“…I have meandered, like the drifts of snow, across the wide prairies.” —Paul Gruchow
It transformed the prairie.
Then, it melted.
But in the brief time it was here, it was magical.
On Sunday, the first significant snowfall in…well, a while here…cast its spell on the gray, gloomy January landscape. It turned wearisome weather into wonder.
The mallards sailed through slush, tracing their way through the prairie pond.
It’s been unusually warm for a snowfall. You can feel the unresolved tension between freeze and thaw.
After days of hiking muddy trails under platinum skies, the white stuff falling lifts my spirits. Snowflakes touch each wildflower’s winter remains with brightness.
Grasses tremble under their frosty loads.
Last summer’s leaves, freed from their job of churning chlorophyll, become works of art.
Seed pods have jettisoned most of their loads.
Almost before we can finish our hike today, the snowfall is over.
But the enchantment will stay with me.
I wish you would have stayed longer. But I’m grateful for your presence on the prairie today.
The opening quote is from Paul Gruchow’s Journal of a Prairie Year (Milkweed Editions). There isn’t much written about the prairie in winter, and Gruchow (1947-2004) does a fine job describing his January hikes. He was one of the prairie’s best writers.
Join Cindy for a class or program in February!
Nature Writing Workshop— Four Thursday evenings (February 2, 9, 16, and 23) from 6-8:30 p.m. Join a community of nature lovers as you develop and nurture your writing skills in person. Class size is limited. Hosted by The Morton Arboretum. Masks are optional. For more information and to register visit here.
Winter Prairie Wonders — Tuesday, February 7, 10-11:30 a.m. Discover the joys of the prairie in winter as you hear readings about the season. Enjoy stories of the animals who call the prairie home. Hosted by the Northbrook Garden Club in Northbrook, IL. Free to non-members, but you must register by contacting NBKgardenclub@gmail.com for more information.
Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Fliers –— Wednesday, February 8, noon-1:30 p.m. Hosted by Countryside Garden Club in Crystal Lake, IL. (Closed event for members)
The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Charm Shop— Thursday, February 9, 12:30-2 p.m. Hosted by Wheaton Garden Club in Wheaton, IL (closed event for members).
Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers— February 20, 7:15 p.m-8:45 p.m. Hosted by the Suburban Garden Club, Indian Head Park, IL. Free and open to non-members. For more information, contact Cindy through her website contact space at http://www.cindycrosby.com.
Bell Bowl Prairie in Rockford, IL, needs your help! Find out more on saving this threatened remnant prairie at SaveBellBowlPrairie.
“In the book of the earth it is written:nothing can die.”—Mary Oliver
“Have you noticed?”
In her poem, “Ghosts” the late poet Mary Oliver wrote compellingly about our native bison and their disappearance from the world.
Have you noticed? she asks, then continues: “In the book of the Sioux it is written: they have gone away into the earth to hide/Nothing will coax them out again/But the people dancing.“
Have you noticed? In 2016, the “dance” at the Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands in Morocco, IN, began with 23 bison brought to the preserve. Today, the herd has grown to around 90 animals, a few of which are barely visible this afternoon in the freezing mist.
At the bison viewing area, I hike to a slight rise in the landscape for a better look.
My hands quickly grow numb in the raw, moist air. Along the trail, mist-scattered diamond droplets cling to every plant.
A wet prairie’s colors in December are intensified. Especially under an aluminum sky.
Little bluestem’s rusty red glistens.
The soft pads of great mullein sparkle in the damp.
Wild saplings drip, drip, drip.
I notice the way the mist changes the prairie. Sharp edges: blurred. Horizons: hazed.
I notice the way the mist changes how I feel.
Which is…a deep melancholy. A sense of loss.
A loneliness that many explorers encountering prairie for the first time in their travels hundreds of year ago wrote about in their journals, and mentioned in their letters back home. It’s a December feeling; a pensiveness I rarely feel on the prairie in spring or summer.
