Tag Archives: Prairie Stewardship

A Tallgrass Prairie Thaw

“Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” — Annie Dillard

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We haven’t seen the last of winter. Snow is in the forecast this week in the Chicago region. But this weekend, spring seemed a little closer. Why? Thaw. Can you smell it in the air? Can you hear the trickle of snow melt, percolating through the frozen earth?

Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

Sunday, Jeff and I hiked Springbrook Prairie, an 1,829 acre nature preserve in Naperville, IL, drawn outside by the rising mercury in the thermometer, the sunshine, and—yes—the thaw.

Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

We’re getting closer to the vernal equinox on Sunday, March 20. Soon, the hours of light and dark will balance on the seasonal scale.

Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

We’re not quite there yet. In the bright sunlight, we can almost imagine it is late March. But February is still winter, by both meteorological and astronomical calendars.

Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

Despite the ice and snow that claim the tallgrass, the signs of spring on the horizon are evident. Red-winged blackbirds sing on the edges of the wetlands at Springbrook Prairie. Soon they will be dive-bombing us in defense of their nests.

Red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

From its perch, the red-wing has a prime view of the prairie. I’d love to have that vantage point! I’d watch the pond with its icy den. Who is home? Muskrats? Beavers? I’m not sure. I bet the red-wing knows.

Pond at Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

I wish I could sail high and spy on the ubiquitous white-tailed deer.

White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus borealis), Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

Or cruise the prairie, watching the bicycles and joggers thread their way through the tallgrass on the sloppy-wet trails. What I wouldn’t give for a birds-eye view from the sky today!

Instead, we’re deep in the thaw. A fine limestone slurry coats our boots.

Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

Dog walkers trot past, their pooches splattered and patched with gray. I wonder what clean-up will be done before the ride home.

Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

Thimbleweed lifts its seed puffs trailside.

Thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

The sun tracks low, illuminating the native grasses.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

Wildflowers turn bright against the backlight.

Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

Suddenly, two sundogs appear! It’s my first glimpse of this phenomenon this year. Sundogs are difficult to photograph. But how wonderful to stand on the trails and admire those two outrider prisms, equal distances from the sun in the sky. Can you spot them, just over the horizon line?

What a joy to experience sundogs and thaw; redwings and snowmelt. As we head for the parking lot, a hawk—maybe a juvenile redtail?—monitors our progress.

Possibly a juvenile red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

She–or he—flies off into the sunset at our approach, finished with the day’s business.

Possibly a juvenile red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

Jeff and I are finished with our hike. Ready for dinner. And home.

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By Monday, our backyard prairie is lank and wet, all soggy grasses with pools of snowmelt. The sun works diligently all morning to erase any traces of winter. As I soak up the light pouring through the kitchen window, thinking about spring burns (and how much my backyard needs one), there’s a flurry of wings. Redpolls!

Common Redpolls (Acanthis flammea), Crosby backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

So many common redpolls. Just in time to close out the Great Backyard Bird Count. This is the first winter we’ve seen these feisty birds in our backyard, thanks to a tutorial by our birding friends on what field marks to look for and what seeds redpolls love.

Common redpolls (Acanthis flammea), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Redpolls swarm the sock feeders, mob the seed tubes, line the tray feeder and gobble the nyjer thistle tossed on the porch. I call Jeff to the window. Together, we attempt to count them. Ten. Thirty. Fifty. Seventy—and so many others in the trees! A group of redpolls, I’ve learned, is called “a gallop of redpolls.” We certainly have a herd of them!

We estimate almost a hundred, perched in trees, loitering at the feeders, hopping around on the roof. Where did they come from? Are they on their way…where? Back to their Arctic habitat, perhaps? It’s difficult to know. I hope this isn’t goodbye for the season. But if it is goodbye, that’s okay. What a dramatic finale it would be.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

Nature has a way of surprising us with wonders.

Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

All we have to do is show up and pay attention.

