“Mornings were cooler and crisper than before. The ever-lengthening shapes of afternoon shadows seemed drawn more irresistibly into the night. Fields were rough and tweedy, as though an old brown woolen jacket had been thrown over them to ward off the chill.” — Vincent G. Dethier
Oh, wow, October. The prairie is stunning. Although it’s not to everyone’s taste.
“No flowers,” say some of my friends. Yes, the blooming flowers now are few. Goldenrods. Asters.
They melt into the grasses, slowly becoming invisible. Going. Going. Gone—to seed.
Most prairie wildflowers have closed shop for the season.
They surrender to the inevitable with elegance.
Ravenous insects glean whatever is left for the taking.
So many insects.
They make themselves at home in the prairie wildflower remains.
Autumn trickles through my fingers.
Each day seems over before I’ve fully woken up. I remind myself, “Pay attention!” But—the prairie is beginning to blur. I rub my eyes and try to focus. So many seeds. So much grass.
It’s all about the grass.
Loops and whoops and swoops of grass.
Even my old enemy, the invasive reed canary grass on the prairie, shimmers in the morning dew.
The wind sighs as it sifts the grasses. The coda is near.
What new wonders will unfold?
I only know this: The wonders will be more nuanced. Less easily available as immediate eye candy than when in the growing season. But no less remarkable.
We’ll have to pause. Think. Absorb. Take time to look. To really look.
Why not go for a hike and see? Now. Before the snow flies?
The prairie is waiting.
Vincent G. Dethier (1915-1993) was an entomologist and physiologist, and the author of Crickets and Katydids, Concerts and Solos from which the opening blog post quote was taken. This is a delightful book and accessible to anyone who loves natural history, or who has found joy in the grasshoppers, crickets and katydids of the tallgrass prairie. It takes a little extra work to find the book at your library. Well worth the effort.
Thanks to Nature Revisited Podcast for their interview with Cindy about dragonflies and prairie! Click here to listen to it on Youtube.
Thanks to Benedictine University for airing:Conservation: The Power of Storywith Cindy as part of their Jurica-Suchy Nature Museum “Science Speaker Series.” See it on Youtube here.
Thank you to Mark and Jess Paulson for their tour of the Great Western Prairie this week. I was so grateful to see it through your eyes!
Join Cindy for a Program or Class!
Tallgrass Prairie Ecology: Opens online Monday, Nov.1 –Are you a prairie steward or volunteer who wants to learn more about the tallgrass? Do you love hiking the prairie, but don’t know much about it? Enjoy a self-paced curriculum with suggested assignments and due dates as you interact with other like-minded prairie lovers on the discussion boards. Then, join Cindy for a live Zoom Friday, November 12, noon to 1 p.m. CST. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. See more details here.
Winter Prairie Wonders: Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass!Dec. 3 (Friday) 10-11:30 am (CST): Make yourself a cup of hot tea, snuggle under a warm afghan, and join prairie steward and writer Cindy Crosby virtually for this interactive online immersion into the tallgrass prairie in winter. See the aesthetic beauty of the snow-covered grasses and wildflowers in cold weather through colorful images of winter on the prairies. Follow animal tracks to see what creatures are out and about, and see how many you can identify. Learn how birds, pollinators, and mammals use winter prairie plants; the seeds for nourishment and the grasses and spent wildflowers for overwintering, protection, and cover. Then, listen as Cindy shares brief readings about the prairie in winter that will engage your creativity and nourish your soul. This is scheduled as a Zoom event through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.
Save Bell Bowl Prairie!
Please visit www.savebellbowlprairie.org to learn about the planned destruction of a special gravel prairie remnant by the Chicago-Rockford Airport in Rockford, IL. Ask them to reroute their construction. Discover how you can help save this home of the federally-endangered Rusty Patched Bumble Bee. The remnant is slated for bulldozing on November 1. Every small action by those who love prairies will help!
