Tag Archives: Prairie Writing

A Prairie Wildflower Ambassador

“One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between man and nature shall not be broken.” —Leo Tolstoy

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I thought I’d missed the rare white lady’s slipper orchids as I’ve hiked the prairies in Illinois this spring. Turns out, they were just running fashionably late.

White lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum), Illinois.

Aha! Here you are. Welcome back.

White lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum), Illinois.

If you look at Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rericha’s amazing reference guide, Flora of the Chicago Region’s entry for the orchid, the blooms aren’t late at all. Their entry notes that this orchid may flower between April 23 and June 2. So “late” is relative—just my own experience. White lady’s slipper orchids are so tiny; not like their bigger cousins, so they are also easy to overlook.

White lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum), Illinois.

In some regions of Illinois, these little orchids are visited by small native halictid bees. The scientific name, Cypripedium is from the Greek, meaning “Aphrodite,” the goddess of love and beauty. The specific epithet, candidum, means “shining white.” Appropriate for this unusual wildflower.

White lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum), Illinois.

The legal status of the small white lady’s slipper is “threatened” in Illinois; it is also ranked as “rare.” White lady’s slippers are also monitored as Plants of Concern through the Chicago Botanic Garden to continually assess their health and abundance in Illinois. (Visit them to see how you can help!) These orchids are jewels of the moist sunny prairies, and don’t handle shade well. When prairie remnants are neglected and left unburned, shrubs and trees take over and reduce the amount of habitat for this wildflower. It’s another reason for us to manage and care for our irreplaceable tallgrass prairies.

Prescribed fire on an Illinois prairie (March 2021).

These lovely orchids are also great ambassadors for conservation. While most folks won’t get too excited about other high-quality plants flowering now, such as bastard toadflax…

Bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata), Illinois.

…. or hairy beardtongue, just about to bloom…

Hairy beardtongue (Penstemon hirsutus), Illinois.

…violet sorrel…

Violet sorrel (Oxalis violacea), Illinois.

…or the common valerian…

Common valerian (Valeriana edulis var. ciliata), Illinois.

…all ranked “eight” or higher in Flora of the Chicago Region’s co-efficiency of conservatism, they will get excited about lady’s slippers (a “10”–of course!). Orchids bring out the desire to protect and save prairies in Illinois. While the various prairie photo locations in today’s blog are left undivulged (for the protection of these lovely wildflowers), knowing the orchids continue to grow and thrive are a delight to our collective imagination. As “wow wildflower ambassadors,” they also help communities preserve prairies where less charismatic critters live, like the tiger moth caterpillars…

Tiger moth caterpillar (possibly the reversed haploa moth, Haploa reversa), Illinois prairie.

…or the eastern wood-pewee, which hangs out along the prairie edges…

Eastern wood-pewee (Contopus virens), Illinois.

…and other creatures which need healthy natural areas to survive. Finding the orchids alive and thriving this spring makes me feel optimistic for the future of the tallgrass prairie.

White lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum), Illinois.

Thanks, orchids.

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Note to the reader: No locations are given for today’s blog because of the conservation status of the orchid. The photographs above are from several different Illinois prairies.

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The opening quote is from Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), the author of such works as War and Peace and Anna Karenina. His writing on non-violent resistant influenced Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gandhi. Tolstoy was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature many times and also, the Noble Peace Prize, but never won; these decisions continue to be controversial today.

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Join Cindy for a program or class! Visit www.cindycrosby.com for more upcoming events, and updates on any Covid changes or requirements for in-person gatherings.

Thursday, May 26, 10:30am-noon: Stained Glass Stories of the Thornhill Mansion, in person at The Morton Arboretum. Open to the public. Register here.

Thursday, May 26, 6:30-8 pm: Add a Little Prairie to Your Garden, hosted by Old St. Patrick’s Church Green Team on Zoom. Register here.

Sunday, June 5, 2-3:30 pm: Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers, Downers Grove Public Library and Downers Grove Garden Club. Kick off National Garden Week with this in-person event! Open to the public. Click here for more information.

Wednesday, June 8, 7-8:30 p.m. Lawn Chair Lecture: The Schulenberg Prairie’s 60th Anniversary. The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Bring your lawn chair and enjoy sunset on the prairie as you hear about the people, plants, and creatures that have made it such a treasure. Tickets are limited: Register here.

