Tag Archives: prairie

Naming the Prairie Community

“That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.” —Aldo Leopold

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Spring is here, and with it the smell of toasted prairie.

prescribedburntwoweekslaterSPMA33119-spring.jpg A night or two of rain, some sunshine and rising temperatures, and the burned landscape greens up. Add a dollop of chlorophyll; the scent of wet earth. It’s the scent of spring in my little corner of the world.

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With the obliteration of last season’s desiccated foliage after the prescribed fire, signs of the prairie community are open for investigation. It’s worth taking a hike to go look at the hidden, now made visible for a moment in time.  The fire reveals the tunnels across the prairie. But who uses them? Meadow voles? Prairie voles? Or something more wriggly, perhaps?

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With the tallgrass cover stripped away, a giant ant hill comes into focus. Hmmm. Didn’t know that was there. Did you know a group of ants is called a “colony?” Good name for them.

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This particular mound is a big one. Soon, it will be smothered in lush grasses and wildflowers and for all purposes, invisible until next spring.

The prairie bursts with new growth on this cold, sunny day.  As I hike, Willoway brook, freed of its burden of ice, murmurs in the background.  I feel myself relax.

Almost under my hiking boot, I see a native thistle, lime green against the blackened prairie. Pasture thistle? I think so.  But I’m not completely sure.

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A bird calls from the nearby savanna. I listen, but can’t remember which species goes with the song.  Hmmm… .   I’ll be re-learning bird songs and plant ID from now until fall; saying goodbye the tattered remains of the last year’s prairie….

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… reacquainting myself with plants and birds as they make their appearance.

As I’m looking for the unknown bird calling from the prairie’s edge, I notice a maple’s bark-chewed branch. Squirrels know maple sap flows in early spring, and that they’ll get a tasty treat if they gnaw the bark. Occasionally, when the sap runs from one of the chewed places, then freezes, I break off and lick a “maple sap-sicle” —sweet and a bit earthy tasting. But it’s too warm for maple sap-sicles this evening.

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Squirrels. The collective name for a group of squirrels, I discover, is called a “scurry,” depending on what source you consult. The maple tree has its scurry of squirrels as well as birds. And that mysterious bird is singing again. I take out my phone and record it. I’ll do more research  back home.

Birds are pouring into Chicago. Every day brings arrivals from the south. A group of birds is a flock, I remind myself. Easy, right? But I recently learned that when a mixed group of birds bands together to look for the same type of food, they are called a “foraging guild.” Cool!

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Nuthatches, both the white-breasted nuthatch and the red-breasted nuthatch show up at my backyard feeders by the prairie patch each afternoon, scuffling with the downy woodpeckers for peanuts. On the edge of the prairie, I watch them peck their way around the trees. A group of nuthatches, I discover, is called a “jar.” Not sure what this nuthatch thinks about that.

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The prairie real estate market is booming. In early April, just outside of Fermilab Natural Areas’ prairies and Nachusa Grasslands, you can see large numbers of herons flying with grasses and twigs in their bills, building their nests.

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You may know that herons nesting together form a “rookery” or “heronry.” But did you know a group of these birds is called a “siege” of herons? That’s a new one for me!

Smaller, but just as interesting, are the field sparrows looking for seeds and insects on the blackened ground. I’ve seen the collective name as “host of sparrows,” “knot of sparrows,” and “quarrel of sparrows.” Which one do you prefer?

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On the two-weeks-burned Schulenberg Prairie, the male mallards are paddling along Willoway Brook, looking for mates.  Spring is the beginning of the mating season for many birds in the prairie community.  The ubiquitous Canada geese, which mate for life, are already scouting out nest sites. (Groups of geese are called “a gaggle” or a “skein.”).

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Even the mallard ducks have special names. I’ve seen the word “sord” or “sword” used; also the more expected “flight”or “flock”. Even “daggle” of ducks and “doppling” of ducks.

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Which brings us full circle to where this “group-of-living-things” tangent began, doesn’t it? It’s fun to learn the collective names of members of the tallgrass community.

