Tag Archives: prairie skies

September Spins Its Prairie Stories

“To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee… .”–Emily Dickinson

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The prairie thumbs through September’s pages, already more than halfway through this 2021 chapter. The month is going so quickly! Blink, and you miss something—a wildflower blooming, a redstart heading south. Every trail has a surprise.

Nachusa Grasslands in September, Franklin Grove, IL.

But—where is the rain? Take a step, and it’s like walking on Rice Krispies cereal: Snap! Crackle! Pop!

Rocky knoll at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

And yet. So much happens in September, rain or no rain. I don’t want to miss a moment. It’s the reason that I drink my coffee on the back porch this month, listening to the cries of the Cooper’s hawk stalking the bird feeders. Or sprawl in the backyard hammock, watching the sky for migrating birds and dragonflies silhouetted against the clouds. It’s why I stroll through the garden, hike the prairie trails. I want to see what shows up.

iNaturalist tells me this is the fork-tailed bush katydid (Scudderia furcata), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Indoors, I think about the outdoors. What’s happening that I’m missing? Is it a migrating warbler, or a lone red saddlebags dragonfly that has a tendency to show up in my yard at this time each year? Or even something as simple as the slant of light on the prairie, percolating through the haze across the grasses and goldenrod?

The Schulenberg Prairie in September, Lisle, IL.

In the garden, I find half-eaten tomatoes on the porch; a relic of a chipmunk’s breakfast. It’s okay. We’ve had a surfeit of Sungolds, and Sweet Millions—it’s difficult to grudge the wildlife a few. Zucchini pumps out green cylinders; I’ve run out of recipes as squash turns to baseball bat-sized vegetables overnight.

Monarchs drift over my backyard. I see them everywhere on the prairie as well, about one every five minutes, pausing to sip from the blazing star…

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on blazing star (Liatris aspera), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

… and nectar at the sunflowers.

Monarch (Danaus plexippus) on sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Not all the butterflies choose wildflowers. These viceroys prefer scat.

Viceroy butterflies (Limenitis archippus) on scat, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

What? Yes, you heard me right. They enjoy a heapin’ helpin’ of amino acids and salts from ….er, dung…that they can’t get from plants. Sometimes they “puddle” on minerals and salts in the soil, like this puddle club of eastern-tailed blues.

Eastern tailed-blue butterflies (Cupido comyntas), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

I hike the trails, touching the sandpaper-rough compass plant leaves, inhaling prairie dropseed’s hot buttered popcorn fragrance. The scent follows me home on on my clothes, as if I’ve been in a movie theater. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. Everything is so dry. Dust and grasshoppers spray up as I step on the parched ground. So many grasshoppers!

Red-legged grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum) on sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Chinese mantis turn up in unexpected places, on the look-out for prey. I admire their stealth.

Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

This lucky eastern forktail damselfly enjoys a mid-morning snack. You can tell she’s a mature female by her powdery-blue coloration.

Eastern forktail female damselfly (Ischnura verticalis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Only a few steps away, an autumn meadowhawk dragonfly basks in the morning sun. The meadowhawks have been few this season, and I’m not sure why. Not enough rain, maybe? Whatever the reasons, I’ve missed them.

Autumn meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Grasshopper. Mantis. Damselfly. Dragonfly. Any of these might be lunch for the northern leopard frog, which is looking for its next meal.

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

September is a month of eat-or-be-eaten in the tallgrass. Although I’d love to take off on a wind current like a monarch, bound for the south; or spring-jump like a grasshopper into the little bluestem, I’m grateful to be human. Insects see the prairie from a much different perspective than I do.

Alongside all the tension of who will eat who, is the continuing jazz festival of fall gentians. I memorize their deep blue, knowing they are a fleeting pleasure that will be gone all too soon.

Prairie gentian (Gentiana puberulenta), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

I want to remember September. Soak up the bright lemon evening primrose.

Evening primrose (Oenothera biennis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Delight in the juxtaposition of sneezeweed and great blue lobelia along a prairie stream.

Common sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) and great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

I store away these colors, scents, and sounds of autumn for the winter.

Heath aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

There are stories here to be read. To listen to these stories, I have to show up. To be there. As the writer Annie Dillard tells us, it’s the least we can do.

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

What about you?

Will you be there?

*****

I’ve always enjoyed the opening quote for this week’s blog, from the poet, Emily Dickinson (1830-1886). I use the poem in its entirety at the start of a chapter in The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction on “What is a Tallgrass Prairie?” However, as a prairie steward, I would have loved to have sat down with Emily in her room in Amherst and ask her a few followup questions. When she said “clover,” just what clover species was she referring to? Dalea candida? Or, Melilotus officinalis ? Ditto on the bees. Honey or native? And Emily—have you ever seen a tallgrass prairie? Or did you write your poem from the accounts you read from others, in the reclusive solitude of your room? Read her complete poem here. It’s an easy one to memorize, and one that will stick with you as you hike the prairie. Regardless of that “clover” species.

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Join Cindy for a program or class!

IN PERSON September 27, 7-8:30 p.m.–-“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Arlington Heights Garden Club. Please visit the club’s website here for guest information, event updates pending Covid positivity in Illinois, and Covid protocol.

ONLINE –Nature Writing Workshop 2 (through the Morton Arboretum): Deepen your connection to nature and improve your writing skills in this  online guided workshop from The Morton Arboretum. This interactive class is the next step for those who’ve completed the Foundations of Nature Writing (N095), or for those with some foundational writing experience looking to further their expertise within a supportive community of fellow nature writers. Please note: This is a “live” workshop; no curriculum. For details and registration, click here. Online access for introductions and discussion boards opens October 12; live sessions on Zoom are four Tuesdays: October 19, October 26, November 2, and November 9, 6:30-8:30 pm.

