Looks innocent, doesn’t it? Then —see that compass plant with its flowerhead chopped off?
That’s a signature weevil move. How about that prairie dock bloom? Or…was in bloom.
Yup, the wily weevil was at work again. Sometimes known by its nickname, “the head clipping weevil,” its scientific name is almost-almost!–unpronounceable: Haplorhynchites aeneus. Our wicked weevil is black, and about ⅓ inches long with a long, curved schnoz. Rather than knifing through the flower itself, the weevil severs the stem below the flower head. After the weevil applies the guillotine and girdles the flower’s peduncles (try saying that fast three times), the resiny sap of the compass plant bubbles to the surface and glistens in the sunshine. You can see the resiny sap on the plants in the winter, too, but it’s more crystalized.
Now, swipe your finger over that sticky sap, and you’ll get a taste of Native American chewing gum. Note: Don’t get the resinous sap in your hair. If you do, you’ll star in a completely different kind of episode of “Chopped.”
The sunflower head-clipping weevil is only one of many weevils on the prairie. The wild indigo weevil (Trichapion rostrum) is in the Family Brentidae, a group of straight-snouted weevils. This family is currently in flux—entomologists still haven’t decided who exactly is in it (#entomologicaldilemmas). This is a hungry, hungry weevil, which we find in the fall inside pods of white wild indigo. At only a quarter of an inch, the wild indigo weevil is (wait for it) the “lesser of two weevils.” (Da-da-dum).
Weevils have many devoted fans. There are weevil blogs, weevils websites, and weevil specialists. You could say that weevils are some of the stars of the insect world! I’m glad they specialize. Imagine if they cut the flower heads off of all prairie flowers. Yikes!
It’s bad enough they attack some of the sunflowers and some of the coneflowers. Destructive? Yup. Fascinating? Absolutely. Perhaps the most famous weevil is the Boll Weevil (Anthonomus grandis), featured in Elvis Presley’s song, “Little Sister.” Rock on, weevils! But leave some of the other prairie wildflowers to the bees and other insects, okay?
Who knows what other intriguing insects you’ll find in the tallgrass this week?
Why not go for a hike and see what you discover?
The opening quote is by Roald Dahl (1916-1990), a British spy, fighter pilot, and the author of James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Join Cindy for a class or program this week!
Last call for Beginning Dragonfly and Damselfly ID offered as a blended class through The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL! Join Cindy on Zoom Thursday for an introduction to the fascinating world of dragonflies and damselflies. Then, meet your class on the prairie to discover some of these beautiful flying insects. Register here.
Thanks to Teri P. for the Elvis Presley reference, and to the following sources on weevils: The Smithsonian online, the Chicago Botanic Garden (great blog post! check it out), North Carolina State extension, Wikipedia, and the Kansas State Extension, and many prairie mentors over the years who loved the “lesser of two weevils” pun, and shared it with me. I laughed every time.
“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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
“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 wish you peace, when the cold winds blow….”— Patti Davis and Bernie Leadon
Strange weather. Crazy headlines. The holidays. I’ve been caught up in a baking frenzy, turning out cinnamon rolls, Italian Christmas cookies, and bread. Lots of bread. All good—but if I’m going to bake—I need to hike. And nowhere is hiking better than the tallgrass prairie.
What about you? Why not come along? Enjoy a stress-free hour. Blow those stressful headlines out of your mind. On the prairie, your biggest decision is not what size/what color/how much and “will it arrive in time?” Rather, it’s…
Which trail should I take?
Or, Which aster is that?
Take a deep breath. Listen. What’s that sound? Perhaps it’s the ice cracking under your boots.
The hushed whisper of wind stirring the tallgrass.
Or the chick-a-dee-dee-dee song rising from a tiny fluff-ball in the prairie shrubs.
So many wonders are all around, changing from moment to moment. Simple things, like a jet etch-a-sketching its way across the prairie sky, leaving contrails in its wake.
The accordion shape of a December prairie dock leaf.
Look for its soul-sister, compass plant,aging gracefully nearby.
Go ahead. Look. Really look. Let it soak in.
Admire the prairie in its December garb, from a single leaf…
…to its chorus of spent wildflowers…
…to the reflections in a prairie stream.
