direct through Northwestern University Press and receive 25% off — use coupon code NUP2020 and see the information below. Thank you for supporting small presses and writers during this chaotic time.Preorder Savings Chasing Dragonflies (1)

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 Very Prairie Cemetery

“The prairie landscape insists on patience and commitment. It does not give up its secrets and wonders easily.” — James P. Ronda

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It’s the end of the work day at home, and I’m scrolling through Twitter. Then I see it —a tweet by tallgrass artist Liz Anna Kozik about a local prairie awash in shooting star blooms. A prairie I’ve never seen before! It’s only 30 minutes from my home. Jeff looks over my shoulder and sees the photo Liz has posted. Wow! We look at each other.

Let’s go!

The 37-acre Vermont Cemetery Prairie is part of the Forest Preserve District of Will County. One acre of the pioneer cemetery is designated as an Illinois Nature Preserve. This acre, untouched by agricultural plows which destroyed most of Illinois’ original 22 million acres of tallgrass prairie, is a rare piece of our history.

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The cemetery is home to the federally endangered  and state threatened Mead’s milkweed. Illinois has about two dozen native milkweeds, all of them host to the monarch butterfly caterpillar. I’ve seen many of these native milkweeds. But the Mead’s has been elusive. Maybe later this summer, I’ll see it here.

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As we get out of the car, I’m disappointed. Prairie plants? Sure. The immediate area around the parking lot seems to be prairie wetland, and we spot some familiar species.

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Birds are moving through. A killdeer. A mallard. Another mallard. And—what’s that?

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Lesser yellowlegs? I think so. Tringa flavipes. For fun, I look up the meaning of its scientific name. I discover “Tringa” is “a genus of waders, containing the shanks and tattlers.”  Hilarious! The Latin name flavipes is pretty straightforward: flavus is “yellow” and pes means “foot.” I love the scientific names; they always have a story to tell about a member of the natural world. I check the lesser yellowlegs’ range in Cornell’s All About Birds; it seems they are stopping here on their way to their breeding grounds up north.

We watch the lesser yellowlegs move through the wetlands for a while, then continue looking for the cemetery.   Jeff spies it first—-the black fencing in the distance is a tip-off. The Tall Grass Greenway Trail runs parallel to the prairie, between the fence and railroad tracks, flanked by towering power lines.

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A mammoth subdivision borders the other side of the preserve. House after house after house. But few people are at the prairie.

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The fence, which keeps us out, is necessary, as the prairie would easily be damaged by vandalism or poaching. Remnants like this have almost vanished in Illinois; only about 2,300 high quality original prairie acres remain. Remaining prairie remnants tend to be along old railroad tracks, on rocky knobs unsuitable for farming (such as you find at Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL), or in cemeteries, such as these.

Jeff and I walk the perimeter. Outside the cemetery fence, even the ditch and buffer zones are a treasure trove of prairie plants. Golden Alexanders.

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And its cousin, heart-leaved golden Alexanders.

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Compass plants.

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Wild strawberries.

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Tall coreopsis.

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Prairie dropseed.

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All this on the outside of the fence! Magical. Could it really be any better inside?

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We look in.

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Wow.

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So much shooting star. We see bumblebees among the graves, working the flowers in the early evening light.

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Among the shooting star is wood betony…

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..and so much hoary puccoon! These pops of orange are startling among the yellow of wood betony and the pink of shooting star. A few bastard toadflax throw white stars in the grasses.  Sedges are in bloom too! But what species?HoaryPuccoonVermontPrairieCemetery51220WM

I have no idea.

The health of this prairie is a tribute to long-time dedicated stewards Don and Espie Nelson. (Watch a video about their work on this prairie here.) Without the efforts of this dynamic duo, this prairie would not be the vibrant, diverse place we see today. It also owes its existence to Dr. Robert Betz, a professor at Northeastern Illinois University, who worked to restore this remnant in the 1960s through cutting brush and using prescribed fire. He’s one of our Illinois prairie heroes.

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I wonder what those who were buried here would have thought about the importance we put on the prairie flora found here today. Curious, I look up Wilhelmine Grabe, whose name appears on a gravestone with her husband, John Grabe.  She was born in Germany, immigrated here, and died in 1895, at the same age as I am today. What did she think, when she came from the forests of Germany and first walked through a tallgrass prairie? Was she enchanted? Or was she afraid of the vast, empty spaces that became her new home? Did she and her husband, John, work hard to break the prairie sod so they could farm and grow food for their family? Would it puzzle her to see how much we value the last vestiges of prairie here?