For more classes and programs, visit Cindy’s website at http://www.cindycrosby.com. Hope to see you soon!

Autumn Arrives on the Tallgrass Prairie

“Thou blossom bright with autumn dew… .”—William Cullen Bryant

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September on the prairie opens with a suite of delights, despite the dry weather in the Chicago region. Skies this past week veered between a celestial milky ice…

Schulenberg Prairie trail, Lisle, IL.

…to a startling aquamarine fleeced with clouds.

Ware Field plantings, Lisle, IL.

In my backyard mix of traditional garden and prairie, a Cooper’s hawk keeps an eye on the bird feeders. She considers the whole spread her personal salad bar. The chipmunks and hummingbirds won’t get close, but the squirrels take a more laissez-faire approach. Not a bunny in sight.

Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) and Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) Crosby backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Fall wildflowers and grasses fling themselves into the new month, bent on completing their cycle of bloom and set seed; bloom and set seed; bloom and set seed.

Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii).

The low light filters through the now-golding tree leaves, a memo from nature that time is running out for warm season pursuits. I love the seed variety in the prairies and savannas. They range from sharp…

Bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

…to smooth.

False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum racemosum), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

Pale asters froth up like foamy cappuccinos.

Ware Field planting in early September.

As I hike the prairie trails, I look for some of my fall favorites. White goldenrod, which looks like an aster, is tough to find but worth the hunt. That name! Such an oxymoron.

White goldenrod (Oligoneuron album), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Hyssop stands out in the savannas; a pollinator plant favorite.

Hyssop (Agastache scrophulariaefolia), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

But most of all, I delight in the gentians.

Autumn on the prairie, DuPage County, IL.

Welcome back.

Downy Gentian or sometimes called Prairie Gentian (Gentiana puberulenta), DuPage County, IL.

True, the cream gentians have been in bloom for at least a month now.

Cream (or “Yellowish”) Gentians (Gentiana alba), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

But the blue gentians are an extra dollop of delight.

Downy (or Prairie) Gentian (Gentiana puberulenta), DuPage County, IL.

As I admire the deep, deep, blues, I think a William Cullen Bryant poem about fringed gentians:

Blue-blue-as if that sky let fall

A flower from its cerulean wall.

I don’t find fringed gentians on my walk today, but I’ve seen them in previous years. I do discover, nearby in the tallgrass, the Stiff Gentians, sometimes called “Agueweed.” They are almost ready to open.

Stiff Gentian (Gentianella quinquefolia), DuPage County, IL.

Soon they’ll bloom, and add their tiny flowers to the prairies.

Stiff Gentian (Gentianella quinquefolia), Fermilab, Batavia, IL. (2018)

Cool breezes! That sunshine. What a day to go for a hike. I want to wander through the tallgrass, spangled with gentians, under September skies. Inhale prairie dropseed fragrance. Feel the tallgrass brush my shoulders. Feel the cares of the past week roll off my shoulders.

Possibly a Hybrid Bottle Gentian (Gentiana × pallidocyanea), DuPage County, IL.

Is there a better way to begin the month? If there is, I don’t know what it would be.

Why not go see?

*******

The opening line is from William Cullen Bryant’s poem, To the Fringed Gentian. Click here to read the poem in its entirety on the Poetry Foundation’s website. You may know Bryant’s poetic line, “Truth crushed to earth shall rise again” — made famous by Dr. Martin Luther King Junior in his speech, “Give Us the Ballot.”


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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 pending Covid positivity in Illinois, and Covid protocol. Masks required for this event.

September 27, 7-8:30 p.m.–in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Arlington Heights Garden Club. Please visit the club’s website here for guest information, event updates pending Covid positivity in Illinois, and Covid protocol.

Summer Tallgrass Prairie Delights

“I started with surprise and delight. I was in the midst of a prairie! A world of grass and flowers stretched around me… .” — Eliza Steele

*****

The summer speeds by. Where did June go?

Red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) on compass plant (Silphium laciniatum)

Each day in June on the tallgrass prairie is another exercise in wonder.

Late June on the tallgrass prairie

The last days of June seem determined to bombard us with blooms.

Wild petunia (Ruellia humilis)

Pearls of wild quinine wash across the prairie.

Wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium)

Pale pink Kankakee mallows spike through cordgrass. My, what big leaves you have!

Kankakee mallow (Iliamna remota)

Bright white candles of Culver’s root light up the tallgrass.

Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum)

Purple sparklers of leadplant, ready for the Fourth of July.

Leadplant (Amorpha canescens)

And, tumbling across the prairie in drifts: Scurfy pea. What a great name!

Scurfy pea (Psoralidium tenuiflorum)

June dazzles us with unexpected delights.

Great blue skimmer dragonfly (Libellula vibrans), my first sighting in 16 years of dragonfly monitoring!

June puzzles us with stranger-than-strange creatures.

Common water strider—looking uncommonly strange

June wows us with wildflowers.

Bridge over Willoway Brook

Even the late June skies are full of marvels from moment to moment; from storm to storm.

Clouds over the tallgrass prairie in late June

This month, so much vies for our attention. Each flower seems to have a tiny pollinator in residence.

Thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica) with a skipper, possibly the Hobomok Skipper (Lon hobomok)

Or two. Or three. Or more!

Purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea) with pollinators

Looking back on June, it was a wonderful month to hike the tallgrass prairie.