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If you love the natural world, consider acting on behalf of Save Bell Bowl Prairie. Read more here about simple actions you can take to keep this important Midwestern prairie remnant from being destroyed by a cargo road. Thank you for caring for prairies!

May on the Tallgrass Prairie

“Perhaps it is because we have been so long without flowers that the earliest seem to be among the most beautiful.” — Jack Sanders

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Gray skies. Tornados. Rainbows. Raw temperatures. Rain.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

What a week it’s been! Not optimal for being outside. Nevertheless, I went out for a “short” hike on the Schulenberg Prairie Monday between rain showers. Two hours later, I didn’t want to go home.

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

There is so much to see on the prairie in May.

Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Common valerian—one of my favorite prairie plants—is in full bloom.

Common valerian (Valeriana edulis var. ciliata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Such a strange, alien-esque sort of wildflower! It is sometimes called “tobacco root” or “edible valerian,” and despite reports of its toxicity, Native Americans knew how to prepare it as a food source. Early European explorers noted it had a “most peculiar taste.” The closer you look…

Common valerian (Valeriana edulis var. ciliata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

…the more unusual this plant seems. Bees, moths, and flies are often found around the blooms.

Common valerian (Valeriana edulis var. ciliata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

A white leaf edge causes the plant appear to glow. Later, the stems will turn bright pink. Gerould Wilhelm in his doorstopper book with Laura Rericha, Flora of the Chicago Region , gives this uncommon plant a C-value of “10.” It’s a stunning wildflower, although not conventionally pretty. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

The prairie violets are in bud and in bloom, with leaves that vary from deeply lobed…

Prairie violet (Violet pedatifida), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

… to fan-shaped.

Prairie violet (Violet pedatifida), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Cream wild indigo, splattered with mud, spears its way toward the sky. Blooms are on their way.

Cream wild indigo (Baptisia bracteata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Long-tongued bumblebees work the purple dead nettle for nectar. This non-native annual in the mint family is aggressive in garden beds and on the prairie’s edges, but we don’t have much of it in the prairie proper.

Possibly the two-spotted bumblebee (Bombus bimaculatus) on purple dead nettle (Lamium purpurem), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Leaves, as well as flowers, offer studies in contrast and color this month. Wood betony is on the brink of blooming.

Wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Queen of the prairie, with her distinctive leaves, is almost as pretty at this stage as it will be in bloom.

Queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Compass plants’ distinctive lacy leaves are May miniatures of their July selves.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

In the nearby savanna, rue anemone trembles in the breeze.

Rue anemone (Anemonella thalictroides), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

Although they won’t fully open in the drizzle, yellow trout lilies splash light and color on a dreary day.

Yellow trout lilies (Erythronium americanum), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

It’s a time of rapid change on the tallgrass prairie and savanna. Each day brings new blooms. Each week, the prairie grasses grow a little taller. It’s difficult to absorb it all.

Purple meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

But what a joy to try!

Woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata laphamii), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Why not go see?

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The opening quote is from Jack Sanders’ (1944-) book, Hedgemaids and Fairy Candles: The Lives and Lore of North American Wildflowers. The book is jam-packed with fascinating lore about some of my favorite blooms. Thanks to Mary Vieregg for gifting me this book–it’s been a delight. A similar book from Sanders is The Secrets of Wildflowers. Happy reading!

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Join Cindy for a Program or Class

May 3, 7-8:30 p.m.: Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Fliers, at the Winfield Area Gardening Club (Open to the public!), Winfield, IL. For more information, click here.

May 5, evening: 60 Years on the Schulenberg Prairie, Morton Arboretum Natural Resource Volunteer Event (closed to the public).

May 18, 12:30-2 p.m.: 100 Years Around the Arboretum (With Rita Hassert), Morton Arboretum Volunteer Zoom Event (Closed to the public).

June 5, 2-3:30 pm.: Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers, Downers Grove Public Library and Downers Grove Garden Club. Kick off National Garden Week with this in-person event! Open to the public. Click here for more information.