The loss of tallgrass prairie in the Midwest is incalculable. It’s not only the disappearance of rare plants. It’s the loss of a whole community that vanished. How can we not feel grief in the midst of this knowledge?
And yet… I feel hope here at Kankakee Sands, as well as loss. I know the dance of restoration is not one of instant gratification. But a new future is being written for prairie. It’s not a clear future, and there will be plenty of obstacles along the way. I’m inspired, however, by those who care enough to make it happen.
The mist muffles the sound of traffic just off the prairie on U.S. Highway 41; obscures the farmland beyond the preserve’s borders. I can almost imagine I’m hiking with those early explorers or the Native Americans who once called this area home; encountering the vast expanses of tallgrass prairie that once blanketed the Midwest.
Under the slate-gray afternoon sky, lost in the mist, the prairie seems like a dream. The dream of a future where the tallgrass prairie community is vibrant and healthy again.
With the help of people, it’s a dream that is slowly coming true, right here at Kankakee Sands.
Have you noticed?
The opening quote and poetry excerpts (Have you noticed?) are from Mary Oliver’s “Ghosts”, included in her poetry collection American Primitive (1983). Read more about this late great poet (1935-2019) here.
All photos in today’s blog were taken at Kankakee Sands, a Nature Conservancy site in Morocco, IN. If you find yourself in northwestern Indiana, or are looking for a delightful day trip from the Chicago Region, I can’t recommend this preserve highly enough. For more information, visit the website here.
Join Cindy for a Class or Program this Winter!
The Tallgrass Prairie in Popular Culture—Friday, January 20, from 10-11:30 a.m. Explore the role the tallgrass prairie plays in literature, art, music—and more! Enjoy a hot beverage as you discover how Illinois’ “landscape of home” has shaped our culture. Offered by The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL; register here.
Nature Writing Workshop— Four Thursdays (February 2, 9, 16, and 23) from 6-8:30 p.m. Join a community of nature lovers as you develop and nurture your writing skills in person. For more information and to register visit here.
Illinois Prairie needs you! Visit Save Bell Bowl Prairie to learn about this special place—one of the last remaining gravel prairies in our state —and to find out what you can do to help.
Most people know Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, as a particle physics and accelerator laboratory. But today, I’m here for the prairie.
Fermilab is a protected government area, so a guard checks my driver’s license at the gate, then makes me a guest tag to stick on my coat. He smiles as he hands me a map and waves my car through the checkpoint. I’m off to the interpretive trail…
… to see what delights the December prairie has in store for me this morning.
You might wonder: What is tallgrass prairie doing at a place where phrases like “quantum gravity” and “traversable wormhole” are the norm?
So glad you asked! The prairie was the dream of Dr. Robert “Bob” Betz, a Northeastern Illinois biology professor who was dubbed by the Chicago Tribune as “a pioneer in prairie preservation.” In 1975, Betz heard that Fermilab’s then-director Dr. Robert Wilson was looking for ideas on how to plant its thousands of acres in the Chicago suburbs.
As Betz tells the story in his book, The Prairie of the Illinois Country (published in 2011 after his death), he enlisted the help of The Morton Arboretum’s legendary Ray Schulenberg and Cook County Forest Preserve’s David Blenz to go with him to meet with Dr. Wilson to pitch the prairie project.
Dr. Wilson, Betz said, listened to their ideas. He then proposed the interior of the accelerator ring for planting. “How long would it take to restore such a prairie?” Wilson asked the trio.
Betz admitted it might take five years. Ten. Twenty or more.
Betz writes that Dr. Wilson was quiet for a few seconds, “… and then he turned to us and said, ‘If that’s the case, I guess we should start this afternoon.’ “
What vision these men had! Their dream, coupled with the work of countless volunteers and staff, has birthed this restoration of Illinois’ native landscape across Fermilab’s vast campus today.
I wonder what Dr. Betz would think if he could hike with me this morning, and see the array of tallgrass prairie plants that shimmer under the winter sky…
… which changes every few moments, kaleidoscoping from dark clouds to blue sky; contrails to sunshine.