Red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) on the tallgrass prairie in June

How will July on the prairie ever measure up to June?

Late June on the tallgrass prairie

Impossible for July to do so, it seems. The past weeks have been so beautiful. And yet.

Compass plants (Silphium laciniatum)

I can’t wait to see what’s ahead.

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The opening quote is from Eliza Steele’s journal, written in 1840 as she rode to Peoria by stagecoach from Chicago. Her journal was later published as the book, A Summer Journey in the West in 1841. Interested in learning more about her journey? Check out Midewin Tallgrass Prairie’s webinar “On the Trail of Eliza Steele” July 7, 6-7 p.m. CDT, by calling 815-423-6370.

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All photos this week are from the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

*****

Join Cindy for a class or program this summer!

Beginning Dragonfly and Damselfly ID: online Monday, July 12 and Wednesday, July 14 (two-part class) 10-11:30 am. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. The first session is an introduction to the natural history of the dragonfly, with beautiful images and recommended tools and techniques for identification of species commonly found in northern and central Illinois. Then, put your skills to work outside on your own during the following day in any local preserve, park, or your own backyard. The second session will help you with your field questions and offer more advanced identification skills. To conclude, enjoy an overview of the cultural history of the dragonfly—its place in art, literature, music, and even cuisine! You’ll never see dragonflies in the same way again. To register, click here.

Virtual Summer Prairie Wildflower Walk: online Thursday, July 22, 10-11:30 a.m. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. No matter where you live, join me on Zoom to see the amazing summer tallgrass prairie wildflowers and hear their stories of uses in medicine, folklore, poetry, and even as love charms! Register here.

A Prairie Summer Solstice

“The month of June trembled like a butterfly.” —Pablo Neruda

******

Mother Nature ushered in the summer solstice Sunday with plenty of drama; severe drought here in my part of Illinois, followed later that night by wicked thunderstorms and a tornado touchdown nine miles from our house. If it was March, we’d say the solstice “came in like a lion.” Our hearts go out to those affected by the storm.

Nachusa Grasslands in June, Franklin Grove, IL.

Weather aside, it’s been a week full of wonders in the tallgrass.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

While chasing dragonflies at Nachusa Grasslands, I spotted a dozen or so regal fritillary butterflies, flying through the pale purple coneflowers, prairie coreopsis, and white wild indigo.

Regal fritillary butterfly (Speyeria idalia) on pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Listed as “threatened” in Illinois, the regal fritillary occupies less than 5 percent of its original range in the Chicago region. The regal fritillary caterpillars feed on prairie violets such as the Birdfoot violet. When the prairie disappeared, so did the violets. And the regal fritillaries lost their food source.

Birdfoot violet (Viola pedata), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. (2020)

What about those common blue violets in our yard? Won’t they use them? Evidently not. You can read more about Chicago’s Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum’s regal fritillary recovery efforts here.

Regal fritillary butterfly (Speyeria idalia), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Although I’d seen the regal fritillary butterfly at Nachusa Grasslands before, the Baltimore checkerspot butterfly was a lifer.

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

Then, I spotted another Baltimore checkerspot, nectaring on Indian hemp (sometimes called dogbane). A bonus.

Baltimore checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton) on Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Isn’t that the way it is? You go in search of one thing, and you discover so much more. So often when I go in search of dragonflies, I find so many other marvels.

This week, while hiking the prairies, I spotted the first open compass plant flower of the summer.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) in bloom, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The first biennial gaura, flaunting its palest pink.

Biennial Gaura (Gaura biennis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

A prairie clover, its ruffle of white newly opened. The first one I’ve seen this summer.

White prairie clover (Dalea candida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

It doesn’t matter what prairie I’m hiking. There is always something compelling to demand my attention. Look down—-a six-spotted tiger beetle glistens on the prairie path.

Six-spotted tiger beetle (Cicindela sexguttata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Look up! A dickcissel sings me along with its buzzy chirps.

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

And almost always—a dragonfly. Seeing them is often the stated motivation for so many of my summer prairie hikes.

Blue dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

But even when I’m monitoring, clipboard in hand, my prairie hikes are about so much more than counting dragonflies. I go for the solace I feel under a wide-open prairie sky.

Climbing a hill at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

The joy of discovery. The delight of the unexpected.

Redheaded woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) on the edge of the prairie, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

My body is tuned to “prairie time.” The signs of summer are there to be read in the opening of wildflowers, the arrival of birds, the explosion of insects, the shifts of weather. The prairie tells us we are closing in on the Fourth of July. How? Lead plant lights its floral fireworks.

Lead plant (Amorpha canescens) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The orderly unfolding of summer on the prairie is a reassurance in a time where we crave normalcy. The tallgrass is a spendthrift; it keeps on giving. Brimming with bugs, overflowing with wildflowers.

Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

There is so much to take in.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

So much to be grateful for.

******

The opening quote is from the poem “The Month of June” by Chilean poet and politician Pablo Neruda (1904-1973). Neruda won the Nobel Prize for Literature (1971) and is known for his passionate love poems.

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Join Cindy for a program or class this summer!

Beginning Dragonfly and Damselfly ID: online Monday, July 12 and Wednesday, July 14 (two-part class) 10-11:30 am. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. The first session is an introduction to the natural history of the dragonfly, with beautiful images and recommended tools and techniques for identification of species commonly found in northern and central Illinois. You will then put your skills to work outside on your own during the following week in any local preserve, park, or your own backyard. The second session will help you with your field questions and offer more advanced identification skills. To conclude, enjoy an overview of the cultural history of the dragonfly—its place in art, literature, music, and even cuisine! You’ll never see dragonflies in the same way again. To register, click here.