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The opening quote is one of my all-time favorites by the writer Annie Dillard (1945-). I read her Pulitzer Prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek every year. Wrote Eudora Welty in the New York Times Book Review, “The book is a form of meditation, written with headlong urgency, about seeing.” It’s a good one.

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Join Cindy for a class or program in February!

February 26 — Plant a Little Prairie in Your Yard for Citizens for Conservation. Barrington, IL. (10 am-11:30 am.) Open to the public with registration. Contact them here.

February 26 –Conservation: The Power of Story for the “2022 Community Habitat Symposium: Creating a Future for Native Ecosystems” at Joliet Junior College. Tickets available at (https://illinoisplants.org/). (Cindy’s afternoon program is part of the all-day events)

Grateful thanks to John Heneghan and Tricia Lowery, who gave us the redpolls tutorial and are always ready to help with bird ID.

A Tallgrass New Year

“Year’s end is neither an end nor a beginning but a going on, with all the wisdom that experience can instill in us.” —Hal Borland

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And so 2021 comes to a close.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

On the prairie, the tallgrass colors transition to their winter hues.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The prairie is stripped to bare essence.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)and Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The deep roots of prairie plants continue to hold the tallgrass through the winter.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

As Paul Gruchow wrote, “The work that matters does not always show.”

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

2021 has been another tough year. We’ve attempted to make each day meaningful in the midst of uncertainty and loss.

Ball gall, Lyman Woods prairie kame, Downers Grove, IL.

We’ve pulled from our reserve strength until we wonder if there is anything left. Trying to keep a sense of normalcy. Trying to get our work done. Trying. Trying. It all seems like too much sometimes, doesn’t it? In When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chӧdrӧn writes, “To be fully alive, fully human, is to be continually thrown out of the nest.” The past two years have made us realize how comfortable that “nest” used to be.

Prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

But we keep moving forward, little by little. Reaching for that extra bit of patience. Putting away the media for a time out. Setting aside a morning to go for a walk and just be.

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

Listening to our lives. Listening to that interior landscape.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

We’ve learned we are fragile.

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

We’ve also learned we are more resilient than we ever knew we could be.

Thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Lyman Woods, Downers Grove, IL.

In 2019, we had no idea of the challenges ahead.

Lyman Woods, Downers Grove, IL.

And yet, here we are. Meeting those challenges. Exhausted? You bet! It’s not always pretty, but we keep getting up in the morning and getting things done.

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

We’re making the best of where we find ourselves.

Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Trying to keep our sense of humor, even when there doesn’t seem to be much to laugh about.

Random tree creation found in Lyman Woods, Downers Grove, IL.

With less margin, we are learning to untangle what’s most important from what we can let go of.

Dogbane or Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

We are making life work, even if it’s messy. Knowing that whatever is ahead in 2022, we’ll give it our best shot.

Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

We’ll hike—the prairies, the woodlands, or wherever we find ourselves—aware of the beauty of the natural world. We’ve never appreciated the outdoors spaces like we have these past months.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

We’ll give thanks for joys, big and small. Grateful in new ways for what we have.

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

And we’ll encourage each other. Because we need community, now more than ever before.

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

Keep on hiking. The road has been long, but we’ve got this. Together.

New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) in late December, Lyman Woods, Downers Grove, IL.

Happy New Year!

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Hal Borland (1900-1978) was a naturalist and journalist born in Nebraska. He is the author of many books of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and plays, and wrote a tremendous number of nature observation editorials for The New York Times. He was also a recipient of the John Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Nature Writing. I’m so grateful for his “through the year” books— I love books that follow the months and seasons! Thanks to blog reader Helen Boertje, who generously shared her copies of Borland’s books with me. I’m so grateful.

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Making a New Year’s resolution? Don’t forget Bell Bowl Prairie! Commit to doing one action on the list you’ll find at Save Bell Bowl Prairie, and help us save this rare prairie remnant from the bulldozers.

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Happy New Year, and thank you for reading in 2021. What a year it’s been! I’m grateful to have this community of readers who love the natural world. I’m looking forward to virtually hiking the prairies with you in 2022. Thank you for your encouragement, and for your love of the natural world.