Then, find some milkweed floss.
Thank the plant for its service to monarchs this year. Pluck a single seed, make a wish, and send that seed on its way.
As it travels on the wind, let your worries and stresses go with it.
Then, pause. Tuck away this memory for later, when you need a good one.
Here’s wishing for a peaceful week ahead for you. Enjoy the hike.
The opening quote is from Patti Davis’ and Bernie Leadon’s song, “I Wish You Peace,” sung by the Eagles on their album, One of These Nights. Disagreement over including the song on that album is said to be one of the last straws that led to Bernie leaving the group; he was replaced by Joe Walsh. Oddly enough, Patti Davis is the daughter of former President Ronald Reagan, which was said to be another part of the dispute. An interesting story about how she came to write a song for the Eagles can be found here. “I Wish You Peace” is often dismissed as a “trite and smarmy” song, but Jeff and I had it sung at our wedding, almost 40 years ago. Still love it.
Seven years ago, I penned “Tuesdays in the Tallgrass” for the first time and invited you to come along for a hike each week. Where did the time go? Thanks for reading, and thanks for your love of the natural world. And thank you for sharing prairie, and keeping the tallgrass alive in people’s hearts and minds. I’m grateful.
Join me in 2022 for a prairie program! Visit www.cindycrosby.com for current class and program listings. Need a speaker for your event, class, or program? See the website for more information.
“It’s always better to have too much to read than not enough.” —Ann Patchett
Happy December! The wind is howling, temperatures are plummeting, and meteorological winter is in full swing. All we need is a dusting of snow…
…or an ice storm to complete the kick-off to the holiday season.
In December, many of us are on hiatus from active prairie stewardship work. During the winter months, we recharge our batteries and curl up with a good book on the tallgrass so we’ll be a little smarter and more inspired for the growing season ahead.
With this in mind, it’s time for the “Tuesdays in the Tallgrass” annual book roundup. This year, I grouped a few recommended prairie books in a slightly different way for you. I hope that makes your holiday shopping (or library check-outs) a little easier! I also added a few of my favorite prairie gifts.
Ready? Let’s read!
For the thoughtful prairie reader:
I can’t resist the “through the year” types of books, organized by month and taking readers through the seasons. Paul Gruchow’s Journal of a Prairie Year(Milkweed Press) continues to be one of my favorites. Few books really dig into the marvels of the winter season on the prairie, and this is one of them.
FOR THE GARDENER WHO WANTS TO BE INSPIRED BY PRAIRIE:
I’m also looking forward to Vogt’s forthcoming book, Prairie Up: An Introduction to Natural Garden Design, coming from University of Illinois Press in the new year. Voigt also has an awesome collection of prairie T-shirts and other fun extras. I gifted myself with the “Prairie Hugger” t-shirt and a “Reprairie Suburbia” mug this season. Check out his website here.
Already have a prairie in your yard? Meet kindred spirits in Fred Delcomyn and Jamie Ellis’ “A Backyard Prairie,” a beautiful book of essays and photographs (Southern Illinois University Press). I met Fred when he took my Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online class through The Morton Arboretum, and it is a delight to see his lovely book out in the world.
For the children in your lIFE:
Across the Prairie Coloring Book— Claudia McGehee. These sell out, so get yours quick on Etsy! Fun, relaxing, and pandemic-friendly solace for adults who like to color as well. I confess I have a copy for myself, as well as copies for several of my grandchildren. McGehee is also the author of The Tallgrass Prairie Alphabet children’s picture book from University of Iowa Publishers. She has some other great children’s picture books and artwork you can find on her website, Claudia McGehee Illustration.
Sarah, Plain and Tall–Patricia MacLachlan (HarperCollins) This Newbery Award-winning novel, first published in 1985, is great for elementary-aged kids, and available in a 30th anniversary edition. Sure, it’s not about the prairie plants here—it’s about the story! But what a great way to introduce kids to the tallgrass prairie region. The Hall of Fame movie (starring Glen Close as the mail-order bride) is a delight — rent it at the library, or watch for it on a streaming service near you.