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What are some of your favorites? Leave a comment and let me know. I enjoy puzzling over bird songs and plant seedlings; thinking about collective names, feeling the sun on my face and the nip of the still-sharp spring air on my nose.

But its not all delight at this time of year on the prairie. There is loss, as well. On my hikes after the burn I find the charred bones of small mice and voles, who couldn’t out-scramble the prairie flames. A raccoon with a luxurious pelt, which looks asleep, but has been felled into eternal slumber by distemper. Feathers blowing across the trail, doubtless from an arriving spring migrant that became a fox or coyote’s snack.

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It’s all part of the deep joy I feel on the prairie. Not some superficial feeling. But rather, the feeling that comes with the reality of the tallgrass. Beautiful? Yes. But it’s no Hallmark  greeting card. There is life here, with all its glorious growth and bad luck; successes and failures.

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The contrast of life and death; the familiar and the strange; cold nights and warm days; loss and renewal; all mingle together in a mish-mash of community on the just-burned prairie. So much to observe. So much to learn.

So much to love.

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So much to pay attention to.

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Aldo Leopold is best known for his book, A Sand County Almanac (1949); and also, as the father of wildlife ecology, wilderness systems in the United States, and conservation ethics. Read more about him and his work here.

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All photos and video clips copyright Cindy Crosby—today’s posts are from the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL unless otherwise noted: Schulenberg Prairie about two weeks after the prescribed burn; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) sprouting; unknown tunnel after the burn; ant mound or hill on burned prairie; Willoway Brook video clip; probably native pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor); old prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) leaf; sugar maple (Acer saccharum) branch gnawed by squirrels; white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis); white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis); great blue heron (Ardea herodias) rookery, North Aurora, IL; field sparrow (Spizella pusilla) ; Canada geese (Branta canadensis) in flight; male mallard duck (Anas platyrhynchos) (notice the band on his leg); male mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) on Willoway Brook; sunset in the Schulenberg Prairie savanna; Schulenberg Prairie after the prescribed burn;  black walnut (Juglans nigra) and new growth.

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For more on group names for living things, check out the book A Charm of Goldfinches by Matt Sewell, and these lists of collective names from the Baltimore Bird Club and MNN.com. The names used here came from these and other sources. Have fun!

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Cindy’s classes and speaking this week:

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online continues through The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Nature writing online and in-person concludes tonight at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Just released! Order from your favorite independent bookseller or Ice Cube Press here.

With grateful thanks to our sponsors: The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Friends of Neal Smith Wildlife Preserve, Grinnell College Center for Prairie Studies; and The Tallgrass Prairie Center at the University of Northern Iowa. Great places, great folks.

Tallgrass Conversations cover Cindy Pick9a

Prairie Burn Paradox

“How we spend our days, is of course, how we spend our lives.” — Annie Dillard

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I’ve been re-reading Annie Dillard’s books this week and mulling over her words, like the ones that open today’s blog post. Thinking about how to spend my time wisely. It’s a challenge, isn’t it?

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Walking the prairie after the burn, I’m reminded of time, and seasons of time, and our perception of it. As I hike, I’m surprised at the volume of sound. You’d think there would be silence on a charred landscape.

 

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But the prairie is bustling and noisy. A killdeer cries its name as it sweeps across the ruins, looking for a place to build its nest. A just-burned prairie is exactly right. I hunt for the killdeer’s nests each spring, but they are such expert camouflage artists I’ve never found one. Maybe this will be my year.

Robins chatter, hopping along the banks of Willoway Brook, sifting the ashes for something good to eat. Overhead, waves and waves of sandhill cranes move high in the air, migrating north. So many! Thousands and thousands.  This weekend was host to the largest movement of cranes I’ve ever seen at one time in the Chicago region. Pelicans were migrating, too! Check them out.

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Elation! Then I look around me. Such desolation. I always have mixed feelings after the burn. A prescribed fire on the prairie  leaves you with a sense of loss. Everything you knew written on that particular prairie slate is wiped clean. Close the book. Open a blank journal and begin a new season.SPMA32019WMburnWM.jpg

There is also a sense of relief. All my mistakes of the last year as a steward, writ large in reed canary grass growing vigorously by the brook, or the sneezeweed missing in action in the swale, are swept away.  This season, I can start fresh. Daunting? Yes. And challenging.