The Tallgrass Prairie: Annual Books Edition

“It’s always better to have too much to read than not enough.” —Ann Patchett

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Happy December! The wind is howling, temperatures are plummeting, and meteorological winter is in full swing. All we need is a dusting of snow…

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL. (3/21)

…or an ice storm to complete the kick-off to the holiday season.

Ice storm at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Glen Ellyn, IL.(2018)

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.

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.(2017)

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!

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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.

Also –Don’t miss his Grass Roots: The Universe of Home, which has a beautiful chapter, “What the Prairie Teaches Us.”

For the PRairie ACTIVIST:

Native gardener Benjamin Vogt’s  A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion for an Uncertain Future (New Society Press) is a call to action about why gardening with prairie and native plants matters. Think “why for” rather than “how to.”

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 PrairieJohn 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 Restoration by 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!

Hidden Prairie: Photographing Life in One Square Meter by Chris Helzer (University of Iowa Press) is a tiny book with a big impact. If you follow his excellent blog, The Prairie Ecologist, you’ll know how outstanding his images and commentary are. This book inspired my prairie volunteer group to do a similar “hula hoop” project over the course of a growing season. Fun!

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.

You’ll also want to visit Charles Larry Photography if you are looking for prairie photos to frame and gift (or to gift yourself). I particularly love his images of bison and winter at Nachusa Grasslands. I’m a fan of winter scenes, and his are spectacular.

For the history or literature buff:

The Tallgrass Prairie Reader edited 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!

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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!

Happy reading!

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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.

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Upcoming Speaking Engagements

Visit www.cindycrosby.com for a full list of Cindy’s classes and programs.

December 16, 7-8:30 p.m.: “Winter Prairie Wonders” presented for the Prairie Naturals, Manitoba, Canada.

January 17, 1-2:30 pm: “The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Charm Shop”, presented by Garden Study Club of Hinsdale at the Oak Brook Library.

Little Prairie in the Industrial Park

“Don’t it always seem to go—That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone…”–Joni Mitchell

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What a beautiful week in the Chicago Region.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

An excellent excuse to hike the West Chicago Prairie.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

It’s been a while since I’ve walked here. The 358-acre tallgrass preserve is off the beaten path, nestled into an industrial complex. Overhead, planes from the nearby DuPage Airport roar…

Small plane over West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

…while a long, low, whistle sounds from a train going by. The Prairie Path, a 61-mile hiking and biking trail that spans three counties, runs along one side of the prairie.

I look to the horizon. Development everywhere.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

It’s a reminder that this prairie is a part of the suburbs. People and prairie co-exist together.

Fall color has arrived. At last.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

My shoulders brush the tallgrass and spent wildflowers as I hike the challenging narrow grass trails.

Wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

The spent seeds of goldenrod and other decaying plant flotsam and jetsam cling to my flannel shirt.

West Chicago Prairie hiking trail, West Chicago, IL.

I stop and pop a withered green mountain mint leaf into my mouth.

Common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

Mmmm. It still packs a little tang. Not as intense as the flavor was this summer, but still tangible and tasty.

Wild bergamot, another tasty plant, rims the trail. A close examination shows insects have commandeered the tiny tubed seed heads. At least, I think something—or “somethings” are in there? A few of the “tubes” seem to be sealed closed. A mystery.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

Maybe seeing these seed heads is a memo from Mother Nature to me to not be overly diligent in my garden clean-up this fall. Insects are overwintering in my native plants. As a gardener, I always struggle with how much plant material to keep and how much to compost or haul away. I’m always learning. Although I just cleaned up one brush pile, and still do some garden clean-up—especially in my vegetable garden—I now leave my prairie plants standing until early spring. One reward: I enjoy my backyard bergamot’s whimsical silhouette against the background of the snow through the winter.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Crosby backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I pinch a bit of the spent flowerhead and get a whiff of thymol. Bergamot is in the mint family. See that square stem? Thymol is its signature essential oil. I think bergamot smells like Earl Grey tea. Confusing, since the bergamot found in my Lipton’s isn’t the same. (Read about the bergamot used in Earl Grey tea here.) Some people say wild bergamot smells like oregano.