Within view of the interpretative trail looms Wilson Hall, where the nation’s most intelligent scientists mingle and confer.
I think of these scientists as I hike the prairie. The future, meeting the past. I think of Dr. Betz, and his willingness to dream big.
The slogan for Fermilab is this: “We bring the world together to solve the mysteries of matter, energy, space and time.”
The tallgrass prairie is full of mysteries.
It’s a restoration, hearkening to the past, but also the landscape of our future, holding hope for a healthier, more diverse natural world. Because of the work of Dr. Betz and the people who took time to introduce him to prairie in a way that seeded in him a life-long passion for saving and restoring the tallgrass, we can continue to learn about our “landscape of home” here, even as science moves us into the future.
Thanks, Dr. Betz.
You made a difference.
Dr. Robert Betz (1923-2007) caught “prairie fever” after a nature outing with the also-legendary Floyd Swink (Plants of the Chicago Region, first edition 1969). Once Betz was hooked, he became a force of nature in Illinois for prairie conservation and restoration. At the end of his book, The Prairie of the Illinois Country, he writes: “Fortunately, in spite of all the tribulations the Prairie of the Illinois Country has undergone during the past 150 years, its remnants are still with us. But to continue the work that began decades ago to save, protect, restore, and enlarge these remnants, future generations must make a real effort to educate the public about their importance as a natural heritage and ecological treasure…. Hopefully, what this may mean in the future is there would be a plethora of people infected with the author’s ‘prairie fever.‘”
For more information on Dr. Betz’s work at Fermilab, check out Fermilab’s natural areas here, and Fermilab’s Batavia National Accelerator Laboratory here. Read more about Dr. Betz in his obituary here, or in this article by former Fermi staff member Ryan Campbell here. A tremendous thanks to all the stewards, staff, and volunteers who keep the Fermilab Natural Areas healthy and thriving. As Dr. Betz wrote, it is an “ecological treasure.”
Save Bell Bowl Prairie!
Bell Bowl Prairie at the Chicago-Rockford International Airport is once again under siege. Help save this important remnant prairie! See simple things you can do here. Thank you for keeping this ecological treasure intact.
“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.
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.
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.
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 Ethicin 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:
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!
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.
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.
“The joy that…identifying moths can bring proves unbridled, instructive, and revelatory.” —James Lowen
What happens on the prairie after dark?
More than you might think.
This past week, a small contingent of my prairie volunteer group continued our quest to learn what species of moths live and fly on the prairie. Since 2019, we’ve explored the exciting world of prairie moths by putting up a few sheets, hanging a mercury vapor light and a black light, and seeing what shows up. None of us are trained in moth ID, but thanks to iNaturalist , an app we use on our phones that helps with identification, we’re making progress. We’re not experts—nope, not by a long shot—but we are learning.
Using field guides like this one has been invaluable.
But moths aren’t an easy species to understand. That said… .
We’ve learned that some moths can be found in the daytime—if you look closely in the tallgrass.
We’ve found there are 160,000 or more moth species in the world. That’s about 10 times as many moths species as there are butterfly species. The United States alone has around 11,000 species of Moths. Wow!
We’re learning that many moths have specific plant hosts. One of our rarest moths, Dichagryis reliqua “The Relic” has turned up every year since we began monitoring. Why? It uses prairie dropseed as its host plant —and we have it, in abundance.
It’s impossible not to marvel at these diverse flying insects. They pollinate some of our favorite plants, and they are an important source of food for many birds, bats, and insects. Plus—look how pretty they are! We cheer when we see the pink streak moth.
We marvel at the Raspberry Pyrausta Moth.
The Delicate Cycnia moth elicits “oohs” and “aahs.”
And we puzzle over identifying many, many more we see. Moth identification isn’t easy! There’s so much to discover about moths.