Virtual Summer Prairie Wildflower Walk: Offered through The Morton Arboretum. No matter where you live, join us on Zoom to see the amazing summer tallgrass prairie wildflowers and hear their stories of uses in medicine, folklore, poetry, and even as love charms! Register here.

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

*****

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.

5 Reasons to Hike the December Prairie

A sense of wild is engendered by awareness, a sense of connection with and deep understanding of any landscape. The pavement of any city side street wriggles with enough life to terrify and delight us if we choose to immerse ourselves in it.”—Tristan Gooley

*****

Brrrr! It’s bitter cold—-as it should be in December. The added hours of darkness make it seem more arctic. Whenever the sun shines during these short-lit days, I follow it, cat-like, from room to room, hoping to absorb as much as possible. Soon, the Winter Solstice will arrive, and with it, the return of longer hours of sunshine.

On our Christmas tree, I hang dried orange slices, backlit by the tree lights, which turn the fruit to stained glass. Anything for more light. Color. Beauty.

December darkness is relentless. The pandemic has shadowed this month with more than the usual gloom as well: limiting our activities, sapping our spirits.

For these reasons alone, it’s a great time to get outside. Walk the tallgrass prairie trails. Enjoy brief moments of sunshine, or even a bit of fresh air if the day is gray. Undecided? Worried that it’s too chilly? Here are five more reasons to hike the December prairie.

  1. Unpredictable sightings. I walk the local prairies regularly, yet I never fail to see something that surprises me. This past week, a belted kingfisher rattled from the prairie pond, amusing me with its call—and its “hairstyle.”

Not far away, a partially dismantled osage orange fruit lies on the tallgrass trail, appearing as some alien Christmas ornament.. Despite its name, it’s related to the mulberry, not the orange. I’ve seen them here before, but they always give me pause. So strange!

Nearby, in a stand of tall goldenrod, a plant displays two types of galls on one stem. Huh! That’s a new one for me.

You can see the ball gall–maybe two of them? —topped by the rosette or bunch gall. Nice to see the insects are sharing housing arrangements. It was a big year for goldenrod—-and galls—on this particular prairie.

Piles of cut branches are everywhere; the sign of ongoing maintenance to keep woody shrubs and trees out of the tallgrass. It appears staff or site stewards tried to whack back this persistent tree.

What a stubborn will to live! You have to admire its determination.

2. That peculiar slant of light. December has a certain type of light unlike any other month; low and piercing.

When the sun breaks through the clouds, the prairie ponds and wetlands dazzle; almost too too bright to look at directly. The light turns the landscape monochromatic in places.

The sun scrolls through the sky, hugging the horizon and leaving the grasses and forbs alight.

Aster seeds, seen in this light, may be more beautiful in December than when they were in bloom.

Their puffs of brilliant white brighten gray days.

3. The sounds of winter. As I type, half-asleep at the kitchen table in the early hours, a THUNK snaps me fully awake. A Cooper’s hawk is perched outside, scanning the area for breakfast. Looks like it hit the window—ouch!—but missed its prey. No wonder the feeders have been mostly empty all morning.

I watch the hawk preen its feathers, then hop down and sift through the prairie dropseed planted around the porch. Looking for voles, maybe? Or a frightened sparrow? It’s the hungry season for hawks. After a few minutes, it flies away. The backyard is quiet for a long time afterwards.

Out on the prairie edges, juncos flit from tree limb to limb, their wings shuffling through the dry leaves. Geese honk their way over the tallgrass, headed for a nearby empty soccer field.

There’s a sound of water running. Listening, I feel the tension in my muscles loosen and I relax. Water music has that effect on us. The brook runs free and clear. And, I imagine, cold.

Ice laces the edges.

I think of the legions of dragonfly and damselfly nymphs waiting under the water to emerge. So much life unseen! Water on the prairie—whether pond, brook, river or wetland—-is ever-changing. Never dull. Always interesting. There’s always something new to see, no matter the time of day, or the season of the year.

4. Those December skies! What will each day bring? Steel gray scoured clouds, snuffing out the sun? Burnished blue cloudless skies, warming up the 20-degree temperatures? Veils of milky cirrus?

Or wind-combed clouds, streaming toward some destination far away?

This week, the prairie’s night skies will fill with meteor showers, the best holiday light show of all. By night or by day, the prairie is a front-row seat to the life of the skies. Don’t forget to look up.

5. That feeling of well-being that a good prairie hike brings. Clear your mind of Zoom meetings. Inhale the fragrant smell of December—frozen earth, wild bergamot seedheads, the tang of ice and decay. Turn off the news. Put paid to politics. Silence your cell phone. Go for a prairie hike.

You’ll be glad you did.

******

The opening quote is from Tristan Gooley, who has authored many books on reading and navigating the landscape. Thanks to my son and daughter-in-law for the boxed gift set of Gooley books—I am enjoying them immensely. Check out Gooley’s website at The Natural Navigator.

*****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at College of DuPage Natural Areas, East Prairie, unless tagged otherwise (top to bottom): unknown vine with berry from invasive honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica); author’s Christmas tree, Glen Ellyn, IL; belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon); osage orange (Maclura pomifera); ball galls (Eurosta solidaginis) and rosette gall (Rhopalomyia solidaginis) on tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima); unknown tree sprouting; last leaves; prairie pond; COD East Prairie and line of osage orange trees (Maclura pomifera); unknown aster (Symphyotrichum sp.); Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; Canada geese (Branta canadensis) flying over COD East Prairie; Willoway brook ice, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; East Prairie skies; East Prairie skies; bench at COD East Prairie.