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The fire leaves me with a sense of hope. That thicket of brambles? This will be the year we finally knock it back. We can seed in missing milkweeds; repair a deteriorating trail, add an interpretive sign or two.

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Day by day—week by week—stewards, staff, and volunteers will write a new seasonal story together. Every pulled garlic mustard plant makes room for a new shooting star wildflower to bloom. Remove invasive buckthorn and open space and light for bee balm wildflowers to flourish.

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Rain, sunshine, snow—-they’ll all help write the new seasonal prairie story. Deer, coyotes, dragonflies, the mink who swims the creek—-they’ll each have a paragraph or two.

The just-burned landscape is prelude to the most exciting time of the year on the tallgrass prairie. New growth. The first blooms.

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The red-winged blackbirds sing me along the trail as the sun sets.  In the old, fire-damaged hawthorn tree, they mingle with brown-headed cowbirds whose lispy “clink! clink! clink!”  calls are percussion to the blackbirds’ brassy song. I try to count the birds—how many do you see?

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Annie Dillard once wrote about a “Tree of Lights” —a tree full of blackbirds. I think about her story as I watch the birds settle in for the night.

Then, another sound. Coyotes! A pack. The coyotes are invisible. but their calls are close by. Their wails and yips are both mournful and excited.

 

 

 

Exactly how I feel as I walk the burned prairie tonight.

The visible and the invisible. The old and the new. The past and the present. The coyotes announce the passing of one chapter in the prairie’s story; the beginning of a new one.

Time to turn the page.

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Annie Dillard , whose quote opens this blog, won the Pulitzer Prize for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974).  Read the full passage the quote was taken from here. One of my favorite sentences on her view of the way the world works: “It’s a hell of a way to run a railroad.” On writing: “Spend it all…do not hoard what seems good for (later).” Read the whole quote here. Wise woman. Wise words.

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All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom):  bench on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie after the burn, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American white pelicans ( Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) migrating, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; Schulenberg Prairie after the burn, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown species of moss on a burned-out log along the Schulenberg Prairie trail, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bramble (Rubus species unknown) and bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) singed by fire, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; trail through the burned Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; 19 red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus)and brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater)  in a hawthorn tree (probably Crataegus mollis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; coyotes (Canus latrans) calling on the Schulenberg Prairie at sunset, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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More from Cindy:

Just released last week! Available at your favorite bookstore or online.

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New Podcast!

Thanks to Shannon at Take A Hike Podcast in Los Angeles! Click  here for the interview. Caution! Explicit dragonfly reproduction content in this podcast. 🙂

Cindy’s classes and speaking this week:

Nature Writing (online and in-person) continues this week at The Morton Arboretum. April 1–Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden and Prairie’s Frequent Flyers: LaGrange Garden Club, LaGrange, IL. (closed event). See more classes and events at http://www.cindycrosby.com.