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Time is running out for a precious Illinois prairie remnant. Save Bell Bowl Prairie! Find out what you can do to help at www.savebellbowlprairie.org

Showers of Wildflowers

“All we have to do is turn off our phones, use our senses, and take note of the bewitching beauty that turns up on almost every walk, often in the smallest of things—lichen, moss, insects, raindrops. Anyone can cultivate the capacity to marvel.” — Annabel Streets

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Freeze warning. Monday evening, I cover the newly-planted violas in light of the forecast. I bought a few six-packs in a fit of enthusiasm a month ago. They’ve given me joy on my sheltered front porch. Flowers! Color. I’ve brought them in most nights, keeping them from the worst of the bitter temperatures. This weekend, the thermometer hit 80 degrees and I planted out one of the six packs as well as some of my spring garden vegetables. Normally, the sugar snap peas, onion sets and other early veggies would have gone in two weeks ago. But it’s just been so darn dreary and cold.

Rainy day at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

The hot weather this weekend was a nice break from all the rain, rain, rain. Our backyard is wet in the best of times. With the recent rainfall it’s a quagmire. Our knee-high waterproof boots, caked with mud, stand at the ready by the door—necessary for any trip to the compost bin, or to check on the status of new backyard prairie plant shoots. On one trip outside, I pick a bouquet of daffodils and find a sleepy native miner bee snuggled into the flower folds, out of the rain.

Mason bee (Osmia sp.) on daffodil (Narcissus sp.), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

My marsh marigolds are relishing the rainfall. When we moved to our tiny suburban yard 24 years ago, one of the first things we did was dig a small pond and plant one marsh marigold on the edge. Yup, just one plant. Two dozen years later, they have spread, a golden necklace that says “spring” to me each season.

Marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Some folks, seeing how rambunctious these marsh marigolds are, are suspicious. “Are you sure they’re not fig buttercup?” they ask, referring to a pernicious invasive plant, sometimes known as “lesser celandine” or even, “pilewort.” Although some sources say this invasive plant isn’t in my Illinois county, we know better. A wet area in the subdivision across the street has a large spread of lesser celandine (Ficaria verna, or if you prefer the old name, Ranunculus ficaria). It looks a lot like my marsh marigolds from a distance, doesn’t it?

Lesser celandine, or fig buttercup (Ficaria verna), Glen Ellyn, IL.

Take a closer look. One easy way to tell the invasive lesser celandine from the native marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) is to flip the blooms over.

Lesser celandine ( Ficaria verna, left) and marsh marigold (Caltha palustris, right), Glen Ellyn, IL.

See the (somewhat blurry) three green sepals on the back of the lesser celandine on the left (top image)? The back of the marsh marigolds on the right are a solid yellow. There are other differences as well in the leaves and the flowers, but this is a quick and easy method for distinguishing the two. If you want to become better acquainted, grow the marsh marigold in a swampy place in your yard. Their exuberant blooms will cheer you every spring, even in the throes of our exasperating Midwestern swings of weather.

Marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

As you hike the prairies and woodlands this week, look for the marsh marigold blooming in the wetter areas. And think of the other wildflowers you’ll see! Hepatica, an early spring woodland favorite, keeps its old leaves through the winter. You can spot their dark maroon and bright green lobed leaves in the lower left-hand side of this image below.

Sharp-lobed hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Close by, the new season’s furred hepatica leaves push up from the leaf litter.

Sharp-lobed hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Hepatica blooms in various hues of violet…

Sharp-lobed hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…and also, palest pearl.

Sharp-lobed hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Across the trail, mayapples unfurl emerald umbrellas against the rain.

Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

False rue anemone trembles in April’s blustery weather.

False rue anemone (Enemion biternatum), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Toothwort, with its jagged “toothy” leaves, carpets the woodlands this week in the Chicago region.

Toothwort (Cardamine concatenata), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Spring beauties are in bud and in bloom. On a rainy day, they—like many spring woodland wildflowers—will close, or partially close.

Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The first leaves of wild ginger are a promise of blooms to come.

Wild ginger (Asarum canadense reflexum), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Jacob’s ladder is ready to burst into bloom any day now.

Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

More wildflowers are in bloom, and many more are on the way. Who knows what else you might see? Daily, the blooms change as new species open and others decline.

As I hike, a burst of tangerine and black distracts me from the wildflowers.