“Thou blossom bright with autumn dew… .”—William Cullen Bryant
September on the prairie opens with a suite of delights, despite the dry weather in the Chicago region. Skies this past week veered between a celestial milky ice…
…to a startling aquamarine fleeced with clouds.
In my backyard mix of traditional garden and prairie, a Cooper’s hawk keeps an eye on the bird feeders. She considers the whole spread her personal salad bar. The chipmunks and hummingbirds won’t get close, but the squirrels take a more laissez-faire approach. Not a bunny in sight.
Fall wildflowers and grasses fling themselves into the new month, bent on completing their cycle of bloom and set seed; bloom and set seed; bloom and set seed.
The low light filters through the now-golding tree leaves, a memo from nature that time is running out for warm season pursuits. I love the seed variety in the prairies and savannas. They range from sharp…
Pale asters froth up like foamy cappuccinos.
As I hike the prairie trails, I look for some of my fall favorites. White goldenrod, which looks like an aster, is tough to find but worth the hunt. That name! Such an oxymoron.
Hyssop stands out in the savannas; a pollinator plant favorite.
But most of all, I delight in the gentians.
True, the cream gentians have been in bloom for at least a month now.
But the blue gentians are an extra dollop of delight.
As I admire the deep, deep, blues, I think a William Cullen Bryant poem about fringed gentians:
“Blue-blue-as if that sky let fall
A flower from its cerulean wall.“
I don’t find fringed gentians on my walk today, but I’ve seen them in previous years. I do discover, nearby in the tallgrass, the Stiff Gentians, sometimes called “Agueweed.” They are almost ready to open.
Soon they’ll bloom, and add their tiny flowers to the prairies.
Cool breezes! That sunshine. What a day to go for a hike. I want to wander through the tallgrass, spangled with gentians, under September skies. Inhale prairie dropseed fragrance. Feel the tallgrass brush my shoulders. Feel the cares of the past week roll off my shoulders.
Is there a better way to begin the month? If there is, I don’t know what it would be.
Why not go see?
The opening line is from William Cullen Bryant’s poem, To the Fringed Gentian. Click here to read the poem in its entirety on the Poetry Foundation’s website. You may know Bryant’s poetic line, “Truth crushed to earth shall rise again” — made famous by Dr. Martin Luther King Junior in his speech, “Give Us the Ballot.”
September 9, 9:30-11 am– in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Oswego Hilltoppers Garden Club, Oswego Public Library. Please visit the club’s Facebook page for guest information, event updates pending Covid positivity in Illinois, and Covid protocol. Masks required for this event.
September 27, 7-8:30 p.m.–in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Arlington Heights Garden Club. Please visit the club’s website here for guest information, event updates pending Covid positivity in Illinois, and Covid protocol.
“I love to roam over the prairies. There, I feel free and happy.”—Chief Satanta
It’s one of those picture-perfect days for a quick trip to Nachusa Grasslands. Sunny, cool; a few puffy cumulous floating in the sky. Bison graze around the corral area, or rest in the tallgrass.
I’m not looking for megafauna today, however. I’m looking for small stuff. My hope is to walk three of my dragonfly routes and see if anything is flying. Odonata season–the time of year I chase dragonflies—is winding down.
On one route, I see nary a damsel or dragon. There are plenty of wildflowers, like this Common Boneset.
Boneset was once used medicinally to reduce fevers, both by Native Americans and early European settlers. It’s nectar and pollen attract bees, butterflies, and other pollinators, and it serves as a host plant for several moth caterpillars, including the Ruby Tiger Moth.
Nearby, Ironweed laces the prairie with purple.
The crunch of plants under my feet are a reminder of the drought we’ve experienced in parts of Illinois this summer. Even when I strike out on seeing dragons and damsels, and my data sheet is empty, the hike is never wasted. There is so much to see!
Every route, every trail leads to new discoveries.
Still, I’m a bit discouraged by that blank data form. I head for the next route. The pond is almost empty…
…only a Common Green Darner and a pair of Twelve-Spotted dragonflies hanging around. A couple of Common Whitetails. A damselfly or two. And then—I spot it! This pretty little damselfly: the Citrine Forktail.
