Tag Archives: Prairie Stewardship

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.

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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.

The Prairie Skies in March

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unknown feather, Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

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

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

Crane watching, Glen Ellyn, IL.

A sun halo appears.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome back.

*****

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

*****

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

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

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

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

A Tallgrass Prairie Thaw

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

*****

Drip. Drip. Drip.

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

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

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

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

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

The sound of thaw.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s been a beautiful winter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

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

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

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

I’m ready.

***

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

*****

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

February 24, 7-8:30 p.m. CST: The Prairie in Art and Literature– Online. The tallgrass prairie is usually thought of for its diverse community of plants, animals, and insects. Yet, it is also an inspiration for a creative community! In this interactive online talk, natural history author and prairie steward Cindy Crosby will explore historical and contemporary writers and artists, musicians, and other creatives working in the prairie genre: from Neil Young to Willa Cather to graphic comic artists, quilters, and jewelers expressing the prairie through their work. See the prairie in a new light! Come away inspired to appreciate and express your love of the tallgrass as you enjoy learning about this prairie “community.” Offered by The Morton Arboretum: Register here.

Prairie Snow Messages

“…How swiftly time passes in the out-of-doors where there is never a moment without something new.”– Sigurd Olson

******

It starts with graupel. Icy pellets of rimed snow. Soft hail. The graupel rattles the windows. Pelts the patio. Bounces like tiny ping-pong balls across my backyard and into the prairie patch. The winter storm is here.

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

Four mourning doves swoop onto the porch. They peck-peck-peck the scattered millet seed around the bird feeders, then shelter under the eaves. Darkness falls. The wind rattles the windows. And at last, it begins to snow.

A light snow cover has blanketed the prairies this week. Critters leave clues to their identities.

Eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) or fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) tracks, Lambert Lake, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The prairie grasses, overshadowed by wildflowers most of the year, find snow is the perfect backdrop to showcase their charms.

Prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), Prairie Walk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Snow is a stage for tallgrass shadows and silhouettes to play upon.

Cordgrass (Spartina pectinata) and gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Turkey tail fungi sift snow, letting it powder each arc of nuanced color.

Turkey tail fungi (Trametes versicolor), Lambert Lake, Glen Ellyn, IL.

In shrubs and thickets, black-capped chickadees shelter from the storm. They know how to endure.

Black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

From a distance, Indian hemp seems stripped of all but pod and stem.

Dogbane or Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Come closer. A few seeds still cling to the scoured pods, ready to set sail in the high winds.

Dogbane or Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), Prairie Walk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Everywhere is something to spark wonder. “Even an adult can grow in perception if he refuses to close the doors to learning,” wrote Sigurd Olson in Reflections from the North Country. There are stories to be listened to…

Ash tree (Fraxinus sp.) with emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis) gallery, Lambert Lake, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…messages to be read in the midst of the snow, if only we can decipher them. If we keep the doors to learning open.

Emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis) gallery, Lambert Lake, Glen Ellyn, IL.

When the doors to learning stand open, what is there to discover?

Perhaps, diversity is beautiful.

Mixed prairie grasses and forbs, Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Or, Think of future generations, not just of the needs or desires of the moment.

Lambert Lake, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Remember the past, but don’t get stuck there.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Prairie Walk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Embrace change, even when it’s difficult. It usually is.

Lambert Lake, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Appreciate what you have today…

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

…it may not be here tomorrow.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

The choices we make aren’t always clear or easy.

Mixed forbs, Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

There are a lot of gray areas.

Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

But it’s never too late to reflect. To listen. To learn.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

And then, to move forward.

Lambert Lake hiking trail, Glen Ellyn, IL.

There is so much to see and think about on the prairie.

Common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

So much to pay attention to.

Coyote (Canis latrans) tracks, Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

So much to consider, on a prairie hike in the snow.

*****

Sigurd Olson (1899-1982), whose quote opens this post, was born in Chicago and grew up in northern Wisconsin. He is considered one of the most important environmental advocates of the 20th Century. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area—over one million acres in size—owes its preservation to the work of Olson and many others. Olson worked as a wilderness guide in the Quetico-Superior area of Minnesota and Canada, and his nine books explore the meaning of wilderness and the outdoors. He is a recipient of the John Burroughs Medal, the highest honor in nature writing, for Wilderness Days. If you haven’t read Olson, I’d suggest beginning with The Singing Wilderness. A very good read.