Spring Prairie Thaw

“Keep busy with survival…remember nothing stays the same for long, not even pain. Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go.”  ― May Sarton
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Mid-March in the Chicago region feels like emergence from a long dream.  The world is waking up. Slowly.
We blink in the sunshine. Rub our eyes. Stretch.
Listen!
What’s that sound?
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It’s the sounds of water. The prairie creek thaws. At last!
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Melted snow runs into cracks and crevices. Water tunes up; provides a musical soundtrack for the tallgrass once again.
Sure, it’s not officially astronomical spring until March 20, another week away, when winter officially ends.
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 But you can see the transitions in play.
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Not quite spring yet? Tell that to the birds. They know better. Soon, migrants will pour through the skies, piping their songs to us Midwesterners. We’ll ask each other, “Was that a white-throated sparrow singing?” They are common migrants and occasional winter residents here in Illinois. Every spring, I hear them calling on their way north, headed for the upper Midwest and Canada. It’s just a matter of days, now. I’m listening.
Speaking of birds…In the tallgrass, one has pecked through the Chinese mantis egg case  I’ve been watching all winter. The case is in tatters. Goodbye, little future insects! Praying mantises are pretty merciless predators themselves, so perhaps it’s justice.
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It’s a savage world out there, especially at the end of winter when survival is still bitterly won. Hunger gnaws. Reserves are low. Hang on. Don’t quit. Sit it out. You can make it!
Soon, the March mud season will give way to color and song. For now, I welcome the sunshine, the melt and the thaw.
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Cardinal songs in the morning. The “oke-a-leeeeee” conversations of red-winged blackbirds as I hike the prairie trails by the brook.
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The first green shoots. The last old stands of dried grasses and wildflowers, fuel for the coming prescribed burn. You can feel spring trying to punch through the cold; break out of the gray and the gloom.
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The old order is passing. Something new is on the way.
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Breathe in. Can you detect spring in the air? It’s in the scent of water. The smell of earth. That subtle scent of green. Feel the mud cling to your boots. Hear spring’s tentative first notes as the prairie community warms under the March sun.
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Later, we’ll demand more than these small pleasures from the tallgrass.
But for now, they are enough.
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The poet May Sarton (1912-1995), whose quote begins this post, was also the author of numerous fiction and nonfiction books, including “Recovery.” She was particularly interested in aging, illness and depression (and our responses to both); solitude; personal, emotional, and artistic growth; our need for community and dependency on others; and the close observation of the natural world. Read “Mud Season” about her spring garden here. “Fluent, fluid…” said one reviewer of Sarton’s work; another wrote that her words are, “…direct and deeply given.”  Her writing, however, has been largely snubbed by major critics. She died of breast cancer at the age of 83. Read more in her obituary from The New York Times.
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All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bubbles under the ice, Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ice waterfall, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; water running into crevices at Fermilab Prairie’s Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL;  ice on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Chinese mantis ((Tenodera sinensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook ice, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) singing on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.
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Pre-order Cindy’s New Prairie Book By Clicking Here Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit (Cindy Crosby and Thomas Dean), Ice Cube Press. Releases in April, 2019, full-color hardcover, $24.95. Also available at The Arboretum Store: https://www.mortonarb.org/visit-explore/arboretum-store
Cindy’s Classes in March
Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online March 27 (The Morton Arboretum—work at your own pace from home and hone your knowledge of prairie)

A Prairie Ice Age

“Love life first, then march through the gates of each season; go inside nature and develop the discipline to stop destructive behavior; learn tenderness…; listen to the truth the land will tell you; act accordingly.”–Gretel Ehrlich

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This week, it was anyone’s bet what the day would bring. Ice storm. Snow storm. Rain. Sleet.

Did I mention a day of almost 50-degree temps? When you live in the prairie states, there is never a lack for conversational topics. Nod, smile, comment on the weather. It’s one of the superficial daily trivialities I missed when I lived briefly in the South. The lack of weather chat there—that prattle I’d taken for granted as a Midwesterner—made me long for my roots and brought me back home.

This week, an ice storm shellacked prairies with a half inch of crystal coating. Everything glittered for  two days. Magical. Even under gray skies.

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When the sun came out, things really sparkled, suspended in time and place.

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The snow was mirrored in the sky. Clouds trailed white scarves across the blue.

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Switchgrass, shorn of much of its beauty since autumn, suddenly attained new glamour.

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Plants turned alien under the ice.

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Grasses glinted gold-foil metallic. Bent and broken under their arches of ice, they wait  for the coming fires of the prescribed burns, less than a month away.

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Squirrels, suspended in space, paused in their wild scrambles on impossibly-thin branches to consider the mercurial goings on of February.

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Trails glowed.

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Bur oaks? The stuff of fantasy.

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Each prairie plant, dipped in ice, bowed under the drippy weight.

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As I hiked the prairie, my mind kicked into glassy overdrive.  Glisten. Crystalline. Shimmer. The words kept coming—tumbling over and over in my head. None of them seemed adequate to describe what I saw. So much extravagance!

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Even the praying mantis egg case in its frozen luster merited a second look.