Look at those colors! Like a dish of sherbet ice cream. Later, at home, I read up on this species in my “Dragonflies and Damselflies of Northeastern Ohio” (a good field guide for Illinois!) and learn that the Citrine Forktail may be “irruptive” and “appear at newly mitigated wetland sites.” Notice the orange stigma, in a unique place for damselflies. At only .9 inches long, these tiny damsels blend in well with the rushes and sedges in our prairie wetlands.
I also read in Dennis Paulson’s “Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East” that there is a population of this damselfly in the Azores that consists only of females. They lay eggs which are all female! It is the only parthenogeneticOdonata population in the world. Cool! Supposedly, they can remain into November in the Midwest, if temperatures stay warm. I find two more as I hike. I hope they’ll hang out here for a while longer.
There are other treasures to be found today. Deep in the wetlands, as I search for damselflies, I find the tiny skullcap in bloom. There are three different species at Nachusa—I’m not sure which one this is.
I admire it for a bit, then continue my route. The American Cornmint, crushed under my rubber boots, sends out a delightful tang. The air is refreshed with the fragrance of menthol.
As I hike, I almost stumble over a monkeyflower.
I crouch to take a closer look. The bees are working it over.
Not far away are stands of Purple Love Grass. What a great name!
I scan around it for damselflies, but come up empty.
As the day gets hotter, and I continue walking my routes, my steps slow. The better to notice the hummingbird working the jewelweed.
Or the Springwater Dancer Damselflies in the mating wheel.
A Variegated Meadowhawk patrols a stream, moving at such a fast clip I can barely get the ID, much less a photo. These are one of Illinois’ migratory species, and also, as Kurt Mead notes in his field guide Dragonflies of the North Woods, one of the most difficult to net. I content myself with having a stare down with a male Springwater Dancer damselfly.
Along the shoreline, a cranefly sits motionless.
Sometimes, people mistake them for dragonflies. You can see why! But look closely. Nope.
The last portion of my final route involves climbing to a high overlook. Look at that view!
My legs ache, and I’m hot and sweaty despite the cooler temperatures. It’s been a good day. So much to see.
After a week of depressing headlines, a few frustrating work issues, and crazy heat and humidity, today has been a respite. I came to Nachusa feeling empty. I’m leaving with a sense of peace.
Thanks, Nachusa Grasslands.
The opening quote is from Chief Satanta, Kiowa Tribe (1820-1878). Read more about him here.
All photos in this week’s blog were taken at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.
Join Cindy for a class or program!
September 9, 9:30-11 am– in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Oswego Hilltoppers Garden Club, Oswego Public Library. Please visit the club’s Facebook page for guest information, event updates pending Covid positivity in Illinois, and Covid protocol.
September 27, 7-8:30 p.m.–in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Arlington Heights Garden Club. Please visit the club’s website here for guest information, event updates pending Covid positivity in Illinois, and Covid protocol.
If you enjoy this blog, please check out Cindy’s collection of essays with Thomas Dean, Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit. Order from your favorite indie bookseller, or direct from Ice Cube Press.
“At once [the buffalo] is a symbol of the tenacity of wilderness and the destruction of wilderness…it stands for freedom and captivity, extinction and salvation.”—Steven Rinella
Let’s take a hike “where the buffalo roam.”
I’m chasing dragonflies at one of my favorite preserves in Illinois: Nachusa Grasslands. Approximately two hours west of Chicago, Nachusa Grasslands is a 3,800-acre mosaic of tallgrass prairies and savannas. Woodlands and wetlands. Today, as a dragonfly monitor at Nachusa with access inside the bison unit, I hope to collect Odonate data at one of my favorite pond routes. But the bison have other plans for my morning. As I wade into the wetland surrounding the pond, admiring the dragonflies…
…I hear a bellow. Uh, oh. That’s the sound of a bison bull kicking up some trouble.