It’s cold, but the sun is hot on my shoulders. Even the chilly wind doesn’t bother me much. I’m glad I left my coat in the car.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

If I look in three directions, I can almost believe all the world is prairie. Yet, in one direction I see large buildings and towers; a reminder this prairie co-exists with many of the systems we depend on for shipping, agriculture, and transportation.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

After the mind-numbing battle to save Bell Bowl Prairie in October (see link here), a trip to West Chicago Prairie is an excellent reminder that industry, development, and prairies can co-exist. Kudos to the DuPage County Forest Preserve, the West Chicago Park District, and the West Chicago Prairie volunteers who keep the prairie thriving, even while it occupies what must certainly be costly land that could easily be developed.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

We need these prairie places.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

And, these prairie preserves need us to care for them. To manage them with fire. To clear brush. To collect and plant prairie seeds. Hiking this preserve today reaffirms that we can have prairie—and development—together.

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

I hope future generations will look back and see we did all we could to protect our last remaining prairies for them.

Mullein foxglove (Dasistoma macrophylla), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

Here in the “Prairie State,” let’s continue to make our prairie preserves a priority. Our need for infrastructure and development go hand in hand with our need for these last prairie places.

Foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

Our minds, bodies, and spirits benefit from hikes in the tallgrass. I feel more relaxed and less stressed after my prairie hike today.

Thanks, West Chicago Prairie.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

You’re a good reminder that prairies and people need each other.

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The opening lines of today’s blog are from the song “Big Yellow Taxi” by Canadian singer Joni Mitchell (1943-). Listen to her sing the full song here, then read more about her life and music here.

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Join Cindy for a class or program!

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.

August’s Prairie Alphabet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

K is for Kankakee Sands, where bison roam.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

T is for prairie Trails, that lead to adventure.

Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

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

Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

V is for Vervain, both blue and hoary.

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

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

Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

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

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

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

Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

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

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

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

*****

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

*****

Join Cindy for a class or program!

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

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

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

July’s Backyard Prairie Adventures

“Oh, do you have time to linger for just a little while out of your busy and very important day…?” — Mary Oliver

*****

Come linger with me for a few moments in my backyard.

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

Let’s see what the last week of July is up to.

Unknown bee on cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Now, the heat rises from the ground; the air like a warm, soggy blanket out of the dryer that could have used an extra ten minutes. Dew beads the grass blades.

Dew on grass blade, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

I hear a buzz-whirr in my ear as a ruby-throated hummingbird zings by me, heading for sugar water. Ruby-throated hummingbirds appreciate my nectar feeder—-and they love the wildflowers in my garden.

Ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL (2016).

I planted scarlet runner beans, just for them.

Scarlet runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I delight in that kiss of red! More of this color is coming in the backyard. The hummingbirds will be glad when the cardinal flowers open. Almost there.

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

Hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees enjoy the bee balm—-or if you prefer, wild bergamot—which blooms in wispy drifts across the garden.

Bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) with a backdrop of gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Myriad pollinators also visit the zinnias, which I have an abiding affection for, although zinnias aren’t native here in my corner of suburban Chicago.

Zinnia (Zinnia elegans), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Other flowers wrap up the business of blooming and begin moving toward seed production. Culver’s root candles are almost burned out. Only a few sparks remain.

Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The bird-sown asparagus has a single seed.

Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Other flowers are just beginning their cycle of bud, bloom, go to seed. Obedient plant’s green spike is a promise of pretty pinky-purple flowers to come.

Obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I enjoy the July transitions.

A giant sunflower is a magnet for the squirrels and chipmunks. They assess. Climb. Nibble. Any day now, I expect to find the stalk snapped.

Sunflower (Helianthus), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Skipper butterflies patrol the garden, ready to plunder the flowers.