*****

Please consider giving the gift of books this holiday season! Support writers, small presses, and independent bookstores. Through December 31st, you can receive 40% off The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction (2016) and Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History (2020) when you order directly from Northwestern University Press. Use the code HOLIDAY40 at checkout. At regular price, order Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit (with Thomas Dean) from Ice Cube Press (2019). Or order these three books from The Arboretum Store or your favorite indie bookseller. Thank you, and happy reading!

August on the Prairie

“Perhaps by learning more about the native plants that surround us and about their use and history, we can begin to develop our own conservation ethic, which will bring us into harmony with our environment.” — Dr. Kelly Kindscher

******

August exhales. Hot. Steamy. The prairie crackles.

All day Sunday, we waited for rain. As I worked in my backyard prairie patch that evening, dark clouds rumbled to the north and the east. Occasionally, thunder growled.

On the radar, you could see the clouds kiss the edges of my suburban town. Not a drop of rain fell.

My head tells me that prairies are built for this. The long roots of some prairie plants reach down to 15 feet or more into the recesses of the soil. It’s an insurance policy they pay into, year after year, that keeps them alive through severe shifts of weather. Yet, as I watch my queen of the prairie plants crisp and fade away…

…and the obedient plant flowers wilt and fade to the color of pale burnt sienna.

…I can’t resist turning the sprinkler on and watering the prairie for a good hour. We put a lot of money and love into those prairie plants, and it breaks my heart to see them crumple like brown paper bags.

I console myself with these words from Minnesota author Paul Gruchow about the deep prairie roots: “The work that matters doesn’t always show.” Next year, I’ll know if the plants’ hard work tunneling roots into the soil was enough to keep them alive. I’ll be watching. And waiting.

*****

At Nachusa Grasslands this week, dust billowed around our Subaru as we bounced along an overgrown two-track road to my dragonfly routes. On the prairie, the small pools had long vanished. Cavernous fissures gaped in bare areas. Because of the lack of spring fire, combined with the need for rain, perhaps, some waterways were down to a trickle, choked with growth.

A few dragonflies went about their business; 12-spotted skimmers, blue dashers, common whitetails. Green darners patrolled the ponds.

In Chicago region this week, common green darners gather, preparing for migration. Friends text me with news of their backyard darner swarms. Social media boards light up with numbers. I get texts from my friends who love and observe dragonflies. Thirty in the backyard. Fifty this evening, a few miles east. Soon, the green darners and other migrating species in Illinois—black saddlebags, variegated meadowhawks, wandering gliders—will mass in the hundreds and begin the long journey south.

It’s a poignant time of year, especially, perhaps, this particular year. The dragonflies have been a passionate distraction from so much that is distressing in the world. Don’t go! Stay longer. Please. Of course, they will go… drawn by an evolutionary survival mechanism that tells them to ensure their progeny continue on. The prairie will seem empty without them.

Thinking of this, I look around the prairie. It’s quiet. The bison at Nachusa Grasslands, so rambunctious only a week ago, are hiding, likely somewhere shady and cool. I miss their snorts and sparring today.

And yet, there are signs of life everywhere. The common eastern-tailed blue butterfly teases me, fanning its wings open for few seconds—oh wow, that blue!—then snapping them shut.

Nearby, a chickweed geometer moth shows off his colors. I learn later that the antennae are “bipectinate” —feathery, or “toothed like a comb.” These bipectinate antennae are a male feature that has to do with detecting pheremones; the female’s antennae are more “threadlike.”

A common moth—with such a complex design. Truly we are surrounded by wonders.

I watch the eastern tiger swallowtails nectar on thistle for a while. They’ve been all over my backyard and the prairies I frequent this week, but they never fail to give me pause. And delight. About the time I take them for granted, they’ll be gone for the year.

Even the ubiquitous pearl crescent butterfly stops me for a second look.

In contrast, ghostly cabbage butterflies puddle in the salts and minerals along the stream. In the afternoon sun, they look almost pale green.

All around me—despite the need for rain—the prairie pushes out color. Black-eyed susans.

Great blue lobelia.

As I hike toward the car, I pinch off a leaf of mountain mint; hot and cool and refreshing—all at the same time. I chew it for a bit, then spit it out. My mouth tingles.

August is drawing to a close.

Why wait? Now is the time to go and see.

The prairie is waiting.

*******

Dr. Kelly Kindscher, whose quote opens this post, is a senior scientist with the Kansas biological survey and a professor of environmental studies at the University of Kansas. Kindscher authored two of my favorite books on prairie ethnobotany: Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie and Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie (both from University Press of Kansas). In 1984, Kindscher supplemented his diet with prairie plants as he walked almost 700 miles from Kansas City to Denver.

*****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Nachusa Grasslands, unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): August at Nachusa Grasslands; cumulonimbus cloud over author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra) and ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; overgrowth in the sand boil stream, sedge meadow fen; common green darner dragonfly male (Ajax junius); black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata) (2018); Nachusa Grasslands in August; wildflowers and sky at Nachusa Grasslands; eastern-tailed blue butterfly (Cupido comyntas); chickweed geometer moth (Haematopis grataria); eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) with unknown thistles (possibly Cirsium discolor); pearl crescent butterfly (Phyciodes tharos); cabbage white butterflies (Pieris rapae) puddling; black-eyed susans (probably Rudbeckia subomentosa); great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica); common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum); sedge meadow fen; Franklin Creek Prairie, Franklin Grove, IL.

*****

Join Cindy for an Online Class this Autumn! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for details.
“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online”
Begin a new session September 2 through The Morton Arboretum! 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. Classes are limited to 50. Register here.