When you’re working in a bison unit, you don’t wait around when you hear that sound. I immediately head for my car. It doesn’t take long. Here they come!
Mamas. Papas. Baby bison.
They make a beeline for my dragonfly pond, ready to join the frogs and cool off on this sunny morning.
I enjoy watching them wade into the water and graze on the juicy vegetation. But time passes. My plans for collecting dragonfly data this morning are shot. These bison aren’t going anywhere soon.
I make myself comfortable in the car, hoping they’ll eventually move on. I don’t get out. Bison are one of the most dangerous animals in North America. Males may weigh more than 2,000 pounds. And—they’re fast! I’ve watched them tear across the prairie at top speeds of 30 mph for no apparent reason. It’s important to respect these incredible animals.
I only take photos of bison with a zoom lens from the safety of my vehicle. Even then, while working in the bison unit, I’m careful to keep my car a good distance away.
Bison can jump, too! Up to six feet. They won’t let a fence keep them from something they really, really want to do. I admire that kind of determination.
I’m grateful for the bison at Nachusa—and not only because I enjoy watching them. Without them, the prairie is incomplete. They are an important piece of the prairie puzzle. As they wallow and churn through the prairie with their hooves…
…they create spaces for other members of the prairie community to thrive.
Bison grazing habits may also free up space for prairie wildflowers.
They also fertilize the prairie with their dung. Bison patties! Good stuff for prairies.
Time passes. The bison show no sign of leaving. Looks like it’s going to be “Plan B” today. I start the car and back up, then turn around on the gravel two-track. I’ve got plenty of alternatives besides this pond for a dragonfly-chasing hike. So many exciting areas to explore!
With so many wildflowers in bloom at Nachusa…
…and plenty of other interesting prairie creatures around….
… my alternative hike on the prairie this morning will still be time well spent.
The bison are fun to see, but they’re only a bonus on a trip to Nachusa. There is so much else to discover!
Why not go for a hike and see it for yourself?
The opening quote is from American Buffalo: In Search of A Lost Icon by Stephen Rinella (2008).
All photos in this week’s blog are from Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.
Visit Nachusa Grasslands, and see the bison herd from the road pull-offs or from the beautiful new outdoor Prairie Visitor Center. Know bison safety protocol before you go: find it here. Respect the bison, and always observe them from a safe distance outside the bison unit. Want a closer look? Join Nachusa Grasslands bison tours during the “Autumn on the Prairie” celebration Saturday, September 18 to get an inside-the-bison unit view. For more information on public hiking trails and bison, visit Friends of Nachusa Grasslands’ website.
Join Cindy for a class or program this summer!
August 17, 7pm-8:30 pm —in person —“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Bloomingdale Garden Club, Bloomingdale, IL. Please visit http://www.bloomingdalegardenclub.org/events-new/ for more information and Covid safety protocol for the event and for current event updates.
September 9, 9:30-11 am– in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Oswego Hilltoppers Garden Club, Oswego Public Library. Please visit the club’s Facebook page for guest information, event updates and Covid protocol.
New to the prairie? Want to introduce a friend or family member to the tallgrass? Check out The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction (Northwestern University Press). No jargon, no technical terms — just a fun guide to navigating prairie hikes and developing a deeper relationship with the beautiful grasslands that make the Midwest special.
“Deep in July…counting clouds floating by…how we thrive deep in dragonfly summer.”—Michael Franks
It’s all smooth jazz on the tallgrass prairie this week, from sunrise to sunset.
The prairie hits its groove as it swings through mid-July. In the dewy mornings, by a tallgrass stream….
…the vibe is especially mellow. Water flows over stones. A few cumulous clouds drift over. In the tallgrass, the dragonflies warm up their flight muscles. Ready for a hot and humid day.
As the temperatures rise, the dragonflies rise with them. Time for breakfast. Dragonflies hover over our heads; patrol ponds.