Eastern comma butterfly (Polygonia comma), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

It’s an eastern comma butterfly! It flutters across the woods, then lands in a patch of sunshine. Yes, I know it’s a common Illinois butterfly, but it’s my first butterfly sighting of the year. Delightful if only for this reason.

So many joys! So much to see.

Spring ephemerals, however, are just that….ephemeral. Blink! And they’ll be gone. Why not go for a hike this week and see them while you can? Who knows what marvels you might discover?

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The opening quote for today’s blog is from Annabel Streets’ “52 Ways to Walk: The Surprising Science of Walking for Wellness and Joy, One Week at a Time.” One of my favorite passages is this: “Seek out the work of naturalists and nature writers, who can alert us to the miraculous spots of sublimity we might not otherwise notice. Knowledge doesn’t counter mystery; it enlarges it.” Absolutely.

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Upcoming Events and Programs (more at http://www.cindycrosby.com)

Join Cindy for a Spring Wildflower Walk at The Morton Arboretum! Learn some of the stories behind these fascinating spring flowers. April 28 (woodland) and May 6 (woods and prairie, sold out) (9-11 a.m.). In person. Register here.

May 3, 7-8:30 p.m.: Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Fliers, at the Winfield Area Gardening Club (Open to the public!), Winfield, IL. For more information, click here.

May 5, evening: 60 Years on the Schulenberg Prairie, Morton Arboretum Natural Resource Volunteer Event (closed to the public).

May 18, 12:30-2 p.m.: 100 Years Around the Arboretum (With Rita Hassert), Morton Arboretum Volunteer Zoom Event (Closed to the public).

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Time is running out for our prairie remnants in Illinois. Save Bell Bowl Prairie! Find out what you can do to help at www.savebellbowlprairie.org .

The Tallgrass Prairie: Annual Books Edition

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

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

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

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

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

In December, many of us are on hiatus from active prairie stewardship work. During the winter months, we recharge our batteries and curl up with a good book on the tallgrass so we’ll be a little smarter and more inspired for the growing season ahead.

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

With this in mind, it’s time for the “Tuesdays in the Tallgrass” annual book roundup. This year, I grouped a few recommended prairie books in a slightly different way for you. I hope that makes your holiday shopping (or library check-outs) a little easier! I also added a few of my favorite prairie gifts.

Ready? Let’s read!

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For the thoughtful prairie reader:

I can’t resist the “through the year” types of books, organized by month and taking readers through the seasons. Paul Gruchow’s Journal of a Prairie Year (Milkweed Press) continues to be one of my favorites. Few books really dig into the marvels of the winter season on the prairie, and this is one of them.

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

For the PRairie ACTIVIST:

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

FOR THE GARDENER WHO WANTS TO BE INSPIRED BY PRAIRIE:

I’m also looking forward to Vogt’s forthcoming book, Prairie Up: An Introduction to Natural Garden Design, coming from University of Illinois Press in the new year. Voigt also has an awesome collection of prairie T-shirts and other fun extras. I gifted myself with the “Prairie Hugger” t-shirt and a “Reprairie Suburbia” mug this season. Check out his website here.

Already have a prairie in your yard? Meet kindred spirits in Fred Delcomyn and Jamie Ellis’ “A Backyard Prairie,” a beautiful book of essays and photographs (Southern Illinois University Press). I met Fred when he took my Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online class through The Morton Arboretum, and it is a delight to see his lovely book out in the world.

For the children in your lIFE:

Across the Prairie Coloring Book — Claudia McGehee. These sell out, so get yours quick on Etsy! Fun, relaxing, and pandemic-friendly solace for adults who like to color as well. I confess I have a copy for myself, as well as copies for several of my grandchildren. McGehee is also the author of The Tallgrass Prairie Alphabet children’s picture book from University of Iowa Publishers. She has some other great children’s picture books and artwork you can find on her website, Claudia McGehee Illustration.

Sarah, Plain and Tall –Patricia MacLachlan (HarperCollins) This Newbery Award-winning novel, first published in 1985, is great for elementary-aged kids, and available in a 30th anniversary edition. Sure, it’s not about the prairie plants here—it’s about the story! But what a great way to introduce kids to the tallgrass prairie region. The Hall of Fame movie (starring Glen Close as the mail-order bride) is a delight — rent it at the library, or watch for it on a streaming service near you.