*****

Join Cindy in 2021 for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a complete list of virtual offerings. All classes and programs with Cindy this winter and spring are offered online only. Join me from your computer anywhere in the world.

Begins Monday, February 6 OR just added —February 15 (Two options): Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online--Digitally explore the intricacies of the tallgrass prairie landscape and learn how to restore these signature American ecosystems as you work through online curriculum. Look at the history of this unique type of grassland from the descent of glaciers over the Midwest millions of years ago, to the introduction of John Deere’s famous plow, to where we are today. We will examine different types of prairie, explore the plant and animal communities of the prairie and discuss strategies specific to restoring prairies in this engaging online course. Come away with a better understanding of the tallgrass prairies, and key insights into how to restore their beauty. All curriculum is online, with an hour-long in-person group Zoom during the course. You have 60 days to complete the curriculum! Join me–Registration information here.

February 24, 7-8:30 p.m. CST: The Prairie in Art and Literature Online. The tallgrass prairie is usually thought of for its diverse community of plants, animals, and insects. Yet, it is also an inspiration for a creative community! In this interactive online talk, natural history author and prairie steward Cindy Crosby will explore historical and contemporary writers and artists, musicians, and other creatives working in the prairie genre: from Neil Young to Willa Cather to graphic comic artists , quilters, and jewelers expressing the prairie through their work. See the prairie in a new light! Come away inspired to appreciate and express your love of the tallgrass as you enjoy learning about this prairie “community.” Offered by The Morton Arboretum: Register here.

A Very Prairie New Year

“There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.”—Barry Lopez

******

And so we come to the last days of 2020. Hope glimmers dimly on the horizon, but the darkness is still with us.

Christmas Star, just past conjunction, Danada Forest Preserve, Wheaton, IL.

As we step through the shadows into 2021…

Trail through the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…we’re reassured by the orderly progression of the seasons. On the prairie, little bluestem paints patches of red and rust.

Little bluestem (Schizychrium scoparium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I think of the novelist Willa Cather’s words: “I wanted to walk straight on through the red grass and over the edge of the world, which could not be very far away.”

We marvel at ordinary pleasures as simple as sunlight bright on an ice-filled stream.

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

We welcome back the longer daylight hours—more of an idea now than a reality, but gradually becoming noticeable.

No matter what twists and turns lie ahead…

Wild River Grape (Vitis riparia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…there is solace in the beauty of the natural world.

Grey-headed coneflower (Ritibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

As we hike the prairie for the last time together in 2020, I wish you good health.

Ice crystals and big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)

Freedom from fear and anxiety.

Round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

A long-awaited reunion with friends and family—-when it’s safe to do so.

Tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

And—a renewed capacity for joy and wonder. No matter the circumstances. No matter what is in the news each day. Despite the challenges the new year will bring.

Pasture rose hips (Rosa carolina), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Keep paying attention.

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Keep hiking.

Prairie plantings along the DuPage River, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Goodbye, 2020.

Late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Welcome, 2021.

Happy New Year!

*****

The opening quote is by author Barry Lopez (1945-2020), who passed away on Christmas Day. If you’ve not read his books, a good one to begin with this winter is Arctic Dreams, which won the National Book Award in 1986. He wrote compellingly about wolves and wilderness. Read more about him here.

*****

Please note: As of this week, I’ve moved all photo identifications and locations to captions under the images. Enjoy!

******

Join Cindy in 2021 for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a complete list of virtual offerings. All classes and programs with Cindy this winter and spring are offered online only.

January 14-February 4 (Four Thursdays) 6:30-8:30 pm CST Nature Writing II Online. Deepen your connection to nature and your writing skills in this intermediate online workshop from The Morton Arboretum. This interactive class is the next step for those who’ve completed the Nature Writing Workshop (N095), or for those with some foundational writing experience looking to further their expertise within a supportive community of fellow nature writers. Over the course of four live, online sessions, your instructor will present readings, lessons, writing assignments, and sharing opportunities. You’ll have the chance to hear a variety of voices, styles, and techniques as you continue to develop your own unique style. Work on assignments between classes and share your work with classmates for constructive critiques that will strengthen your skill as a writer. Ask your questions, take risks, and explore in this fun and supportive, small-group environment. Register here.