Often they perch nearby on a downed log…
Or an upright twig.
No need to chase them today. If you startle one, it may fly off, then loop back to its original perch.
Their kissing cousins, the damselflies, stake out streams…
… hang out in ponds.
On the prairie, damselflies hover right above my boots.
As my eyes get older, it’s more difficult to see them. So tiny! But if I’m patient, and don’t rush my hike, there they are. Right in front of my eyes.
The eastern forktail damselflies, one of our most common species, are also one of the easiest to spot. Look for that bright green head and thorax, and the tiny blue tip of the abdomen. It’s bright amid the tall grasses.
Spreadwing damselflies are less common than the forktails on my hikes. I get a jolt of joy when I spot one half-hidden in a shady cool spot.
As I hike, I see more than dragonflies. Moths flit through the grasses.
Butterflies puddle in the gravel two-tracks through the prairie.
Wildflowers continue their exuberant displays…
…making it difficult to look at anything but blooms.
And yet. There’s so much to see on the July prairie.
Why not go take a hike and listen to that “smooth jazz” for yourself?
Michael Franks (1944-) is a singer and songwriter, whose lyrics from the song Dragonfly Summer kick off this blog post. His songs have been recorded by Diana Krall, Ringo Starr, Patti Austin, Manhattan Transfer, Art Garfunkel, and Lyle Lovett — just to name a few. Listen to his song Dragonfly Summer from the album of the same name here.
Join Cindy for a class or program this summer!
Virtual Summer Prairie Wildflower Walk: online Thursday, July 22, 10-11:30 a.m. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. No matter where you live, join me on Zoom to see the amazing summer tallgrass prairie wildflowers and hear their stories of uses in medicine, folklore, poetry, and even as love charms! Register here.
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.
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!
In some years, when you’re lucky enough to see the small white lady’s slipper orchid…
… you are astonished. And then you ask yourself—How many other wildflower marvels are waiting to be discovered that we’ve missed? Often, right under our noses.
So many unusual prairie wildflowers. Even the smallest and least colorful are tiny packages of wonder.
They’ll be gone soon.
Why not go look now?
Experience the magic for yourself.
Claude Monet (1840-1926), whose quote begins this post, was a French painter and one of the founders of the Impressionist movement. He valued “impressions” of nature, and turned the art world upside down with his paintings incorporating loose brush strokes and a feeling of light. Check out his series of water lilies paintings here.
Join Cindy for a program or class online!
The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden Online: June 2, 7-8:30 p.m. Illinois’ nickname is “The Prairie State.” Listen to stories of the history of the tallgrass prairie and its amazing plants and creatures –-from blooms to butterflies to bison. Discover plants that work well in the home garden as you enjoy learning about Illinois’ “landscape of home.” Presented by Sag Moraine Native Plant Community. More information here.
Literary Gardens Online: June 8, 6:30-7:30 p.m. Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby for a fun look at 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 Mary Oliver, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, Lewis Carroll–and many more! See your garden with new eyes—and come away with a list of books you can’t wait to explore. Registration through the Downers Grove Public Library coming soon 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. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.
“Thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented culture, and doing nothing is hard to do. It’s best done by disguising it as doing something, and the something closest to doing nothing is walking.”–Rebecca Solnit
High winds. Soaring temperatures. Sunshine and storms in the forecast. Let’s go for a hike and see what’s happening on the tallgrass prairie at the end of April.
Small clumps of sand phlox spangle the green.
The pasque flowers, transplanted from the greenhouse only a few weeks ago, made it through the mid-April freeze. One plant puts out a tentative bloom.
Look at all that growth, after the prescribed fire! The newly-minted wildflower leaves are up, as are the tiny spears of prairie grasses.
Listen! Can you hear that buzzy rattle? Insects are out and about, dusted with pollen. I wonder what flowers they raided for all that gold plunder?
A miner’s bee hangs out on Indian plantain leaves.
Shooting star, deep pink at the base, prepares to launch its orgy of flowers. The prairies are full of these charmers, which mostly go unnoticed until they bloom. Soon! Soon.