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Abrupt changes of weather offer fresh shots of paying attention. A reminder of how quickly things change. A memo of how beautiful the world can be. You think that was amazing? Look at this! Each freeze/thaw brings new delights. Each snowstorm causes me to catch my breath, and not just from shoveling.

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Each change of weather causes me to reconsider the familiar.

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I live, slightly on the edge of expectation, wondering what Mother Nature will throw at us next.

You too?

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The opening quote is from nature essayist and poet Gretel Ehrlich’s (1946-) The Future of Ice: A Journey into the Cold. Her 1985 debut (and my favorite of her works) is The Solace of Open Spaces, in which she chronicles her time spent working on a Wyoming ranch.

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Preorder Now! Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit by Cindy Crosby and Thomas Dean releases on April 22. $25.95, hardcover, full color photography.  Pre-order at The Morton Arboretum Store or through Ice Cube Press.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): ice storm video, Glen Ellyn, IL; bridge at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, close to prairie plantings, Downer’s Grove, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Schulenberg Prairie and savanna at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown ice-covered vine, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; trail through prairie plantings at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL;  bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bridge over Willoway Brook tributary seen through savanna at Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Chinese praying mantis (Tenodera sinensis) egg case, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; icy grasses at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ice storm at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL.

Join Cindy at Upcoming Events and Classes This Week:

Wednesday, Feb.20, 1:30-3:30 p.m.: Wisconsin Wetlands Association Science Conference, Middleton, WI: Don’t Talk Like a Scientist! Registration here.

Thursday, Feb. 21 &28, 6:30-9 p.m. A History of Wilderness in America, at The Morton Arboretum. We’ll be discussing Wilderness and the American Mind and how our ideas about wilderness have changed through history. Still time to register here.

Saturday, Feb. 23, 11-11:45 a.m.: Wild Things  Conference: The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Shop: Donald Stephen’s Convention Center, Rosemont, IL. Register here.

Saving Prairie

“Let us go on, and take the adventure that shall fall to us.” — C.S. Lewis

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Wolf Road Prairie! How could anyone resist visiting a nature preserve with a name like this one? It seems ripe with possibilities for adventure.

The sunshine over the 80-acre preserve is welcome, although the wind makes the temperature seem colder than the high 20s.

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Jeff and I drive around the preserve, unsure where where the trails are. We can see prairie plants, so we know we’re in the right place. Hmmm.

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Time to ask directions. A helpful member of the  “Save the Prairie Society” is shoveling snow, getting ready for an open house at the historical structure on the property. He greets us warmly, and shows us where the trails begin.

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We see right away we’re not alone on the prairie. Look at those tracks! Rush hour.

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Little critters have left their imprints, like sewing machine stitches, across the prairie.Who made the tracks? We wonder. Prairie voles? Mice? Difficult to tell.

We cross through a wetland…

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…and see other signs of the preserve’s inhabitants.

A nest of a bird, long flown.

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I’m puzzled by the interesting galls on the sunflowers. My gall knowledge is limited. Sunflower crown gall, maybe?

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There’s a goldenrod bunch gall–sometimes called a rosette gall—I recognize on the other side of the trail. Like a dried out winter flower of sorts.

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I make a mental note to refresh my gall knowledge—at least of the goldenrod galls! There’s so much to learn while hiking the winter prairie. Always something new, something different. Later at home, I’ll chase down different bits of information, based on our hike. Crown gall. Bunch gall. Adventures of a different kind.

As we hike the south-side prairie savanna remnant…

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…we find sidewalks, left over from a pre-Depression Era time when this acreage was slated for a housing development. The contractors got as far as putting in the sidewalks before the project was scrapped. Jeff, who’s a history buff, is delighted.

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I’m excited, too. According to an excellent article by the Salt Creek Greenway Association, the preserve was threatened again by a proposed housing development in the 1970s. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources and Forest Preserve District of Cook County were able to acquire the acreage and save the fine examples of savanna and black soil prairie remnant.  What a success story!

In January 2019, the story continues. Although the cooler palette of Wolf Road prairie in winter tends toward white, brown, and blue, with bits of pale yellow…

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…little bluestem warms up the tallgrass with reds and golds. Its last clinging seeds sparkle in the sunshine.