For someone new to prairie, or just wanting to get better acquainted:
The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction–Cindy Crosby (Northwestern University Press) I wrote this book when I looked around for a short, simple read that I could give to my prairie volunteers who wanted to understand what a prairie was, and why we manage it the way we do–and couldn’t find one. Only 140 pages, all technical terms are defined, and there’s a chapter on planting a prairie in your yard.
When you want to dive Deep Into tallgrass prairie — the more pages, the better:
Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie—John Madson (Bur Oak Books) This is the book I used to recommend to my prairie volunteers, but several told me that 340 pages was 200 pages too much! For some of us, however, the more pages the better. If you want to dig deep into the history of the tallgrass prairie, this is a THE classic.
If you like pretty prairie pictures:
Visions of the Tallgrass–-Harvey Payne (Oklahoma University Press). One hundred seventeen beautiful photographs by Harvey Payne, featuring the Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in northeastern Oklahoma.
Tallgrass Prairie Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit(Ice Cube Press)— Cindy Crosby and Thomas Dean (Ice Cube Press) If you enjoy this blog, you’ll find similar type short essays and prairie photographs in this team effort from myself and Tom, alternating voices and spanning prairies from Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois.
Picturing the Prairie: A Vision of Restorationby Philip Juras (Little Bluestem Press). If you caught the Chicago Botanic exhibit of his work, you’ll want to own this book which includes 54 paintings of some of my favorite prairies (including Nachusa Grasslands) and an essay by Stephen Packard. It’s on my Christmas list!
I really enjoy browsing Karen’s Nature Art to find images of prairie on everything from mugs to cell phone cases to fabric. Karen is part of my Tuesdays in the Tallgrass volunteer group on the Schulenberg Prairie, and her work directly reflects the countless hours she spends immersed in caring for prairie.
The Tallgrass Prairie Readeredited by John T. Price. I believe this is one of the most important pieces of natural history literature in the past decade. Why? It preserves a wide variety of writings on the tallgrass prairie from 42 authors, grouped chronologically from the 1800’s to the 21st Century. (Full disclosure — an essay of mine is included). Price’s edited volume reminds us of the richness of prairie literature, and the need for more voices to speak for prairie.
For the prairie volunteer or steward who wants technical advice:
I enthusiastically recommend The Tallgrass Prairie Center Guide to Restoration in the Upper Midwest by Daryl Smith, Dave Williams, Greg Houseal, and Kirk Henderson for anyone looking for a comprehensive guide to planting, restoring, or caring for prairie on sites both big and small. If it’s not in this volume, you probably don’t need to know it. I own two copies, just in case I lose one!
I hope you found some new books that caught your interest, or saw a few old favorites that you want to re-read or gift to a prairie friend. Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive list. Rather, these are a few highlights. And please explore some of my past posts on prairie books—there are many wonderful prairie books out there not mentioned in this year’s essay.
What books on tallgrass prairie do you recommend? Please share your favorites in the comments below and keep the literary conversation going. And as always, if you purchase a book, support your local independent bookstores and small publishers. They need you!
The opening quote is from Ann Patchett (1963), finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for The Dutch House the author of my personal favorite of hers, Bel Canto. Patchett is the owner of Parnassus Bookstore in Nashville, TN.
“Mornings were cooler and crisper than before. The ever-lengthening shapes of afternoon shadows seemed drawn more irresistibly into the night. Fields were rough and tweedy, as though an old brown woolen jacket had been thrown over them to ward off the chill.” — Vincent G. Dethier
Oh, wow, October. The prairie is stunning. Although it’s not to everyone’s taste.
“No flowers,” say some of my friends. Yes, the blooming flowers now are few. Goldenrods. Asters.
They melt into the grasses, slowly becoming invisible. Going. Going. Gone—to seed.
Most prairie wildflowers have closed shop for the season.
They surrender to the inevitable with elegance.
Ravenous insects glean whatever is left for the taking.
So many insects.
They make themselves at home in the prairie wildflower remains.
Autumn trickles through my fingers.
Each day seems over before I’ve fully woken up. I remind myself, “Pay attention!” But—the prairie is beginning to blur. I rub my eyes and try to focus. So many seeds. So much grass.
It’s all about the grass.
Loops and whoops and swoops of grass.