“Nature Writing Online” Begins Monday, October 5, through The Morton Arboretum. Want to commit to improving and fine-tuning your writing for six weeks? This is a great opportunity to jump start your blog, your book, or your journal writing while working online from home, supplemented with three evenings of live evening Zoom classes on alternate weeks. Watch for registration information coming soon.

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

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

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. 

The Prairie Whispers “Spring”

“…this spring morning with its cloud of light, that wakes the blackbird in the trees downhill…”—W.S. Merwin

******

On March 1, Jeff and I celebrated the first day of meteorological spring by hiking the 1,829-acre Springbrook Prairie in Naperville, IL.  March came in like a lamb.

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From its unlikely spot smack in the middle of subdivisions and busy shopping centers, Springbrook Prairie serves as an oasis for wildlife and native plants. As part of the Illinois Nature Preserves and DuPage Forest Preserve system…

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… it is (according to the forest preserve’s website) “a regionally significant grassland for breeding and overwintering birds and home to meadowlarks, dickcissels, grasshopper sparrows, woodcocks and bobolinks as well as state-endangered northern harriers, short-eared owls, and Henslow’s sparrows.” Some of these birds stick around during the winter; others will swing into the area in a month or two with the northward migration.

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That’s quite a list of birds.  Shielding our eyes against the sun, we see something unexpected.

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A bald eagle! From its “grave troubles” in the 1970s (as the Illinois Natural History Survey tells us), it is estimated that 30-40 breeding pairs of bald eagles now nest in Illinois each year. We watch it soar, buffeted by the winds, until it is out of sight. As we marvel over this epiphany, we hear the sound of a different bird. Oka-lee! Oka-lee!

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We first heard them a week ago as we hiked the Belmont Prairie. Their song is a harbinger of spring.  Soon, they’ll be lost in a chorus of spring birdsong, but for now, they take center stage.

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A few Canada geese appear overhead. Two mallards complete our informal bird count. Not bad for the first day of March.

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The scent of mud and thaw tickles my nose;  underwritten with a vague hint of chlorophyll.

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Strong breezes bend the grasses.

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The temperature climbs as we hike—soon, it’s almost 60 degrees. Sixty degrees! I unwind my scarf, unzip my coat.

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Joggers plod methodically along the trail, eyes forward, earbuds in place. They leave deep prints on the thawing crushed limestone trail. Bicyclists whiz through, the only evidence minutes later are the lines grooved into the path.

Our pace, by comparison, is slow. We’re here to look.

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Bright light floods the grasslands. Mornings now, I wake to this sunlight which pours through the blinds and jump-starts my day. In less than a week—March 8—we’ll change to daylight savings time and seem to “lose” some of these sunlight gains. Getting started in the morning will be a more difficult chore. But for now, I lean into the light.

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What a difference sunshine and warmth make!

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Families are out in groups, laughing and joking. Everyone seems energized by the blue skies.prairieskiesspringbrookprairie3120WM.jpg

Grasslands are on the brink of disappearance. To save them, we have to set them aflame. Ironic, isn’t it?  To “destroy” what we want to preserve? But fire is life to prairies. Soon these grasses and ghosts of wildflowers past will turn to ashes in the prescribed burns.

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Mowed boundaries—firebreaks—for the prescribed burns are in place…

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…a foreshadowing of what is to come. We’ve turned a corner. Soon. Very soon.

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The prairie world has been half-dreaming…

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…almost sleeping.

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It’s time to wake up.

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All the signs are in place. The slant of light. Warmth. Birdsong. The scent of green.

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Spring.

*****

The opening quote is part of a poem “Variations to the Accompaniment of a Cloud” from Garden Time by W.S. Merwin (1927-2019). My favorite of his poems is “After the Dragonflies” from the same volume. Merwin grew up in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and was the son of a Presbyterian minister; he later became a practicing Buddhist and moved to Hawaii. As a child, he wrote hymns. He was our U.S. Poet Laureate twice, and won almost all the major awards given for poetry. I appreciate Merwin for his deep explorations of the natural world and his call to conservation.

*****

All photos this week copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Springbrook Prairie, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County/Illinois Nature Preserves, Naperville, IL (top to bottom):  March on Springbrook Prairie; sign; prairie skies (can you see the “snowy egret” in the cloud formation?); bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus); red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus); possibly a red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) nest (corrections welcome); mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccafolium); switchgrass (Panicum virgatum); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); hiker; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); prairie skies; dogbane or Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum); mowed firebreak; curve in the trail; snowmelt; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); grasses and water. “Lean into the light” is a phrase borrowed from Barry Lopez —one of my favorites —from “Arctic Dreams.”

******

Join Cindy for a Class or Talk in March

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL. For details and registration, click here. Sold out. Call to be put on the waiting list.

The Tallgrass Prairie: A ConversationMarch 12  Thursday, 10am-12noon, Leafing Through the Pages Book Club, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Open to the public; however, all regular Arboretum admission fees apply.  Books available at The Arboretum Store.

Dragonfly Workshop, March 14  Saturday, 9-11:30 a.m.  Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. Free and open to new and experienced dragonfly monitors, prairie stewards, and the public, but you must register as space is limited. Contact phrelanzer@aol.com for more information,  details will be sent with registration.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26 through the Morton Arboretum.  Details and registration here.