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Winter on the prairie brings certain plants into focus. Little bluestem is only one example.

In the summer, I appreciate pale purple coneflowers for their swash of pink-purple color across the grasses. In January, I find myself focusing on a single plant’s structure.

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Culver’s root, bereft of summer pollinators and long past bloom, takes on sinuous grace and motion in stark relief against the snow.

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Even the rough and tumble goldenrod assumes a more delicate beauty in silhouette.

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I imagine what this prairie, savanna, and wetland preserve will look like in a few months. Covered with wildflowers. Limned with birdsong. Full of diverse color and motion. Still, seeing Wolf Road Prairie under a layer of snow in the sunshine has its own beauty.

We almost lost this prairie. Twice.

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I’m grateful to hike it today.

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In a time when so many of our natural areas are threatened, Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve stands as an example of what can happen when people care. What other prairies or natural areas should we speak up and protect today, which might otherwise be lost, underfunded, or developed? These are adventures in caring. Adventures in making a difference.

Somewhere, a new prairie adventure is waiting.

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The opening quote is from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, a book in the series “The Chronicles of Narnia,” by C.S. Lewis. I love this series, and read it out loud to my adult children when they were growing up.

All photos this week are from Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sky over the wetland; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) in the prairie display garden; hiking the north side of Wolf Road Prairie; small mouse or vole tracks in the snow; cattail (Typha latifolia, Typha angustifolia or Typha x glauca); unknown bird’s nest; possibly sunflower crown gall (a plant disease); goldenrod gall bunch or rosette—made by a goldenrod gall midge  (Rhopalomyia solidaginis); prairie savanna with bur oaks (Quercus macrocarpa); old sidewalk under the snow in the savanna; snow shadows on the prairie;  little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium); pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) seedhead; Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum); goldenrod (possibly Solidago canadensis); sign for Wolf Road Prairie; trail headed south with little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), a rusty orange haze along the trail and in the distance.

Thank you to the members of the Save the Prairie Society and Heritage Project Committee who so generously pointed out trails, gave us a tour of The Franzosenbusch Prairie House Nature Center and Museum, and were warm and welcoming on our visit there. Check out their Facebook page and other social media.

A Merry Prairie Christmas

“In late December I feel an almost painful hunger for light…It’s tempting to think of winter as the negation of life, but life has too many sequences, too many rhythms, to be altogether quieted by snow and cold.” — Verlyn Klinkenborg

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Christmas morning dawns, cold and overcast. The scent of snow is in the air.

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On the prairie this week, it’s been mostly sunny. Quiet.

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Willoway Brook provides the December soundtrack: water moving fast over rocks. Ice lingers in the shoreline’s shadows.

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Wildflower seedheads silhouette themselves along the edges of the stream.

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Prairie dock leaves, aged and brittle, offer their own late season beauty. Lovelier now, perhaps, than in their first surge of spring green. Spent. No towering yellow blooms to distract us. The marks of age—wrinkles and splotches—will soon end in a flurry of flames.

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Along the edge of the prairie, fragrant sumac fruit could pass for furry holly berries—with a bit of imagination.

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Blown out stars of sudsy asters froth along the gravel two-track.

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Crumpled leaves of pale Indian plantain create stained glass windows when backlit by the winter sun. The woods are often called “cathedrals'” by writers. A bit of a cliché.  But it’s not much of a stretch to call the prairies the same. The tallgrass offers its own benedictions to those who hike it. Especially in solitude.

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Flattened by an early November blizzard, the prairie reminds me of the ocean, washing in grassy waves against the coast of the savanna. I think of Willa Cather, who wrote in “My Antonia”: “As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea…and there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow to be running.”

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The end of the year is just a breath away.

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Who knows what wonders we’ll see on the prairie in the new year? I can’t wait to discover them. How about you?

Happy holidays and Merry Christmas to all!

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The opening quote is from Verlyn Klinkenborg’s The Rural Life. Klinkenborg (1952-) was raised on an Iowa farm. He teaches creative writing at Yale University. Listen to Klinkenborg speak about his writing here.