Peck’s Skipper (Polites peckius), Crosby backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Black swallowtail caterpiIlars munch on the parsley. I don’t begrudge them a few plants when I know how lovely the butterflies will be. I watch for monarch caterpillars without luck on my butterfly milkweed and common milkweed plants. Where are they this year? What I do see are hordes of oleander aphids that gang up on my whorled milkweed.

Oleander aphids (Aphis nerii Boyer de Fonscolombe) on whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I don’t control these non-native aphids. I let them be. If I did try to get rid of them, it would be with a strong spray of water rather than a pesticide. Whorled milkweed is a host for monarch butterfly caterpillars, just like its better-known milkweed kin in Illinois. The leaves are un-milkweed-ish, but the flowers are a give-away.

Whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticallis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

In my larger prairie planting, tiny eastern forktail damselflies chase even tinier insects for their breakfast. The damselflies’ bright green heads and neon blue abdominal tips help me track them through the grasses. I’m reminded of a morning last week when I waded through Willoway Brook on the prairie, and oh! The abundance of damselflies that I found. So many damselflies! American rubyspots. Stream bluets. Ebony jewelwings.

Ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

I stood in my hip waders, knee-deep, for about ten minutes, watching a variable dancer damselfly toy with a small bubble of dew.

Variable dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Damselflies don’t play with dew drops. Do they? Perhaps not. But it was difficult to characterize the damselfly’s actions as anything other than playful as it batted the droplet back and forth along the grass blade. Think of all these wonders happening every second of every hour of every day.

If only we could be present to them all.

In the backyard, a low thrumming of insects pulses through the prairie patch. Uh, oh. It looks like Queen Anne’s lace has infiltrated part of the prairie planting. I need to pay attention before it takes over.

Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), Joe pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), and cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The cup plants—topping six feet now—are awash with lemon-colored blooms. Each flower is a platform for jostling insects, from honeybees to … well… tiny bees I can’t identify. I try checking them my phone app, iNaturalist, which seems as perplexed about them as I am.

Cup plants (Silphium perfoliatum), with a couple of bees, Crosby backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

So many insects! So many different bees. How will I ever learn them all? A lifetime isn’t long enough, and following my birthday last week, one of the big ones, I’m aware of the window of time closing.

Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

It’s a reminder that each walk in the garden—each hike on the prairie—is time worth savoring.

Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I want to look back on my life and remember that I paid attention.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), with gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

You, too?

*****

The opening lines are from the poem “Invitation” by the late poet Mary Oliver (1935-2019), part of a collection from her book Devotions. Listen to her read one of my favorite poems, “The Wild Geese,” here.

*****

Join Cindy for a class or program this summer!

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online: Work through online materials and post your stories about prairie to the discussion boards beginning August 2; learn from other prairie stewards and volunteers about their challenges and success stories.  Join a Live Zoom with Cindy on Wednesday, August 11, from noon-1 p.m. CDT. The coursework is available for 60 days. Learn more and register here.

August 17, 7-8:30 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.

*****

Cindy’s book, Chasing Dragonflies, is on sale at Northwestern University Press for 40% off the cover price until July 31! Click here to order — be sure and use Code SUN40 at checkout. Limit 5. See website for full details!

Chasing Dragonflies

A Prairie Summer Solstice

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

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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.

A Prairie Hike at Kankakee Sands

“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.”–John Burroughs

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Jeff and I are returning from visiting family near Indianapolis. What makes a long car trip from Indianapolis to Chicago better? Our eyes meet. Bison!

We get off of I-65 with its semi trucks and heavy traffic, and slip over to U.S. 41. We need a hike on the prairies and savannas of Kankakee Sands in Morocco, Indiana.

Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Towering cumulonimbus pile up like cairns on the horizon. A few raindrops splat the windshield. The prairie sky seems to stretch forever.

Rainy day at Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Sections of the prairies have been recently burned. A mullein’s soft, fuzzy leaves are a contrast to the scorched earth. Look! Jeff points. A mourning cloak butterfly flutters by, so quick we almost miss the ID.