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

February Prairie Joys

“The season was…caught in a dreamy limbo between waking and sleeping.” — Paul Gruchow

*****

And so, February slogs on. We slip on ice, shovel the driveway, or shiver as cold slush slops into our boots. The sky alternates with bright sun and scoured blue skies to gray sheets of clouds that send our spirits plummeting. It’s difficult to not wish February gone. And yet, there is so much February has to offer. So much to enjoy! Hiking the Schulenberg Prairie and savanna after the snow on Valentine’s Day Friday, I was reminded of this.

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It’s 14 degrees Fahrenheit.  Brrr! There’s something comforting about water running under the ice in Willoway Brook.

In other parts of the prairie stream, the water looks like a deep space image, complete with planets, asteroids, and other star-flung matter.

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Wrinkles of ice form on the surface, like plastic wrap on blue jello.

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This slash of blue stream owes much of its color to the reflected February sky. Bright and sunny. So welcome after a string of gray days!

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However, to say the brook is blue is to overlook its infinite variations in color. Leaning over the bridge, I knock a drift of powdered snow loose. It sifts onto Willoway Brook and sugars the ice.

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The prairie is quiet. Roadway noise from a nearby interstate is an ever-present current of background sound, but the “prairie mind” soon learns to filter it out. My “prairie steward mind” notes the numbers of Illinois bundleflower seedheads along the stream, a mixed blessing here. We planted this native as part of a streambank rehab almost 20 years ago. Now, the bundleflower is spreading across the prairie in leaps and bounds and threatening to become a monoculture. What to do, what to do.

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For today, I’ll just enjoy its unusual jolt of shape and color. Wait until spring, bundleflower. I’ll deal with you then. Meanwhile, I enjoy some of the less rowdy members of the prairie wildflowers. Bee balm with its tiny pipes, each hollow and beginning to decay, shadowed in the sunlight. It’s easy to imagine hummingbirds and butterflies  sipping nectar here, isn’t it? Its namesake bees love it too.

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The February prairie is full of activity, both seen and unseen. A few sparrows flutter low in the drifts. Near the bee balm, mouse tunnels and vole holes pock the snowbanks.

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Coyote tracks, their shamrock paw prints deeply embedded in the slashes of snow, embroider the edges of the tallgrass.

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The remains of prairie plants have mostly surrendered to the ravages of the season.

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Carrion flower, a skeleton of its former self, catches small drifts. Such a different winter look for this unusual plant!

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Pasture thistle stands tall by the trail, still recognizable. This summer it will be abuzz with pollinator activity, but for now, the queen bumblebees sleep deep under the prairie. Waiting for spring.

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*****

The Schulenberg, a planted prairie, and Belmont Prairie, a prairie remnant, are less than five miles apart but feel very different.  On Sunday, Jeff and I drove to Downer’s Grove and hiked the Belmont Prairie. The bright sun and warming temperatures—44 degrees! —-also made Sunday’s hike a far different proposition than my Friday hike at 14 degrees on the Schulenberg Prairie.

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The shallow prairie stream at Belmont glistens with ice fancywork.

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The prairie plants here—what’s left of them in February—display infinite variety as they do on the Schulenberg. Nodding wild onion.noddingwildonionbelmontprairie21620WM.jpg

Rattlesnake master, its seedheads slowly disintegrating.

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Rattlesnake master’s yucca-like leaves, once juicy and flexible, are torn into new shapes. The textures are still clearly visible.

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Soft arcs of prairie brome…

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…are echoed by curved whips of white vervain nearby.

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The compass plant leaves bow into the snow, slumped, like melted bass clefs.

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I can identify these plants. But then the fun begins. What is this seedhead, knee-high by the trail? Such a puzzle!

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Without plant leaves, ID becomes more challenging. But the usual suspects are still here. A chorus of tall coreopsis…

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…and the wild quinine, now devoid of its pungent summer scent.

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Soft Q-tips of thimbleweed are unmistakable.

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As is the round-headed bush clover silhouette; a burst of February fireworks.

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February is flying by. There’s so much on the prairie to see before it ends.

Why not go look?

****

Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) penned the opening quote to this post, taken from the chapter “Winter” from Journal of a Prairie Year (Milkweed Editions, 1985). Gruchow remains one of my favorite writers; his treatises on Minnesota’s tallgrass prairie and rural life are must-reads.

All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Schulenberg Prairie and prairie savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook in ice and thaw, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ice on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ice on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ice on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; vole tunnel (may be a meadow vole or prairie vole, we have both!), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; trail through the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; carrion vine (likely Smilax herbacea) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; skies over Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; stream through Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; nodding wild onion (Allium cernuum), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL;  rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie brome (Bromus kalmii), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; white vervain (Verbena urticifolia), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; unknown, possibly purple or yellow meadow parsnip (Thaspium trifoliatum/flavum), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL.

Thanks to Illinois Botany FB friends (shout out Will! Evan! Paul! Duane! Kathleen!) for helping me work through an ID for the possible native meadow parsnip.

Join Cindy for a class or event!

Nature Writing and Art Retreat, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, February 22 (Saturday) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Cindy will be facilitating the writing portion. Sold Out. Waiting list –register here.

The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction– February 29, Saturday 10-11 a.m.,  Aurora Public Library,  101 South River, Aurora, IL Open to the public! Book signing follows.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26.  Details and registration here.

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum. For details and registration, click here.  

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

A New Year in the Tallgrass

“Joy as I see it involves embracing life. … Joy isn’t the opposite of sorrow, but encompasses and transcends sorrow. You know you’re truly connected with yourself when you’re experiencing joy.” — Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge

*****

Where did 2019 go? The time passed so quickly.

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

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… we marveled at the new growth soon after.

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Watched the early pasque flowers bloom….

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and then, set seeds for the future.