Even my old enemy, the invasive reed canary grass on the prairie, shimmers in the morning dew.
The wind sighs as it sifts the grasses. The coda is near.
What new wonders will unfold?
I only know this: The wonders will be more nuanced. Less easily available as immediate eye candy than when in the growing season. But no less remarkable.
We’ll have to pause. Think. Absorb. Take time to look. To really look.
Why not go for a hike and see? Now. Before the snow flies?
The prairie is waiting.
Vincent G. Dethier (1915-1993) was an entomologist and physiologist, and the author of Crickets and Katydids, Concerts and Solos from which the opening blog post quote was taken. This is a delightful book and accessible to anyone who loves natural history, or who has found joy in the grasshoppers, crickets and katydids of the tallgrass prairie. It takes a little extra work to find the book at your library. Well worth the effort.
Thanks to Nature Revisited Podcast for their interview with Cindy about dragonflies and prairie! Click here to listen to it on Youtube.
Thanks to Benedictine University for airing:Conservation: The Power of Storywith Cindy as part of their Jurica-Suchy Nature Museum “Science Speaker Series.” See it on Youtube here.
Thank you to Mark and Jess Paulson for their tour of the Great Western Prairie this week. I was so grateful to see it through your eyes!
Join Cindy for a Program or Class!
Tallgrass Prairie Ecology: Opens online Monday, Nov.1 –Are you a prairie steward or volunteer who wants to learn more about the tallgrass? Do you love hiking the prairie, but don’t know much about it? Enjoy a self-paced curriculum with suggested assignments and due dates as you interact with other like-minded prairie lovers on the discussion boards. Then, join Cindy for a live Zoom Friday, November 12, noon to 1 p.m. CST. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. See more details here.
Winter Prairie Wonders: Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass!Dec. 3 (Friday) 10-11:30 am (CST): Make yourself a cup of hot tea, snuggle under a warm afghan, and join prairie steward and writer Cindy Crosby virtually for this interactive online immersion into the tallgrass prairie in winter. See the aesthetic beauty of the snow-covered grasses and wildflowers in cold weather through colorful images of winter on the prairies. Follow animal tracks to see what creatures are out and about, and see how many you can identify. Learn how birds, pollinators, and mammals use winter prairie plants; the seeds for nourishment and the grasses and spent wildflowers for overwintering, protection, and cover. Then, listen as Cindy shares brief readings about the prairie in winter that will engage your creativity and nourish your soul. This is scheduled as a Zoom event through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.
Save Bell Bowl Prairie!
Please visit www.savebellbowlprairie.org to learn about the planned destruction of a special gravel prairie remnant by the Chicago-Rockford Airport in Rockford, IL. Ask them to reroute their construction. Discover how you can help save this home of the federally-endangered Rusty Patched Bumble Bee. The remnant is slated for bulldozing on November 1. Every small action by those who love prairies will help!
“To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee… .”–Emily Dickinson
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.
But—where is the rain? Take a step, and it’s like walking on Rice Krispies cereal: Snap! Crackle! Pop!
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.
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?
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…
… and nectar at the sunflowers.
Not all the butterflies choose wildflowers. These viceroys prefer scat.
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!
Chinese mantis turn up in unexpected places, on the look-out for prey. I admire their stealth.
This lucky eastern forktail damselfly enjoys a mid-morning snack. You can tell she’s a mature female by her powdery-blue coloration.
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.
Grasshopper. Mantis. Damselfly. Dragonfly. Any of these might be lunch for the northern leopard frog, which is looking for its next meal.
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.
I want to remember September. Soak up the bright lemon evening primrose.
Delight in the juxtaposition of sneezeweed and great blue lobelia along a prairie stream.
I store away these colors, scents, and sounds of autumn for the winter.
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.
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 Introductionon “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.
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.
“Thou blossom bright with autumn dew… .”—William Cullen Bryant
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…
…to a startling aquamarine fleeced with clouds.
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.
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.
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…
Pale asters froth up like foamy cappuccinos.
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.
Hyssop stands out in the savannas; a pollinator plant favorite.
But most of all, I delight in the gentians.
True, the cream gentians have been in bloom for at least a month now.
But the blue gentians are an extra dollop of delight.
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.