Great mullein (Verbascum thapsus), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

It seems as if you could hike for hours and never come to the end of the tallgrass.

Hiking trail, Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Today, we hope to get a glimpse of the largest members of the tallgrass prairie.

Bison viewing directions, Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

When we reach the bison overlook, it’s quiet. Not a bison in sight. Just a big stretch of prairie and sheets of storm clouds.

Bison overlook trail, Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

We hike a bit, then jump in the car to drive around, hoping to spot them.

Road through Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

And then, there they are.

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

We pull over, get out of the car, and watch them for a while.

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

In the distance, sandhill cranes begin to call. A bird sings from a nearby tree, but as much as I try, I can’t identify it. The bison slowly move off to the west. We hop in the car and head for home.

But we’re not done yet. Jeff, who is a history buff, wants to take a quick hike at Conrad Station, a nature preserve trail through a savanna nearby. We’ve hiked it before in the autumn, but we’ve never seen it in the spring. We try to remember exactly where the road is, leading to it, but get lost on back roads. It begins to rain. We turn the windshield wipers on. Swish. Swish. Things don’t look promising.

Driving through the rain near Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Then, we see the sign marking the ghost town.

Entrance to Conrad Station Savanna, Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

The rain has tapered off to dull pewter skies. We find the trailhead.

Trail through Conrad Station Nature Preserve, Morocco, IN.

Here in the savanna, the old town of Conrad Station once stood. Ruins of shattered buildings are everywhere. Jeff’s a history buff, and is writing an essay about the history of this place for a journal. He walks, looks, and takes copious notes. I’m here for the hike and the plants. Cleft phlox is everywhere, sprinkled across the savanna in various hues of palest lavender, white, and purple.

Cleft phlox (Phlox bifida), Conrad Station Savanna, Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

While Jeff explores the old ruins, I try to ID the lichen on the logs. Even with iNaturalist, my trusty phone ID app, I can’t make a positive ID.

Unknown lichen, Conrad Station Nature Preserve, Morocco, IN.

The wild lupine leaves are other-worldly, sparkling with raindrops.

Wild lupine (Lupinus perennis), Conrad Station Savanna, Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

History and plants. A good way to spend an hour. We are both so excited about our twin pursuits that we lose track of time. But as we drive back to the highway to return home in heavy traffic, we have no regrets.

An afternoon well spent.

*****

John Burroughs (1837-1921) whose quote kicks off this post, was a conservationist, writer, and naturalist. The seventh of ten children, he grew up on a farm in the Catskill Mountains of New York, where he fell in love with the rural life and the natural world. His father refused to send him to college, so Burroughs taught school to earn money to further his education. The John Burroughs Medal is awarded each year in April to a distinguished book of natural history (rarely fiction). I’m trying to read through them all, beginning with the most current. It’s a very diverse collection of medal-winners, and I’m enjoying the journey.

*****

Join Cindy for an upcoming program!

Online: Chasing Dragonflies: A Quick LookThursday, April 15, 12:30-1 p.m., Glen Ellyn Rotary Club. For information, visit www.glenellynrotary.org

A Brief History of Trees in America: Online, Wednesday, April 28, 7-8 pm CST 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.

SPRING WILDFLOWERS OF PRAIRIES AND WOODLANDS ONLINE, Thursday, May 6, 6:30-8 p.m. The Morton Arboretum. Join Cindy for a virtual hike through the wildflowers of late spring! Hear how wildflowers inspire literature and folklore. Discover how people throughout history have used wildflowers as medicine, groceries, and love charms. 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.

Three Reasons to Hike the April Prairie

“Little things make big things happen.”–John Wooden

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In the woodlands, the hepatica are opening. Have you seen them?

Sharp-lobed hepatica (Hepatica nobilis acuta), East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Toothwort, spring beauties, and prairie trillium keep them company. In the prairie wetlands, marsh marigolds ring in the spring.

Marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), Cindy’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL (2017).

Is there a more exciting time in the Midwest than the first week of April? It’s too early for most prairie wildflowers in my northeast corner of Illinois. Give them a few more weeks, especially if the prairie was recently burned. But the prairie has other goodies to offer. Here are three reasons to go for a hike on the prairie this week.

1. In early April, some of the mostly unseen life of the prairie is made visible.

Meadow voles and prairie voles are cartographers, whose debossed maps across the tallgrass are mostly invisible the rest of the year under blankets of blooms and grasses. So much activity!

Meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus) and prairie vole (Microtus ochrogaster) tunnels across the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Anthills, those towering structures that go unnoticed and unremarked (unless you stumble across one on a workday), are standouts this week. I’m reminded of how little I know about these important insects, and their role on the prairie. There is always so much more to learn.

Ant structure, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Hole, holes, everywhere. Hiking cross-country across the prairie, the cinders from the prairie burn crunch crunch crunch under my feet, I barely grasp the sheer numbers of holes I see. Who are the occupants? Likely a wide assortment of mammals, reptiles, and insects. I wonder at this hole—is it a crayfish home? Illinois has 23 species of crayfish; I know very little about them. But I’d like to know more.

Possible crayfish hole (species uncertain), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Many of the holes and burrows are strewn with detritus or slung about with spiderwebs.

Burrow for unknown mammal with evidence of its snacks, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Early April is full of reminders that the prairie always has more to discover. It’s a never-ending story for those who are curious. The life of the prairie underground is a vital part of understanding what makes a tallgrass prairie healthy and vibrant. And yet. So much of my attention is focused on the life above the surface. I need to go deeper.

2. The first identifiable prairie plants are up.

And what a joy it is to see those spears of spiked lime green and shout: “Rattlesnake master!”

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The porcupine grass shoots of prairie dropseed, slightly singed by the prairie burn, are enough to make anyone smile.

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Walking the trails, I see small rounded leaves and whisper: Shooting star! My mind races ahead to the pink blooms to come.

Shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

April is only beginning to rev up her plant engine. Temperatures in the seventies and warm rains this week will invite more growth. These first small plants are a foreshadowing of the future.

3. Prairie ponds are open; prairie streams now run ice-free and clear.

Any day, common green darner dragonflies will return from the south or emerge from the prairie waterways. The first ones have already been sighted in the Chicago Region.

Common green darner (Anax junius), Nachusa Grassland, Franklin Grove, IL. (2020)

Along the shoreline of Willoway Brook, I spy mussel shells, likely discarded by raccoons. The ones I find on my hike today are each as big as my hand. I’m reminded that in the early to mid 1900s, Illinois had a thriving pearl button industry, fueled by freshwater mussels. Today, mussel-shell buttons are replaced by plastic.

Freshwater mussel shells (unknown species), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The mussel shells are nestled in green shoots. As a prairie steward, I’m aware of the verdant growth of invasive reed canary grass along the shoreline, already in process. I get the message. There is a lot of stewardship work to be done in the coming months.

The Schulenberg Prairie in early April.

Even in these early weeks of spring, I’m stunned by the prairie’s diversity. It’s a different awareness than in summer, when insects, blooms, and birds are center stage. Ants, crayfish, small mammals…the prairie burn aftermath briefly illuminates them for leisurely study. Soon, I’ll be distracted by the flying critters and colorful flowers of late spring and summer. Early April reminds me that there is so much more to the prairie than what can be seen in a single season.

By Willoway Brook, I stop for a moment and study the reflection of the trees beginning to leaf out in the savanna. The surface wobbles—now clear, then rippled—by the strong breezes which have swirled dust plumes across the ashes of the prairie this week.

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

I reflect on the past year.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL (2018)

Then I think of the tallgrass season ahead. The life of the prairie unfolding.

So much to anticipate.

