Tag Archives: Prairie Writing

‘Tis the Season of Prairie Grasses

“There is nothing in the world so strong as grass.” —Brother Cadfael

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I’m baking sourdough bread and humming Van Morrison’s song “When the leaves come falling down.” It’s mid-November, but the trees glow. Today’s wind and snow are conspiring to loosen leaves from their moorings.

West Side, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Through my kitchen window, I see my prairie patch covered with yellow silver maple leaves from my neighbor’s yard. The gold flies through the air; sifts into Joe Pye weeds, cup plants, prairie cordgrass, culver’s root, and compass plants. When it comes time to burn next spring, these leaves will help fuel the fire.

When the leaves come falling down.

When the leaves come falling down.

Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

Outside, the air is sharp and earthy. It smells like winter. Daylight grows shorter. The last chapter of autumn is almost written.

In an open meadow, a coyote stalks and pounces. Missed! It’s a field mouse’s lucky day.

Coyote (Canis latrans), Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Mallards paddle ponds in the falling snow, oblivious. Their emerald heads shine like satin. Mallards are so common in Illinois we rarely give them a second glance. But oh! How beautiful they are.

Mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos), Lake Marmo, Lisle, IL.

I scoot closer to the water for a better view. A muskrat startles, then swims for the shoreline to hide in the grasses.

Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus), Lake Marmo, Lisle, IL.

Across the road in the savanna, virgin’s bower seed puffs collect snowflake sprinkles. Bright white on soft silk.

Virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

The savanna is striking in the falling snow.

Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

But I only have eyes for the prairie. November is the season for grass.

Indian grass.

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

Big bluestem.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL. (2019)

Prairie dropseed.

Prairie dropseed (Panicum virgatum), and leadplant (Amorpha canescens), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

So much grass.

In My Antonia, Willa Cather wrote of the prairie:

“… I felt motion in the landscape; in the fresh, easy-blowing morning wind, and in the earth itself, as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping, galloping …” 

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

In Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie, John Madson told us that weather extremes favor grasses over trees. No wonder the Midwest, with its wild weather vagaries, is a region of grass.

Bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (August, 2020)

In her essay, “Big Grass,” Louise Erdrich writes: “Grass sings, grass whispers… . Sleep the winter away and rise headlong each spring. Sink deep roots. Conserve water. Respect and nourish your neighbors and never let trees get the upper hand.

Grass.

In November, grass slips into the starring role.

The best fall color isn’t in the changing leaves.

It’s here. On the tallgrass prairie.

Why not go see?

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The quote that kicks off this post is from An Excellent Mystery by Ellis Peters, the non de plume for scholar Edith Mary Pargeter (1913-1995). She was the author of numerous books, including 20 volumes in The Cadfael Chronicles; murder mysteries set in 12th Century England. I reread the series every few years and enjoy it immensely each time.

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Join Cindy for a class or program!

Winter Prairie Wonders: Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass! Dec. 3 (Friday) 10-11:30 am (Central): 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.

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Just in time for the holidays! Northwestern University Press is offering The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction and Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History (with watercolor illustrations by Peggy MacNamara) for 40% off the retail price. Click here for details. Remember to use Code Holiday40 when you check out.

Please visit your local independent bookstore (Illinois’ friends: The Arboretum Store in Lisle and The Book Store in Glen Ellyn) to purchase or order Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit for the holidays. Discover full-color prairie photographs and essays from Cindy and co-author Thomas Dean.

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Save Bell Bowl Prairie! Visit the website to find out how you can help keep this critical remnant from being bulldozed in Illinois. One phone call, one letter, or sharing the information with five friends will help us save it.

Autumn Arrives on the Tallgrass Prairie

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

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

Schulenberg Prairie trail, Lisle, IL.

…to a startling aquamarine fleeced with clouds.

Ware Field plantings, Lisle, IL.

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

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

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

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

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

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

…to smooth.

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

Pale asters froth up like foamy cappuccinos.

Ware Field planting in early September.

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

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

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

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

But most of all, I delight in the gentians.

Autumn on the prairie, DuPage County, IL.

Welcome back.

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

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

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

But the blue gentians are an extra dollop of delight.

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

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

Blue-blue-as if that sky let fall

A flower from its cerulean wall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why not go see?

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


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

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

Summer’s Finale on the Tallgrass Prairie

“Earth teach me quiet, as the grasses are still with new light.”–Ute Prayer

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Goodbye, summer. I’m not sad to see you go.

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

I’m ready for less humidity. More cool breezes.

Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Less chaotic headlines. More peace and stability.

I’m ready for change.

Swamp Thistle (Cirsium muticum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Meteorological summer draws to a close on the tallgrass prairie today. The signs of autumn are all around us, from the sheets of goldenrods….

Mixed goldenrods and late summer wildflowers, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

… to the fringed swirls of deep purple New England asters, to the pale amethyst obedient plant spikes.

Obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

You can feel autumn nearing in the slant of light. The air is pixelled, a bit grainy. Mornings dawn later and cooler, a little less of the “air you can wear” humid.

Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Anise hyssop…

Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…is a hummingbird magnet, both on the prairies and in my backyard prairie planting. When the hummers finish nectaring at the hyssop, they bounce from the cardinal flowers to the zinnias, then over to the sugar-water feeder. According to Journey North at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, ruby-throated hummingbirds eat between one-and-a-half to three times their weight in food each day. Imagine if we did that! (Hello, ice cream!) This time of year, they are in a state known as hyperphagia, in which they fuel up for migration.

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

Journey North, which tracks hummingbird migration sightings, notes that the males may have already left for the south by the end of August. Females and young ones will follow this week and next. Each one migrates alone. I wonder what it feels like, flying so far, looking for flowers to nectar at along the way?

Blazing star (Liatris aspera) and late summer wildflowers, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

On my prairie hikes this week, I see insects. So many insects! Wasps. Praying mantis. Grasshoppers. Robber flies.

Giant Robber Fly (possibly Promachus vertebratus), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Robber flies are so bizarre! This one is a Billy Gibbons look-alike. Robber flies ambush other insects in flight, then land and suck the juices out of them. There are stories of robber flies preying on wasps, bees, and even hummingbirds! Their nickname is “cannibal fly” because they snack on each other. Yikes!

Wingstem (Verbesina alterniflora), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Although robber flies are strange looking, skunk cabbage seedpods may get my award for “most bizarre late summer find” this year. I was out with Dr. Elizabeth Bach at Nachusa Grasslands on a dragonfly monitoring run this past week, and we waded into a boggy area. I recognized skunk cabbage immediately.

Eastern Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

But not the seed pod. She was kind enough to point it out.

Eastern Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) seed pod, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Cool! I would have thought it was some type of fungi. In the same wet area, we found the cream of the late summer wildflowers. A small stand of turtlehead…

Turtlehead (Chelone glabra), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

…virgin’s bower, twining among the false buckwheat at the edge of the woods…

Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

…and lots of swamp betony (or “swamp lousewort” or “marsh lousewort” as it is sometimes called).

Swamp Betony (Pedicularis lanceolata), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

August is also bloom time for one of my favorite wildflowers: the great blue lobelia. Love that eye-popping color! I find this wetland native at Nachusa Grasslands, and I also have it around my backyard pond.

Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilatica), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The name “tallgrass prairie” is apt for this last day of August. Off the trail, it’s tough hiking through the curtain of grasses. Big bluestem, switchgrass, Indian grass, and cordgrass, are in all stages of flowering and seed. Little bluestem in seed reminds me of July Fourth sparklers.

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

When I leave the prairie, I’m powdered with pollen from a hundred different blooms. As I brush off my shirt, I think of September. So close I can feel it. This has been a summer full of truth-is-stranger-than-fiction happenings; a savage season of tornadoes and drought; and a summer of a continuing pandemic that just won’t quit. I won’t miss these things.

It’s also been a summer of knock-out wildflowers….

Common Sneezeweed (Helenium autumale), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…beautiful sunsets and cumulus clouds like whipped cream; blue moons and butterflies; tiger beetles and tiger swallowtails; and a host of wonders free for the viewing—if we take time to pay attention. It’s these everyday miracles of the natural world that sustain me amid the chaos seemingly all around.

Thank you for these bright spots, summer.

And now….Welcome, fall.

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The opening quote is from a Ute Prayer, given here in its entirety from the Aspen Institute: Earth teach me quiet, as the grasses are still with new light. Earth teach me suffering ~ as old stones suffer with memory. Earth teach me humility, as blossoms are humble with beginning. Earth teach me caring, as mothers nurture their young. Earth teach me courage, as the tree that stands alone. Earth teach me limitation, as the ant that crawls on the ground. Earth teach me freedom, as the eagle that soars in the sky. Earth teach me acceptance, as the leaves that die each fall. Earth teach me renewal, as the seed that rises in the spring. Earth teach me to forget myself, as melted snow forgets its life. Earth teach me to remember kindness, as dry fields weep with rain. The Ute were an indigenous tribe that once lived in what is present day Utah and Nevada. Very few Utes survive to the present day.


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Join Cindy for a class or program this fall!

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.

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.

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

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

Walking the November Prairie

“To put one foot in front of the other is one of the most important things we do.” — Erling Kagge

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Last night, the “Frost Moon” or “Beaver Moon” rose in newly-clear skies, bringing with it plunging temperatures and blue shadows across the snowy backyard prairie patch. I stepped outside to breathe the brittle air.

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I’d forgotten what it felt like to be cold—really cold.

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Watching the winter weather advisory unfold Monday from behind the windows at home had left me vaguely dissatisfied.  I wanted to be outside.  So, I drove to the Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, a few precious remnant acres saved from development and the plow; sandwiched between I-88, a subdivision, and railroad tracks.

Gusts of winds blew snow into my face and dotted my camera lens.

belmontprairiesnowydayandcold111119WM.jpg

The prairie had been transformed. Overnight.