Soon they’ll bloom, and add their tiny flowers to the prairies.
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.
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.”
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.
“At once [the buffalo] is a symbol of the tenacity of wilderness and the destruction of wilderness…it stands for freedom and captivity, extinction and salvation.”—Steven Rinella
Let’s take a hike “where the buffalo roam.”
I’m chasing dragonflies at one of my favorite preserves in Illinois: Nachusa Grasslands. Approximately two hours west of Chicago, Nachusa Grasslands is a 3,800-acre mosaic of tallgrass prairies and savannas. Woodlands and wetlands. Today, as a dragonfly monitor at Nachusa with access inside the bison unit, I hope to collect Odonate data at one of my favorite pond routes. But the bison have other plans for my morning. As I wade into the wetland surrounding the pond, admiring the dragonflies…
…I hear a bellow. Uh, oh. That’s the sound of a bison bull kicking up some trouble.
When you’re working in a bison unit, you don’t wait around when you hear that sound. I immediately head for my car. It doesn’t take long. Here they come!
Mamas. Papas. Baby bison.
They make a beeline for my dragonfly pond, ready to join the frogs and cool off on this sunny morning.
I enjoy watching them wade into the water and graze on the juicy vegetation. But time passes. My plans for collecting dragonfly data this morning are shot. These bison aren’t going anywhere soon.
I make myself comfortable in the car, hoping they’ll eventually move on. I don’t get out. Bison are one of the most dangerous animals in North America. Males may weigh more than 2,000 pounds. And—they’re fast! I’ve watched them tear across the prairie at top speeds of 30 mph for no apparent reason. It’s important to respect these incredible animals.
I only take photos of bison with a zoom lens from the safety of my vehicle. Even then, while working in the bison unit, I’m careful to keep my car a good distance away.
Bison can jump, too! Up to six feet. They won’t let a fence keep them from something they really, really want to do. I admire that kind of determination.
I’m grateful for the bison at Nachusa—and not only because I enjoy watching them. Without them, the prairie is incomplete. They are an important piece of the prairie puzzle. As they wallow and churn through the prairie with their hooves…
…they create spaces for other members of the prairie community to thrive.
Bison grazing habits may also free up space for prairie wildflowers.
They also fertilize the prairie with their dung. Bison patties! Good stuff for prairies.
Time passes. The bison show no sign of leaving. Looks like it’s going to be “Plan B” today. I start the car and back up, then turn around on the gravel two-track. I’ve got plenty of alternatives besides this pond for a dragonfly-chasing hike. So many exciting areas to explore!
With so many wildflowers in bloom at Nachusa…
…and plenty of other interesting prairie creatures around….
… my alternative hike on the prairie this morning will still be time well spent.
The bison are fun to see, but they’re only a bonus on a trip to Nachusa. There is so much else to discover!
Why not go for a hike and see it for yourself?
The opening quote is from American Buffalo: In Search of A Lost Icon by Stephen Rinella (2008).
All photos in this week’s blog are from Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.
Visit Nachusa Grasslands, and see the bison herd from the road pull-offs or from the beautiful new outdoor Prairie Visitor Center. Know bison safety protocol before you go: find it here. Respect the bison, and always observe them from a safe distance outside the bison unit. Want a closer look? Join Nachusa Grasslands bison tours during the “Autumn on the Prairie” celebration Saturday, September 18 to get an inside-the-bison unit view. For more information on public hiking trails and bison, visit Friends of Nachusa Grasslands’ website.
Join Cindy for a class or program this summer!
August 17, 7pm-8:30 pm —in person —“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Bloomingdale Garden Club, Bloomingdale, IL. Please visit http://www.bloomingdalegardenclub.org/events-new/ for more information and Covid safety protocol for the event and for current event updates.
September 9, 9:30-11 am– in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Oswego Hilltoppers Garden Club, Oswego Public Library. Please visit the club’s Facebook page for guest information, event updates and Covid protocol.
New to the prairie? Want to introduce a friend or family member to the tallgrass? Check out The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction (Northwestern University Press). No jargon, no technical terms — just a fun guide to navigating prairie hikes and developing a deeper relationship with the beautiful grasslands that make the Midwest special.
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.