******

After the NCAA basketball tournament final last night, it seems appropriate to kick off this blog with a quote from Coach John Wooden (1910-2010). The beloved “Wizard of Westwood” won ten—count ’em—ten NCAA basketball championships in a dozen years (and seven in a row). His teams also won a consecutive record 88 games–wow! Read more about John Wooden here.

******

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

THIS WEEK! Virtual Wildflowers Walk Online: Section A: Friday, April 9, 11:30 am to 1:00 pm CST Woodland Wildflowers, Section B: Thursday, May 6, 6:30 to 8:00 pm 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.

A Brief History of Trees in America: Online, Wednesday, April 28, 7-8 pm CST 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.

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.

After the Prairie Burn

“Barn’s burnt down. Now I can see the moon.”—Mizuta Masahi

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Look what’s rising over the newly-burned prairies. Sugar Moon? Worm Moon? Paschal Moon? By any name, it is beautiful.

Full moon over Cindy’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL.

At the Morton Arboretum just outside Chicago, there’s another sort of moonscape this week.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The Schulenberg Prairie, which burned a week ago.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Few people walk the just-burned prairie.

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Can you blame them, when hundreds of thousands of spring bulbs are in bloom in parks and preserves and backyards, not far away?

Crocus (Crocus vernus), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Native wildflowers are up in the woodlands. Virginia bluebells emerge, with leaves like ping pong paddles.

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), College of DuPage East Ecological Study Area, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Jacob’s ladder unspools its ferny leaves in the savannas.

Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans), College of DuPage East Ecological Area, Glen Ellyn, IL.

On the unburned Belmont Prairie just a few miles from my house, rattlesnake master spears through the soil.

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

Native wild strawberries spread their leaves in the sunshine. Soon, white flowers and tiny strawberries will cover the prairie remnant here.

Wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

So much green growth on the prairies I walk this week! So many signs of spring flowers. You can see why people are out admiring the spring flowers.

Daffodil (Narcissus sp.), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

No wonder a blackened landscape holds little attraction.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

And yet. There is a different sort of way of experiencing beauty here.

Robin (Turdus migratorius), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

There’s a sense of something given away today in exchange for something in the future. A willingness to let go. To reset. To start over.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Loss is here, make no mistake about it. Fire is deadly. Fire is voracious. The prairie’s old apple tree, a relic of settlement, is burned beyond recognition. After years of surviving prescribed burns, it seemed a certain centenarian. Now, it will not see another season.

Old apple tree (Malus domestica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I’ll miss passing this little piece of history on my prairie hikes; a reminder that people like the ones who planted this apple tree—or its predecessors —forever changed the Midwest prairies. Another tree not far from it, which was prime real estate for the Baltimore orioles and their nests, will have to be removed for the safety of volunteers and visitors.

Fire-damaged tree on the edge of the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I walk the black earth and find more casualties. Bones. Two baby turtles, unable to scramble away from the wall of fire. A tiny beetle.

After the prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

All of these losses—and others—-are small griefs, but griefs none the less. Prairie management means trade-offs. What gives life to one plant or animal may be a death knell for another.

Signs of life are here—if you look closely. Tiny insects buzz along the singed earth.

Unknown insect—maybe a bee or wasp?—Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Mallard ducks quack their way down Willoway Brook.

Mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos), Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

And when I see the charred prairie willows…

Prairie willlows (Salix humulis humulis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…with their spring-soft “puffs”…

Prairie willows (Salix humulis humulis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…I feel the life of the prairie continuing on, more vibrant than before.

After the fire.

*****

Mizuta Masahide (1657–1723), whose quote begins this post, studied poetry under the tutelage of Matsuo Basho (1644 –1694) in Japan. Another of his lovely poems: While I walk on/the moon keeps pace beside me:/friend in the water.

*******

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

Virtual Wildflower Walks Online: Section A: Friday, April 9, 11:30 am to 1:00 pm CST Woodland Wildflowers, Section B: Thursday, May 6, 6:30 to 8:00 pm 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.

A Brief History of Trees in America: Online, Wednesday, April 28, 7-8 pm CST 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.

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.