And there is so much to learn about prairie, and how our management affects the creatures who depend on certain prairie plants. So far, we’ve identified about 130 moth species on our 100 acres. One of our prairie artists captured some of them on this beautiful mug.
We’ve only scratched the surface of what’s flying in the tallgrass and savanna. There are 1,850 moth species in Illinois. Can you imagine what else we’ll see in the future, after dark? All we have to do is show up and pay attention. A sense of curiosity about the natural world will take you a long way.
There’s much we still don’t comprehend. But we do know this: The hours we spend learning about our prairie moths? It’s time well spent.
James Lowen, whose quote about moths kicks off today’s post, is the author of Much Ado About Mothing: A Year Intoxicated By Britain’s Rare And Remarkable Moths, a fascinating and detailed look at a Moth Big Year in Great Britain.
Join Cindy for a Program in August!
West Cook Wild Ones presents:A Brief History of Trees in Americawith Cindy 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.
“By planting flowers one invites butterflies… .” —Zhang Chao
At last! It’s time to plant the garden. I’ve been slowed this month by a heat wave which threatened to scorch my tender six-packs of seedlings, set out on the porch to harden off. Now, cloudy, drizzly, and cooler days are in the forecast—without frost. Or so it seems. (Please don’t zap me, Mr. Jack Frost, for feeling optimistic.)
Rain and heat have pushed the prairies into spectacular spring bloom.
Seeing all the spring prairie wildflowers inspires me to want to plant more prairie at home. After digging our first front yard prairie patch last week, I’m already in expansion mode. I dropped in on two local native plant sales Friday (you know…just to look) and came home with a trunk-load of more prairie plants and no clear idea where they would go.
In a dry and partially shady spot next to the backyard patio went three native wild columbine, a jacob’s ladder, and two prairie alumroot. They join a single alumroot next to the existing prairie smoke, three prairie coreopsis, and single butterfly milkweed planted a few years ago.
It’s not all natives by the patio. There are two clematis, a vining honeysuckle transplanted from a garden move a few years ago, a petite daylily gifted by a friend, and fire-engine red oriental poppies, which reliably bloom by Memorial Day each spring.
There’s also one old gloriously fragrant rosebush that came with the house more than two decades ago that I can’t talk myself into getting rid of. But slowly, the balance is tipping toward natives, instead of the traditional garden plants.
I love prairie alumroot for its gorgeous leaves, which look good all year round. There will be tiny greenish blooms on the existing plant any day now. The newcomers may need a little time to flower.
A little turf stripping, some plant shuffling and it’s time to add more prairie plants to the expanded front yard prairie plot. As I tap out the plants from their containers, it’s interesting to see the butterfly milkweed roots which give it the species name tuberosa, meaning “swollen” or “tuberous.”
Butterfly milkweed, wild quinine, prairie brome, and common mountain mint all find a seat. I’m already planning next year’s expansion, and thinking of plants I wish I purchased. So many plants…too little budget.
After planting prairie in the yard, there’s nothing quite as inspiring as visiting the real thing. Jeff and I spent Saturday touring some native prairie remnants 90 minutes away with the wonderful folks of the Illinois Native Plant Society (INPS), Northeast Chapter). Our first stop was Flora Prairie in Boone County.
This 10-acre gravel remnant echoes the quarries that surround it.
Shooting star dot the wooded area as well as the prairie.
Jack in the pulpit pops up in the shade.
A profusion of prairie violets is in full bloom.
The sunny areas are patched with prairie smoke…
…some going to seed and showing its namesake feature.
There are other treasures as well, such as fringed puccoon…
…and its more common cousin, hoary puccoon.
As we hiked, Jeff and I saw our first monarch of the season. It moved so fast, it was only a blur in the grasses. A good omen for the season ahead? I hope so!
We followed this prairie visit with a visit to Beach Cemetery Prairie, a three-and-a-half acre remnant in the shadow of two nuclear towers in Ogle County.
As we hiked this gravel kame, surrounded by agricultural fields, I was reminded of how critical these last remaining prairie remnants are. We need them to remind us of what Illinois used to be.