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On Sunday, almost 24 hours before, Jeff and I strolled the Belmont Prairie together under gray skies. The smell of snow was in the air—-a promise of what was to come. For now, temps were in the 40s.  Milkweed pods sent their seeds aloft in the breezes.

milkweedbelmontprairieWM111119.jpg

Cooling temperatures had sucked most of the vivid colors from the plants. A few, such as these tall coreopsis, were bruised out of their summer greens by the elements.

tallcoreopsiscolorBelmontPrairie111119WM.jpg

The last sunset hues were still in evidence on stiff goldenrod stems and foliage.

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Although I walk the prairies from week to week, year-to-year, I’m always surprised when the bright colors are drained seemingly overnight by a wave of cold. Without so much color—and the motion and buzz of dragonflies and butterflies–your eyes adjust to a new prairie reality. Lovely in its own way. But different.

So much of the November prairie is about the simplicity of line.

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The sharp relief of form.

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The grace of silks and seeds.

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The essence of the prairie season is distilled in its November plants, now winding down to an inevitable conclusion.

blazingstarbelmontprairie111119WM.jpg

As we hiked Belmont’s trails in the late afternoon’s burgeoning dark, a great-horned owl called from the trees. The perfect ending to our walk. We hurried back to the car.

Cold was coming. A wintery mix….just hours away.

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Monday, we woke up to snow, snow, beautiful snow.  I drove to the Belmont Prairie, this time alone.

What a difference 24 hours makes.

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The snow-sugared milkweed pod still holds seeds, but now they’re wet and matted. The goldenrod behind it bends under the weight of the white stuff.

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The sky sifts snow; softens the blunt edges of the prairie, outlines its structures…

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…blurs the jagged silhouettes of seed heads.

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We have entered the season of frosty geometry.

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Even the sounds have changed.  The snow dampens the rustle and hiss of grasses in the wind. I listen for the owl. Nothing. All I hear is the hum of traffic moving on nearby I-88.

Until. The sandhill cranes.

Their cries are faint—oh so faint—but unmistakable. They are headed south, toward warmth and sunshine. I shield my eyes in the snow, watching them go. It’s melancholy. But joyful as well. Another season is ending. A new one is beginning.

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As I head back to the car, I see  lights in the windows of houses sprinkled around the prairie. A woman, bundled to the eyes, shovels her driveway. The scrape-scrape-scrape is sharp and loud across the snow-blanketed landscape. Down the street that runs next to the prairie, a police cruiser pauses, idles.

tallcoreopsisbelmontprairiesnowday111119WM.jpg

My cheeks are red; my hands are glove-less and sting and ache.  The wind whips ice crystals in my eyes. Each step I take on the narrow trails is uncertain. And yet.

When we put one foot in front of another, it changes us.

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In his book, Walking, Erling Kagge writes,  “Making things a little bit inconvenient gives my life an extra dimension.” I feel this tug all the time; the desire to be comfortable and the nagging knowledge that discomfort is often the gateway to discovery.  There is a longing to be a participant in the prairie community, as well as an observer.

Kagge writes, “So much in our lives is fast-paced. Walking is a slow undertaking. It is among the most radical things you can do.” Its rare that I’m not rewarded when I push myself out of my comfort zone.

The radical rewards of prairie walking keep me going back for more.

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Erling Kaage (1963-) is the author of Silence and also, Walking: One Step at a Time, from which the opening quote is taken. He has walked to the North Pole, the South Pole, and to the summit of Mt. Everest.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): almost full “Frost Moon,” —sometimes called “Beaver Moon”— over author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; west side prairie planting and the European collection, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve in the snow, Downer’s Grove, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie grasses, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL;  common milkweed pappus (Asclepias syriaca), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; blazing star (Liatris aspera), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; snowy Belmont Prairie in mid-November, Downer’s Grove, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) under snow, Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; the edge of Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) over Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris) seedheads, Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris) leaves, Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; Belmont Prairie in the snow, Downer’s Grove, IL.

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Please join Cindy for one of these upcoming classes or talks:

Saturday, December 7, 1:30-3 p.m.—Sterling Stories from the Arboretum Stacks: Grab a friend and spend a lively hour together sipping hot beverages while you enjoy little-known stories about the Morton Arboretum. What’s that old fountain doing in the library? Why was there a white pine planted in the May Watts Reading Garden? Who is REALLY buried in the Morton Cemetery—or not? What book in the Sterling Morton Library stacks has a direct relationship to a beheading? Why does the library have glass shelves? How has salt been a blessing —and a curse—to the Arboretum over its almost 100 years? Listen as 33-year Arboretum veteran library collections manager Rita Hassert and  Cindy Crosby spin entertaining tales of a place you thought you knew….until now.    A lovely afternoon enjoying little known Arboretum’s stories, and a quiet respite from the holiday hustle and bustle. Register here.

Sunday, December 8, 2-3:30 p.m.: Tallgrass Conversations at Prairieview Education Center, 2112 Behan Road, Crystal Lake, IL 815-479-5779 Book signing after the talk! Free and open to the public.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online wraps up this month! Watch for the next course in March. Registration opens on November 19 here.

Nature Writing continues at The Morton Arboretum, on-line and in-person through November 20. Next session begins March 3, 2020. Watch for registration soon!

Find more at www.cindycrosby.com