Violets are everywhere in various color combinations: blue, purple, yellow, and white with purple centers.
Many homeowners and visitors to the prairie dismiss this humble but weedy plant, but I’m in awe of its delights—from giving us the makings of perfume, the joy of a candied flower on a cake, the treatment for a headache, or the edible, nutritious leaves, high in vitamin C. The violet can explosively shoot its seeds away from the mother plant, dispersing the seeds in a new location. It also relies on ants to move its seeds around (a process known as myrmecochory).
If you look closely—and with a bit of luck—you might find the native prairie violet (Viola pedatifida), a highly-prized member of the prairie community.
Look at that fan of distinctive leaves. So unusual.
In late April, the wood betony leaves provide more color than some of the plant blooms.
The trout lilies—with their trout-like speckled leaves–invite pollinators to check them out. What a banner year this prairie and woodland wildflower is having! I think the trout lilies look like sea stars—or perhaps, each one a parachuter about to land. What do you think?
A clump of wild coffee leaves (sometimes called “late horse gentian”) reminds me I’ve not yet had my cup of java this morning.
Time to head home and pour a mug.
A whole prairie season lies ahead. I’ll be back.
The opening quote is from Rebecca Solnit (1961-), who has written more than 20 books on topics ranging from writing and wandering, the environment, western history, to feminism. If you haven’t read Solnit, try Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2001).
Join Cindy for a program or class this spring!
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. Register here.
Spring Wildflowers of Prairies and Woodlands Online: Thursday, May 6, 6:30-8 p.m. 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. Registerhere.
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.
It’s an intentionally accessible nonfiction anthology with, as Price says in his introduction, “a variety of forms, voices, and approaches—including adventure narratives, spiritual reflections, literary ethnobotany, animal portraits, ‘personal’ natural history, childhood memoir, travel writing, humor, and reportage.” These are stories, rather than how-to restoration essays. Price groups the readings in three sections—19th, 20th, and 21st Centuries. You can skip around and dip into different readings, or, as he suggests, start at the earliest reading (Black Dog’s “Sun and Moon” creation story) and read it straight through to get a sense of how people at different points in history experienced the tallgrass prairie. Absorbing reading.
If you’re looking for more of a comprehensive natural history (from glaciers to present), one of the classic narratives of the tallgrass prairie is John Madson’s Where the Sky Began.
Madson’s dry wit, his encyclopedic facts narrated in lovely prose, and his passion for prairie make the 340 pages of this book fly by. Where the Sky Began was published in 1982; Madson passed away in 1995. When my new prairie volunteers ask me what book to read to understand what a prairie is and how it came to be, Madson’s book is the first one I recommend. A classic.
Memoir and prairie make good companions, and one of my favorites remains Nature’s Second Chanceby Steven Apfelbaum.
After moving to Juda, Wisconsin, where he purchased an old 2.7 acre agricultural homestead, Apfelbaum began restoring it to health. Apfelbaum is founder and chairman at Applied Ecological Services, and has an expert knowledge of what it takes to create tallgrass prairie where it has been obliterated. His story tells how he gained an education in what it means to do so in a community where ecological restoration isn’t well understood. Chapter 10 is my favorite: “Getting to Know the Neighbors.” It will make you smile! This book is a great companion for frigid February evenings when you want a non-fiction prairie book that’s personal, and reads with the flowing narrative of a good novel.
Both books are collections of thoughtful essays on prairie, rural living, and the natural world. Grass Roots won the 1996 Minnesota Book Award, and contains an essay, “What the Prairie Teaches Us,” that I use in my tallgrass prairie ecology classes. Journal of a Prairie Year is arranged seasonally, and as Milkweed Editions (Gruchow’s publisher) notes, it is “both equal parts phenology and philosophy.” I read portions of Gruchow’s books all year round to remind myself to pay attention to what’s unfolding all around me.