For someone new to prairie, or just wanting to get better acquainted:

The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction–Cindy Crosby (Northwestern University Press) I wrote this book when I looked around for a short, simple read that I could give to my prairie volunteers who wanted to understand what a prairie was, and why we manage it the way we do–and couldn’t find one. Only 140 pages, all technical terms are defined, and there’s a chapter on planting a prairie in your yard.

When you want to dive Deep Into tallgrass prairie — the more pages, the better:

Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass PrairieJohn Madson (Bur Oak Books) This is the book I used to recommend to my prairie volunteers, but several told me that 340 pages was 200 pages too much! For some of us, however, the more pages the better. If you want to dig deep into the history of the tallgrass prairie, this is a THE classic.

If you like pretty prairie pictures:

Visions of the Tallgrass–-Harvey Payne (Oklahoma University Press). One hundred seventeen beautiful photographs by Harvey Payne, featuring the Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in northeastern Oklahoma.

Tallgrass Prairie Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit (Ice Cube Press)— Cindy Crosby and Thomas Dean (Ice Cube Press) If you enjoy this blog, you’ll find similar type short essays and prairie photographs in this team effort from myself and Tom, alternating voices and spanning prairies from Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois.

Picturing the Prairie: A Vision of Restoration by Philip Juras (Little Bluestem Press). If you caught the Chicago Botanic exhibit of his work, you’ll want to own this book which includes 54 paintings of some of my favorite prairies (including Nachusa Grasslands) and an essay by Stephen Packard. It’s on my Christmas list!

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

I really enjoy browsing Karen’s Nature Art to find images of prairie on everything from mugs to cell phone cases to fabric. Karen is part of my Tuesdays in the Tallgrass volunteer group on the Schulenberg Prairie, and her work directly reflects the countless hours she spends immersed in caring for prairie.

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

For the history or literature buff:

The Tallgrass Prairie Reader edited by John T. Price. I believe this is one of the most important pieces of natural history literature in the past decade. Why? It preserves a wide variety of writings on the tallgrass prairie from 42 authors, grouped chronologically from the 1800’s to the 21st Century. (Full disclosure — an essay of mine is included). Price’s edited volume reminds us of the richness of prairie literature, and the need for more voices to speak for prairie.

For the prairie volunteer or steward who wants technical advice:

I enthusiastically recommend The Tallgrass Prairie Center Guide to Restoration in the Upper Midwest by Daryl Smith, Dave Williams, Greg Houseal, and Kirk Henderson for anyone looking for a comprehensive guide to planting, restoring, or caring for prairie on sites both big and small. If it’s not in this volume, you probably don’t need to know it. I own two copies, just in case I lose one!

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I hope you found some new books that caught your interest, or saw a few old favorites that you want to re-read or gift to a prairie friend. Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive list. Rather, these are a few highlights. And please explore some of my past posts on prairie books—there are many wonderful prairie books out there not mentioned in this year’s essay.

What books on tallgrass prairie do you recommend? Please share your favorites in the comments below and keep the literary conversation going. And as always, if you purchase a book, support your local independent bookstores and small publishers. They need you!

Happy reading!

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The opening quote is from Ann Patchett (1963), finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for The Dutch House the author of my personal favorite of hers, Bel Canto. Patchett is the owner of Parnassus Bookstore in Nashville, TN.

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Upcoming Speaking Engagements

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

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

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

‘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.

*****

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.

*****

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.

fullfrostmoon111119WM.jpg

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

westsideprairieplantings111119WMsnow.jpg

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.

stiffgoldenrodcolorbelmontprairie111119WM.jpg

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.

belmontprairie111119grassesWM.jpg

The sharp relief of form.

roundheadedbushclover111119WM.jpg

The grace of silks and seeds.

milkweedpappus111119WMBelmontPrairie.jpg

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.

BelmontPrairiesnow111119WM.jpg

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.

milkweedsnow111119WM

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

BelmontPrairieandWoods111119WM.jpg

…blurs the jagged silhouettes of seed heads.

palepurpleconeflower111119WM.jpg

We have entered the season of frosty geometry.

belmontprairiecompassplant111119WM.jpg

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.

tallcoreopsisBelmontPrairie111119WM.jpg

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.

belmontprairiesnowyday111119WM.jpg

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