We need these prairie remnants to remind us what we’ve lost.
They are also time capsules; models which help us plan and carry out future prairie restorations. They help us understand how original prairies functioned, and what plant associates naturally grow together in the wild.
This was our first tour with the INPS, and we learned from several knowledgeable and enthusiastic people in the group more about the prairie plants that make Illinois “the prairie state.” Kudos! If you live in Illinois, check these folks out here and consider joining even if only to support their efforts. It wasn’t lost on us that both prairies we visited this weekend are a stone’s throw from Bell Bowl Prairie, another dry gravel hill prairie remnant, which is slated to be destroyed by an Amazon cargo service road at Chicago-Rockford International Airport. You can read more about that here. Seeing these two prairies was a reminder of what is lost when we lose sight of what is most important.
So many gorgeous wildflowers! So much Illinois history. We came away awed over Illinois’ prairie heritage, and with a renewed desire to reflect more of it in our small suburban yard. Seeing these prairies for just a few hours, admiring the diversity of wildflowers and fauna…
…and thinking about the 22 million acres of original tallgrass prairie in Illinois that has been lost was a reminder that without more people visiting these beautiful places, falling in love with them, and advocating for them, we will lose more of our landscape of home to development or neglect. Planting prairie in our yard is a way to learn the plants at every stage of their development, and discover their stories and their pollinator associates. It’s also a reminder to keep the idea of prairie at the forefront of people’s hearts and minds.
I’m already making my prairie plant list for next year.
The opening quote by Zhang Chao (1650-1707) is from his book, Quiet Dream Shadows, a collection of essays that focus on nature.
Join Cindy for a program or class!
Wednesday, May 18, 12:30-2 pm:100 Years Around the Arboretum (With Rita Hassert), Morton Arboretum Volunteer Zoom Event (Closed to the public).
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.
“Everything will change. Even this perpetual warmth will change. The fog’s settled steadiness will shift. The wet orthography of the grass will lose its inherently clean line along with its stem’s expressive calligraphy.“–Serhiy Zhadan
Starting over. It sounds good sometimes. Even when it isn’t easy.
Maybe that’s one of many reasons to love the tallgrass prairie, and its endless cycle of rejuvenation. I’m reminded of that this week, after the prairie burn.
It’s the ultimate restart. Prescribed fire wipes the prairie clean from the previous year in one fiery stroke. It keeps the prairie healthy, mimicking Mother Nature’s lightning strikes and the early fire management of prairie by indigenous people.
The first time you see the aftermath of a prescribe burn it is heart-stopping.
Could anything good come from this devastation? Walking the blackened prairie after the burn, it’s difficult to imagine the prairie staging a comeback. Mordor,J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional wasted landscape in his The Lord of the Rings series comes to mind.
After the burn, the prairie and prairie savanna may still smolder for a week. Or more.
Only the toughest trees with thick bark, like bur oak and black walnut, eke out a place on the prairie because of its fires. Even these trees may show the fire’s scars and eventually succumb.
It’s difficult to imagine a healthy, vibrant landscape as I hike the prairie today, six days after the prescribed fire. But imagination—-and memory—fill in the scorched acres of ash. I close my eyes, and remember the prairie in May….
Spring rains and summer heat will soon ignite the wildflowers and grasses. They’ll explode in a vibrant community of color, motion and light.
Butterflies and bees will move from flower to flower. Birdsong will flood the tallgrass.
For now, only a lone robin hops across the charred earth, looking for worms.
Inhaling the scent of smoke—seeing the 360-degree expanse of fire-kissed earth—it defies belief to believe the impossible. But I believe. I have faith in this cycle, this resurrection. Soon. Very soon. Everything will be changed.
I shake mud and cinders from my boots and feel my spirits lift. Each day is going to be a little brighter. Full of new and exciting discoveries. Under the earth, the prairie is stirring. The transition has begun.
I love this time of year.
Welcome, new beginnings.