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All photos (copyright Cindy Crosby) in the blog post today are from the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, except where noted (top to bottom): bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); the Schulenberg Prairie in late December; Willoway Brook reflections; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) seedheads; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica); unknown aster; pale Indian plantain leaves (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium); prairie grasses and savanna; sunset at College of DuPage’s East Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

December Prairie Delights

“Since we go through this strange and beautiful world of ours only once, it seems a pity to lack the sense of delight and enthusiasm that merely being alive should hold.” — Sigurd Olson

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As the days shorten, hurtling us toward the Winter Solstice Friday, a sunny day is especially welcome.  A prairie hike seems in order. Where to go? On the edge of a subdivision not far from where I live, hedged in by apartment buildings, two interstates, and a golf course, lies the Belmont Prairie Preserve.  A little unplowed prairie remnant, barely hanging on in the suburbs. Let’s go!

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I move slowly on the overgrown path, recovering from knee surgery that will get me back in tallgrass action come spring.  So I take the trail a little more deliberately than usual, which of course, has its own rewards. When you don’t rush, the prairie opens up more of her secrets to you. All around me, the morning frost evaporates. Ragged compass plants look otherworldly, backlit by bright sunshine.

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The melting ice glitters on the grasses.

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A few compass plant seedheads, with their seeds mostly stripped away, silhouette themselves against the deep blue winter sky.

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Its last leaves are wearing away, barely attached to the stem.

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Looking at them, I think of Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Dillard’s remark in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: “I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along. I am aging and eaten and have done my share of eating too. I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wondering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for…and whose beauty bats and shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them.”

It’s difficult to imagine anything nibbling the sandpapery compass plant leaves in December. But all grasses and forbs are parsed down to their essence. I continue to study the compass plants. Rough, cracked stems are patched with resin. Scratch the patches, and you’ll inhale a tang of pine fragrance.

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Compare the rough and ready compass plants to the fluidity and grace of big bluestem. Sure, big bluestem is dried out and desiccated now; most of its seeds disappeared into the beaks  of birds. When green, its foliage is so delicious for wildlife, the plant is sometimes nicknamed “ice cream grass.” But its beauty is only enhanced as the focus shifts from waving turkey-foot seedheads to dry, ribbon-like leaves and hollow stems, flushed with subtle pastel colors.

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Another contrast nearby: Pale purple coneflowers still hold their forbidding seedheads. You can see why the scientific name “Echinacea” means “hedgehog” or “sea urchin.” Handle with care! The seeds inside are mostly long gone, harvested by goldfinches and grassland birds.

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More contrasts: Thimbleweed holds its soft clouds of seedheads aslant in the cold. I rub the cottony tufts between my fingers, admiring their softness. Like Q-tips.

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The thimbleweed is echoed close by in the brushy, bristly seedheads of round-headed bush clover. A fun name to say out loud, isn’t it? Try it. Its scientific name, found at the end of this post, is just as enjoyable.

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It’s these little nature preserves, like the Belmont Prairie remnant, that encapsulate the future of restoration. On a beautiful sunny winter’s day like this one, the future seems full of possibilities.

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So many delights for the senses to be discovered on a remnant prairie in December! And in a world where so many of our natural resources are in jeopardy, isn’t it encouraging to know that here, at least, the tallgrass prairie will live on. As long as we continue to hike it, protect it, and share it with others so they will love and protect it, too.

What other delights will you find this month on the prairie? Go take a look, and find out.

 

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Sigurd Olson (1899-1982) was the Chicago-born author of many books and key environmentalist instrumental in bringing attention to and preserving the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. His writings about wilderness, including the opening quote of this blog post taken from the chapter “Aliveness” in Reflections from the North Country, continue to inspire those who care about the natural world.  Read more about Olson here.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby, and taken at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve in Downer’s Grove, IL: Belmont Nature Preserve in December; backlit compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); grasses matted down after the blizzard and glistening with frost;  compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) seedheads;  thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica); round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata); Belmont Prairie in December.