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

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Then, were astonished at the July wildflowers. Sure, we seem them each summer. But each year seems like a miracle.

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Now, at the end of December, the prairie has its own sort of loveliness. The beauty of sky and clouds…

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…the delights of a single seedhead.

Pasture thistle.

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Bee balm.

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Blazing star.

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Each prairie plant has a different method of making seeds and ensuring its future. Each has  a story to tell.

Remembering the familiar cycle of prescribed fire, new growth, flushes of color, and fruition of seed are all comforting at the close of the year.

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It comforts us as we remember how, in 2019, we wrote our own stories. Some of us lost people we loved. Had surgery. Battled cancer. Made new friends. Laughed a lot. Cried a lot, too. Weeded, seeded. Planned and worked to make those plans—both on the prairie and off—a reality. Celebrated the successes. Resolved to learn from the failures.

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In 2019, there were the surprises and vagaries of weather. Remember the big snow in April? Then, the cold and wet through the middle of June. Blazing hot in July. Snow on Halloween. Sixty degree days in December. Through it all, the prairie sailed on. The tallgrass  prairie was built for these extremes.

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Woven through 2019 was joy. True joy. The kind that is hard-won. The prairie, with its glories and challenges, defeats and delights, reminds us of this. Fire brings growth. Deep roots hold firm, drawing from long-held reserves when unexpected events throw the season out of kilter. The prairie survives.

It survives, also in part, because of people with vision.  Each prairie is a story of sweat and joy; patience and persistence. Of survival. Like a Polaroid snapshot, stewards and volunteers bring struggling remnants back into sharp focus.

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Many saved at the eleventh hour.GensburgMarkhambigbluestemWM122719.jpg

2019 was the continuing story of people who care enough to preserve places that aren’t always easy—at first glance–to understand. When I drive by the roughly 105-acre Gensburg-Markham prairie on congested I-294, set aside in 1971, I wonder what most commuters whizzing by this precious remnant think about it. Do they know what was saved, and why it matters? Do they wonder why it was never developed? Or is it just a blur in their rear view mirrors as they speed to their destinations?

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Do the people who drive by the 91-acre Sundrop Prairie, dedicated in 2000 and part of the Indian Boundary Prairies in Markham, IL, know what a treasure these acres contain?

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The tallgrass grows and changes. Our understanding of their importance evolves. And yet, the prairies continue on, as they have for hundreds of thousands of years. There’s a comfort in knowing that when we’re gone, the prairies will continue to survive and thrive under the care of future generations.

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I think of these things as I hike a prairie trail at Fermilab in the last days of the year. According to the Chicago Tribune, “In 1975 when he heard that Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, near Batavia, was looking for suggestions on what to do with the thousands of acres it owned, Bob Betz sat down with then-director Robert Wilson and went over his vision of having a restored prairie on the property. ‘And when Dr. Wilson asked how long it was going to take, Dr. Betz said, ‘Ten, 20 or maybe 30 years,’ then Dr. Wilson said, ‘Well, we better get started this afternoon.’ ” From these beginnings, beautiful prairies were planted and now thrive at Fermilab.

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Prairie remnants like the Indian Boundary Prairies—Sundrop and Gensburg-Markham— require people to discover them, bring them to the attention of the rest of us, and then, care for them with prescribed fire and stewardship. They require organizations like the Nature Conservancy and Northeastern Illinois University and others, and the generous donations of individuals, to ensure their protection. They require vision. And action. I think of Bob Betz, and his work with the Indian Boundary Prairies, as well as with Fermilab’s natural areas.  I think of the volunteers who undertake a hundred different tasks to maintain prairies today.

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Other preserves, like Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL–which has both remnant and planted prairies—shows the rewards of focused funding and care since 1986 by the Nature Conservancy Illinois and later, joined in that care by Friends of Nachusa Grasslands. I think also of the 100-acre Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum just outside of Chicago, and the volunteers, including myself, who dedicate time each season to cut brush, plant new natives, and collect seeds. Such different prairies! Each one irreplaceable.

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Now, it’s time to close another chapter in the life of the prairies. 2019 is a wrap.

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2020 is waiting. So much possibility!

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So much good work to do. So much joy to look forward to.

*****

The opening quote is included in the book, Poemcrazy: Freeing Your Life with Words by Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge. It’s one of my favorite books on writing; I re-read it at least once a year.

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Sundrop Prairie, Midlothian, IL: prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; greening up after the prescribed burn, top of Dot’s Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL: pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens) in bloom, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatiilla patens) in seed, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; July at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; the end of December at Fermilab Natural Areas, interpretive trail, Batavia, IL; pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; blazing star (probably Liastris aspera), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Sundrop Prairie, Midlothian, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Sundrop Prairie, Midlothian, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Sundrop Prairie, Midlothian, IL; backlit prairie plants (unknown), Sundrop Prairie, Midlothian, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; Illinois nature preserve sign, Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; Sundrop Prairie in December, Midlothian, IL; Gensburg-Markham Prairie with bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), grasses, and wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; Fermilab interpretive trail edges at the end of December, Batavia, IL; Carolina horsenettle (Solanum carolinense), Fermilab interpretive prairie trail, Batavia, IL: prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; Wilson Hall from the interpretive trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL;  interpretive trail at Fermilab Natural Areas at the end of December, Batavia, IL.

***

Please join Cindy at one of her upcoming classes or talks in the new year!

Nature Writing and Art Retreat, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, February 22 (Saturday) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Cindy will be facilitating the writing portion. Register here.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26.  Details and registration here.

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum. For details and registration, click here. 

Happy New Year! Thank you for reading. See you in 2020.