February 24, 7-8:30 CST: The Prairie in Art and Literature Online. The tallgrass prairie is usually thought of for its diverse community of plants, animals, and insects. Yet, it is also an inspiration for a creative community! In this interactive online talk, natural history author and prairie steward Cindy Crosby will explore historical and contemporary writers and artists, musicians, and other creatives working in the prairie genre: from Neil Young to Willa Cather to graphic comic artists and jewelers expressing the prairie through their work. See the prairie in a new light! Come away inspired to appreciate and express your love of the tallgrass as you enjoy learning about this prairie “community.” Offered by The Morton Arboretum: “ Register here.

5 Reasons to Hike the December Prairie

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Their puffs of brilliant white brighten gray days.

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

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

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

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

Ice laces the edges.

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

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

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

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

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

You’ll be glad you did.

******

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

*****

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

*****

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

Little Prairie in the City

“Wherever we look, from the dirt under our feet to the edge of the expanding cosmos, and on every scale from atoms to galaxies, the universe appears to be saturated with beauty.”–Scott Russell Sanders

********

We went looking for beauty. We found it in the northwest corner of Illinois, on a day both foggy and cold.

The 66-acre Searls Park Prairie and wetland is tucked into a mosaic of soccer fields, jogging trails, picnic grounds, and a BMX bike track. Once part of a 230-acre family farm homesteaded in the 1850’s, today the prairie is a designated Illinois Nature Preserve and part of the Rockford Park District.

Fog drizzles the tallgrass with droplets, but no light sparkles. Staghorn sumac lifts its scarlet torches in the gloom, bright spots of color on this gray, gray day.

This remnant is mostly mesic prairie; or what I call the “Goldilocks” type of prairie—-not too wet, not too dry. Well-drained. Just right. Black soil prairie was once coveted by farmers as a fertile place for crops—farmers like the Searls, no doubt. For that reason, most black soil prairies have vanished in Illinois.

It’s quiet. Even the recreational areas are empty in the uncomfortably damp late afternoon. No soccer games. No picnics. The BMX bike track is closed.

The prairie seems other-worldly in the silence.

Prairies like this, tucked into cities, are important sanctuaries. Searls Park Prairie is known for hosting three state-listed threatened or endangered plant species. I don’t see any of the rare or endangered plants on my hike today. But I do see Indian grass….lots and lots of Indian grass.

Its bright bleached blades are etched sharply against the misty horizon. The colors of the drenched prairie are so strong, they seem over-exposed.

Thimbleweed, softly blurred in the fog, mingles with…

…round-headed bush clover, silvery in the late afternoon.

Canada wild rye is sprinkled with sparks.

Gray

Inhale. Ahhhh. Gray-headed coneflower seedheads are soggy with rainwater, but still smell of lemons when you crush them.

I pinch the hoary leaves of bee balm. Thymol, its essential oil, is still present. But the fragrance is fading.

Mountain mint has lost most of its scent, but still charms me with its dark, silvery seedheads.

Stiff goldenrod transitions from bloom to seed, not quite ready to let go of the season.

Overhead, a flock of tiny birds flies over, impossible to identify. There are rare birds here, although I don’t see any today. On our way to the prairie, we marveled at non-native starlings in the cornfields along the interstate, moving in synchronized flight. I’ve never been able to get this on video, but there are great examples of this flight found here. I’ve only seen this phenomenon in the autumn; one of the marvels of the dying year. Once seen, never forgotten.

On the edge of the prairie, wild plums spangle the gloom.

Such color! Such abundance.

I’ve read there is high-quality wet prairie here, full of prairie cordgrass, blue joint grass, and tussock sedge. We look for this wetter area as we hike, but the path we’re on eventually disappears.

No matter. So much prairie in Illinois is gone. So little original prairie is left. I’m grateful to Emily Searls for deeding her family’s farm to the city of Rockford almost 80 years ago, ensuring this prairie is preserved today.

So much beauty. We hardly know where to look next.

The sun burns briefly through the fog like a white-hot dime.

Dusk is on the way, a little early. We make our way back to the car, just ahead of the dark.

There are many different ways to think of beauty.

It’s always available for free on the prairie, in all its infinite variations.

Why not go see?