Serhiy Zhadan (1974-) is a contemporary Ukrainian poet, essayist and novelist. These lines were translated by Amelia Glaser and Yuliya Ilchuk for LitHub.
Tuesday, April 12, 7-8:30 p.m. The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Charm Shop at Glenview Public Library, Glenview, IL (open to the public). Click here for details.
Wednesday, April 13, 7-8 p.m. Add a Little Prairie to Your Garden for Glencoe Public Library and Friends of the Green Bay Trail. Online and open to the public. Register here.
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.
April 1-April 30th-–Attention all poets and pollinator lovers! Check out this exciting project YOU can contribute to!
DuPage Monarch Project invites you to participate in Poets for Pollinators, a month-long celebration of nature’s wonders through poetry. Poems featuring bees, butterflies, birds and all pollinating creatures, as well as ones expressing the joy, comfort and delight found in nature will be posted on DuPage Monarch Project’s Facebook page April 1st – April 30th. New and experienced poets of all ages are welcome; this celebration is open to everyone. Multiple entries will be accepted. Please send poems to Lonnie Morris at email@example.com. Poems may be pasted into the email or included as an attachment. Authorship will be given unless anonymity is requested. Formatting in Facebook is challenging but we will make every attempt to present the poem as you have written it. Original photos are welcome. If you don’t have a photo of a favorite pollinator, one will be selected from the DMP photo library. If photos are sent, please include the name of the person who took the photo. By submitting a poem, you are granting DuPage Monarch Project the right to share it on the DuPage Monarch Project Facebook page. The poem will not be shared, used or included in any other manner than the Facebook post during the month of April.
Daylight savings time kicked in Sunday in the Midwest. An extra hour before sunset! I head to the prairie for a late hike in last light.
It’s the last days. Each member of the prairie community seems set apart tonight. Who knows when a prescribed burn will wipe the tallgrass slate clean for another season? The fires may arrive at any time. Until then, I want to appreciate everything I see.
I pick up my pace on the muddy two-track.
It will be dark soon.
Goodnight to the grasses.
Goodnight to the prairie dock.
Goodnight, carrion flower seeds.
Goodnight mosses and lichens.
Goodnight, lingering ice in Willoway Brook.
Goodnight bur oak.
Goodnight to the brambles.
Goodnight to the bridges.
Goodnight to the vines.
Goodnight to the midges.
Goodnight, mountain mint.
Goodnight, houses on the edge of the prairie.
Goodnight to the redwing, singing sounds of spring.
Goodnight to the other redwing, singing back to him.
Goodnight to the brook, running cold and clean.
Goodnight to the bundleflower, reflected in the stream.
Goodnight sparrows everywhere.
See you in my dreams.
The opening quote is by John Burroughs (1837-1921),an American writer and naturalist. Almost every year, a book of natural history wins the John Burroughs Medal, an award given in his honor. For a complete list, look here. This post was inspired by many readings of Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown to my children and now, my six grandchildren.
“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.
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).
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…
…and their swerves and curves.
Ice crystals captured in a shady river eddy.
The bridges we regularly hike across are geometry lessons in angles and lines.
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…
…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.
I admire the seed-stripped sprays of crinkled switchgrass wands…
…the bright blue of a snow-less sky, feathered with clouds…
…the joy of spent winter wildflowers.
I spy the mallard and his mate.
Feel delight in the murmur of an ice-free stream.
The way December puts her mark on grasses, leaves and trees leaves me in awe… and happy.
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.
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!
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.
“I can stop what I am doing long enough to see where I am, who I am there with, and how awesome the place is.” —Barbara Brown Taylor
Sandhill cranes cry high above the prairie, scribbling indecipherable messages in the sky. They’re on the move south.
I’ll scan the skies the next few weeks, admiring them as they leave. The prairie skies will be emptier this winter when they’re gone. Months from now, I’ll see them again, heading north in the spring. What will the world look like then? It’s impossible to know.