Most prairie wildflowers and grasses are battered or buried under a foot of snow this week. Some are almost unrecognizable at this time of year. I’ve found that a great way to deepen my relationship with plants is to browse some of my ethnobotany books—discovering how people have used these native plants throughout history. Learning the plants’ stories, and how their stories are part of the human story, is an engaging way to pass the winter hours indoors.
Wildflowers of the Tallgrass Prairie: The Upper Midwest by Sylvan Runkel and Dean Roosa is now in its second edition with a new cover and much better photographs than my first edition shown above. The authors include fun snippets of information about the scientific names of more than 100 plants, and stories of how Native Americans and newcomers to the Midwest used native prairie plants medicinally, as groceries, and even for veterinary purposes. It’s easy to pick the book up for a few minutes and renew my acquaintance with a prairie grass or wildflower’s stories—then put it down. This suits my short attention span this month (which I blame on the pandemic). Read about a plant or two each day, and by the time warm weather and prescribed fire have readied the prairie for another growing year, you’ll be all set to greet the first spring wildflowers.
Kindscher’s writing is lucid and enjoyable, and a deep dive into a plants ethnobotanical story. And, if these three books on prairie plants whet your appetite for more, immerse yourself in the doorstopper encyclopedic Native American Ethnobotany by Daniel Moerman (shown above with the other three books), a fairly exhaustive compilation of native plant use by specific Native American tribes in North America. It’s an amazing reference book no serious prairie enthusiast should be without.
Now that you know more about the prairie plants’ stories, wouldn’t it be nice to go see a few? Winter is a good time for planning visits to all the prairies I hoped to visit during warmer weather—but didn’t get around to. These three books below stimulate a lot of dreaming about road trips. The Prairie Directory of North America by Charlotte Adelman and Bernard Schwartz is an out-of-print oldie, but goodie. My first edition, published in 2001, has valuable lists of small, off the beaten track types of prairies in the United States and Canada. See if you can find a used copy of either the first or second edition. The directory has been the springboard for many of my prairie hikes.
Exploring Nature in Illinois by Susan Post and Michael Jeffords, while not focused solely on prairies, has some excellent destinations including Goose Lake Prairie State Park, Nachusa Grasslands, Kankakee Sands, and more. Hiking Illinois by Susan Post includes great prairie trips such as Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, McHenry County Conservation District’s 26-mile “The Prairie Trail,” and Winnebago County’s sand prairies.
So many books! So little time. As a former independent bookseller, I’d love to pull each of my prairie books off the shelf and tell you why it’s earned a place there.
Then, you could share your favorites with me (and please do so below in the comments). There are more books than I can name, or show in the photo above, or describe here. Books on prairie restoration, plant ID, bison, birds, blooms; coffee-table photography tomes and books of prairie spiritual reflections. And I have many more prairie books on my wish list. You, too?
Of course, reading about the prairie is no substitute for the prairie itself.
But when the wind chill drops to minus 20 degrees, and winter storms close many of the roads to the tallgrass preserves, “hiking” through the pages of these prairie books is the next best thing to being there.
John T. Price (1966-) earned his M.F.A. in Nonfiction Writing and Ph.D. in English from University of Iowa. He is the author of Daddy Long Legs: The Natural Education of a Father (2013) and Man Killed by Pheasant and Other Kinships (2008) and Not Just Any Land: A Personal and Literary Journey into the American Grasslands (2004). Price is Professor of English at the University of Nebraska.
Join Cindy in 2021 for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a complete list of virtual offerings. Need a speaker? Email me through my website. All classes and programs with Cindy this winter and spring are offered online only. Join me from your computer anywhere in the world.
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.
Cindy Crosby is the author, compiler, or contributor to more than 20 books. Her most recent is "Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History" (Northwestern University Press, 2020). She teaches prairie ecology, nature writing, and natural history classes, and is a prairie steward who has volunteered countless hours in prairie restoration. See Cindy's upcoming online speaking events and classes at www.cindycrosby.com.