********

The opening quote is from Scott Russell Sanders’ (1945-) The Way of Imagination. Sanders is professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN, where Jeff and I lived for a dozen or so years. After writing the opening quote, he follows it with “What are we to make of this?” and later “How then should we live, in a world overflowing with such bounty? Rejoice in it, care for it, and strive to add our own mite of beauty, with whatever power and talent we possess.” Oh, yes.

All photos from Searls Park Prairie, Rockford, IL (top to bottom): fog over the Searls Park Prairie; Illinois nature preserve sign; staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); white vervain (Verbena urticifolia); dedication plaque; foggy landscape; indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica); round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata); canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum); fog on the prairie; stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum); indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and wild plum (Prunus americanus); wild plum (Prunus americanus); autumn colors; Jeff on the Searls Park Prairie; sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus) in the mist; foggy day on the Searls Park Prairie; prairie landscape in the fog; unknown umbel.

*****

Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization–now booking talks for 2021. Email Cindy through http://www.cindycrosby.com.

Literary Gardens Online: Friday, Dec.4, 1-2:30 p.m.CST– Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby from wherever you live in the world for a fun look at great (and not-so-great) gardens in literature and poetry. From Agatha Christie’s mystery series, to Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Goudge, Rumer Godden, May Sarton, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Gilbert, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, and Lewis Carroll–and many more! This class is online. Register here through The Morton Arboretum.

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

Chasing Dragonflies Final Cover 620.jpg

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

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (phrelanzer). Or visit her website at http://www.cindycrosby.com. See you there!

5 Reasons to Hike the February Prairie

“…Some say that February’s name comes from an ancient and forgotten word meaning “a time that tries the patience.” — Hal Borland

*******

February is the shortest month of the year. But it may seem like the longest.

Culver's Root COD 2920WM.jpg

Big, wet snowflakes fall outside. I welcome the snow—-it brightens up the seemingly endless gray skies that feature so prominently this month. Snow helps lift my mood. Hiking the prairie? Even more so.

Illinoisbundleflower2920WM.jpg

Let’s take a stroll on the prairie…

prairieparking2920CODWM

…and find five good reasons to walk it in February.

1. Experience Weather Swings

Indecisive February!

Trail through COD PRairie 2920WMWM.jpg

The weather shivers between rain, sleet, sunshine and snow. To hike the prairie this month is to experience shifts of temperature in real time. Feel the freezing sleet on your face. Admire the snowflakes that collect on your sleeve. Crystals play on a hundred thousand seedpods, as precipitation pelts the prairie plants.

Milkweed in the Sleet COD PrairieWM 2920.jpg

I love to discover transitions on the prairie as the temperatures plunge and rise.

Pond on the Russell Kirt Prairie COD 2920.JPG

There’s the tension between freeze and thaw; sunshine and leaden skies; the snap of ice under our boots and the suck of mud. February is all about our impatience for the last month of meteorological winter to finish and the first month of meteorological spring to arrive in Illinois. Hurry up! Our minds are already turning to spring. But what a loss it would be, if we failed to enjoy what February has to offer.

2. Signs of the Unseen

I rarely glimpse the meadow voles, prairie voles, or white-footed mice during the warmer months in the tallgrass. Although once in a while I’m surprised, as Jeff and I were this spring when we reached into a prairie trail map box and found these tenants.

SurpriseMiceTwoWolfRoadPrairieWM102019

In winter, these mostly-invisible members of the tallgrass community are betrayed by their tracks and tunnels. I think about them as I follow their progress across the prairie.  The collapsed snow tunnels. An occasional escape hole. And my favorite—the sewing machine “stitches” —-tiny tracks evenly spaced—that criss-cross the trails.

Mouse trail COD Prairie 2920WM.jpg

As we hike, Jeff and I leave our tracks alongside their prints—and the tracks of geese, coyotes, deer, and other members of the prairie community. I like that. It reminds me that we’re all a part of this place.

ridgelineCODPrairie2920WM.jpg

3.  Plant Silhouettes

The same gray skies that plunge some of us into seasonal affective disorder throw prairie plants into sharp relief this month. It’s a new perspective. Indian hemp pods swing in bundles, bereft of any seeds.

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I’m more aware of the ribbon-like curves of big bluestem leaves, shorn now of  their turkey-footed seadheads.