I hike the prairie, deep in thought. It’s so easy to focus on what is being lost. November, with its seasonal slide into long nights and short days, seems to invite that. I have to remind myself to pay attention to what is in front of me. What the season offers. Seeds. Everywhere, the prairie is an explosion of seeds.
Seeds like pom poms.
Seeds born aloft, in spent flower heads, like so many antenna.
Seedheads are skeletal. Architectural.
Seeds are impressionistic.
Seeds flying high in the prairie sky.
Seeds caught in mid-fall. Almost there. Almost.
The pandemic has dragged on and on. Just when I thought we’d turned a corner—almost!—it feels like we’re headed in the wrong direction again. Seems we’re not out of the woods yet.
It’s easy to get distracted, worrying about the future. Sometimes my mind turns over my fears in a relentless cycle. Reading the newspaper over breakfast just fuels the fire. I forget to remind myself of all I have to be grateful for.
Family. Friends. Food on the table. A roof over my head. This prairie to help care for.
It helps me to list these things. And then, to remind myself what’s good and lovely in the world.
I’m thankful to see the prairie seeds.
They remind me that another season has passed.
A new season is just months away. Seeing the prairie give its energy to creating life through its seeds fills me with hope. Such a cycle! What a marvel.
Here, in the tallgrass, I see a world full of color. Motion. Sound. Beauty. The only tallgrass headlines are “Wow!”
How wonderful it is to be alive.
I walk, and I look, and I walk some more. How amazing to have the luxury of going to a beautiful place, with time just to think. How grateful I am to have a strong knee now, to take me down these trails that just three years ago gave me tremendous pain to hike.
How overwhelmed with thanks I am that my body is cancer-free, after two years of uncertainty and fear. How grateful I am for this reprieve. There are no guarantees. We can only, as the late writer Barry Lopez wrote, keep “leaning into the light.”
Your list of worries is probably different than mine. So, I imagine, is your list of what you’re thankful for. I hope this week finds you in a good place. I hope you have your own list of what brings you joy, in the midst of whatever you are dealing with.
This week I’m going to put aside my worries about the future. I’m going to focus on joy. There’s a lot to be thankful for. The prairie reminds me of this. I hope you can go for a hike, wherever you find yourself, and be reminded, too.
All photos this week unless otherwise noted are from the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.
The opening quote is from Barbara Brown Taylor’s (1951-) An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. She is also the author of Learning to Walk in the Dark and many other books.
Join Cindy for a program or class!
Winter Prairie Wonders: Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass!Dec. 3 (Friday) 10-11:30 am (Central): Make yourself a cup of hot tea, snuggle under a warm afghan, and join prairie steward and writer Cindy Crosby virtually for this interactive online immersion into the tallgrass prairie in winter. See the aesthetic beauty of the snow-covered grasses and wildflowers in cold weather through colorful images of winter on the prairies. Follow animal tracks to see what creatures are out and about, and see how many you can identify. Learn how birds, pollinators, and mammals use winter prairie plants; the seeds for nourishment and the grasses and spent wildflowers for overwintering, protection, and cover. Then, listen as Cindy shares brief readings about the prairie in winter that will engage your creativity and nourish your soul. This is scheduled as a Zoom event through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.
Please visit your local independent bookstore (Illinois’ friends: The Arboretum Store in Lisle and The Book Store in Glen Ellyn) to purchase or order Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spiritfor the holidays. Discover full-color prairie photographs and essays from Cindy and co-author Thomas Dean.
Save Bell Bowl Prairie! Visit the website to find out how you can help keep this critical remnant from being bulldozed in Illinois. One phone call, one letter, or sharing the information with five friends will help us save it.
Cindy Crosby is the author, compiler, or contributor to more than 20 books. Her most recent is "Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History" (Northwestern University Press, 2020). She teaches prairie ecology, nature writing, and natural history classes, and is a prairie steward who has volunteered countless hours in prairie restoration. See Cindy's upcoming online speaking events and classes at www.cindycrosby.com.