I look up other names I see on the markers, but find nothing. There are many other gravestones worn beyond deciphering. All of these markers ask us to remember people who called the prairie state home for a portion of their lives. All of them are now at rest in one of the most beautiful cemeteries I’ve ever seen.

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This prairie…these beautiful prairie wildflowers. This unexpected evening. This visit is a surprise that lifts my spirits and revives my sense of wonder.

The surprises have not all been good ones this week. My ginkgo tree, resilient and indestructible—-I thought — had leafed out. Then—wham! All of its leaves died this week.

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Will it survive? I email the Morton Arboretum’s plant clinic, a free service the Morton Arboretum offers to anyone, anywhere. Sharon, a repository of expert plant knowledge,  diagnoses freeze damage. She says it’s possible my little tree will summon enough energy to put out a new set of leaves.

Or not.

All I can do, she said, is watch…and wait.

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I’ve gotten more practiced at watching and waiting the past two months. No problem.

Another surprise:  Sunday evening, three and a half inches of rain fell in a few hours. The Arboretum is still closed because of the pandemic, so we drive to Leask Lane which borders the west side of the Schulenberg Prairie to see how the prairie has fared. There, we pull off the road to peer through the fence. Willoway Brook rampages wide and wild. As a steward, I know the seeds of invasive plants are coming in with this deluge, and will require attention as the waters subside.

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It’s a challenge I anticipate. But it will be a few more weeks before the Morton Arboretum is open. Although my steward work won’t resume for a bit longer, I’ll be able to hike the Schulenberg Prairie again in less than two weeks.  At last. At last.

I’m anxious to see what the past two months have brought to the prairie. I look over the fence and wonder. Are the small white lady’s slipper orchids in bloom? This should be their week. I remember the delight of discovering them nestled deep in the new grasses.

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It’s a discovery that has never lost its charm, year after year.

What about the shooting star? Will they be visible, even with the old growth, unburned, still in place? Try as I might, I can’t see them. But I remember them, from previous years.

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I think of these years, and how beautiful the wildflowers were. I imagine the queen bumblebees, alighting on one bloom after another,  using their strong thoracic muscles—-performing “buzz pollination”—to loosen the pollen. Like salt sprinkled from a salt shaker.  One thought led to another. Had the federally endangered rusty patched bumblebee emerged? Was it out and about in the wildflowers?

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I wonder if the first eastern forktail damselflies are emerging along Willoway Brook, and what effects the water’s rise and fall are having on the dragonfly and damselfly populations.

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So much is happening! So much to anticipate. June 1, I’ll be back on the prairie I’ve grown to love for the past 22 years where I’ve been steward for almost a decade. Less than two weeks to go now. Until then, I peer through the fence.

It will be worth the wait.

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James P. Ronda, whose quote kicks off the blog today, is the author of Visions of the Tallgrass from University of Oklahoma Press. If you haven’t seen this book of lovely essays with gorgeous photographs by Harvey Payne, check it out here.

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All photographs taken at Vermont Cemetery Prairie, Forest Preserve District of Will County, Naperville, IL unless otherwise noted; copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sign; view of the wetlands; lesser yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes); approach to cemetery remnant; approach to cemetery remnant; golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea); heart-leaved golden Alexanders (Zizia aptera); compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis); cemetery fence; shooting star and gravestone (Dodecatheon meadia); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) and gravestone; wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens) and bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata); prairie and power lines; ginkgo tree (Ginkgo biloba), author’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; small white lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL–photo from previous years; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL–photo from previous years; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia); eastern forktail (Ishnura verticalis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Tremendous thanks to Liz Anna Kozik  for the heads up about Vermont Cemetery Prairie. Check out her tallgrass prairie graphic comics and other art here.

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Join Cindy for a class online!

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology” class online in May through The Morton Arboretum is SOLD OUT.   Sign up now to ensure a spot in our June 7 class here.

Nature Journaling is online Monday, June 1 — 11am-12:30pm through The Morton Arboretum:
Explore how writing can lead you to gratitude and reflection and deepen connections to yourself and the natural world. In this workshop, you will discover the benefits of writing in a daily journal, get tips for developing the habit of writing, and try out simple prompts to get you on your way. (WELL095) — Register here.

Want more prairie while you are sheltering in place? 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.