Big bluestem COD Prairei 2920WM.jpg

I enjoy the rhythmic sway of Indian grass, pushed by periodic blasts of Arctic wind.

IndianGrass CODPrairie2920WM

Prairie cinquefoil takes on a ghostly aspect, blurred in the falling sleet.  Its silhouette makes me think of tulips. Of the bulbs beginning to spear through the garden in my backyard. Of spring.

Cinquefoil2 COD PRairie 2920WM.jpg

These grasses and wildflowers won’t be here long.

Fire is coming.

Little Bluestem Use this oneWM COD 2920

4. Unexpected Gatherings

When I think “grassland birds,” mourning doves aren’t exactly what comes to mind. But hiking the College of DuPage’s Russell Kirt Prairie this weekend, that’s what turned up. Notice how this mob has fluffed out their feathers against the cold—like down vests, puffy and tinged with color. It reminds me of the down vests I wore in the 1970s.

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Why did they choose this tree on the prairie, and not another? What are they murmuring about? I wonder. After a bit of looking around on birding websites, I discover a group of doves is called a “dole” or “dule,” and sometimes, a “cote, a “bevy,” and even, a “flight.” Flight? Maybe not. These birds look like they’ve settled in for the long haul.

Mourning Doves COD2920WMWM.jpg

Seeing them in the tree reminds me of one of my favorite scenes from the original 1967 Disney adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book.” Remember the four vultures, loosely modeled on the Beatles, talking to each other in a tree? “What do you wanna do?” one asks. “I dunno, what do you want to do?” And so it goes. I can imagine these mourning doves asking each other the same question, over and over. Makes me smile.

5. Snow Magic

Hike the prairie in February, and you’ll be aware of contrasts. Snow is the mitigator. A light dusting of snow makes everything softer, brighter, more appealing. Snowmelt softens the crisp edges of senescing plants, like this prairie dock leaf.

COD Prairie Dock 2920WM.jpg

Cup plants, cracked and brittle…

COD Prairie CupplantsTALLWM 2920.jpg

…become a foil for the crystal flakes, their veins and wrinkles more obvious now than in the summer. This leaf looks like footed pajamas hung on a laundry line, doesn’t it?

Cup Plant COD Prairie 2920WM.jpg

A sprinkling of snow makes February’s gray skies seem a little brighter.

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A little snow makes the month of February a little more do-able. More digestible. Beautiful. Why not go for a hike and see for yourself?

COD Trail in the Snow 2920WM.jpg

February will be over before you know it.  The prairie is waiting.

*****

This winter, I’ve been enjoying the writing of Hal Borland (1900-1978), whose quote from A Sundial of the Seasons, 365 days of natural history observations, opens this post.  It was tough to find his books—all out of print, I believe— so I’m once again grateful to the marvelous Sterling Morton Library of the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL,  which carefully curates vanishing works of literature like Borland’s. Thanks to Mary Joan for introducing me to to his work. The original opening quote is prefaced by the caveat, “There’s no evidence to support it in the dictionaries, but some say… .” Ha!  If the actual etymology of the word “February” isn’t true, the supposed meaning certainly is.

*****

All photos this week are taken at College of DuPage’s Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL, except where noted (top to bottom): Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum);  Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis); “Prairie Parking” sign with unknown lichens; snowy trail through the prairie; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); COD pond; white-footed mice (Peromyscus spp.), Wolf Road Prairie, Westchester, IL (photo from 2019); mouse and vole trails through the snow;  top of the ridge on COD’s Russell Kirt Prairie; Indian hemp, sometimes called dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum); big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); prairie cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta—us older prairie folks will remember it as Potentilla arguta); little bluestem (Schizachryium scoparium); mourning doves (Zenaida macroura); mourning doves (Zenaida macroura); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum); cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum); tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima) and wild bergamot, sometimes called bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); snowy trail through the prairie.

*****

Please join Cindy for a class or talk!

Pre-Valentine’s Event! The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Shop: February 13 (Thursday) 8-9 p.m., Park Ridge Garden Club, Centennial Activity Center 100 South Western Avenue Park Ridge, IL. Free and open to the public! Book signing follows.

Wheaton Book Signing! Local Authors Event.  Sunday, 2-3 p.m., Prairie Path Books in Town Square, Wheaton, IL. Free and open to the public. Click here for details.

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

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

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

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