Tag Archives: prairie

Summer Magic on the Tallgrass Prairie

“May I not be permitted…to introduce a few reflections on the magical influence of the prairies? Their sight never wearies…a profusion of variously colored flowers; the azure of the sky above. In the summer season, especially, everything upon the prairies is cheerful, graceful, and animated…I pity the man whose soul could remain unmoved under such a scene of excitement.” ——Joseph Nicollet, 1838

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I followed Chance the Snapper—Chicago’s renegade alligator—south to Florida this week.

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The tallgrass has often been compared to the ocean, and it’s easy to see why. As I sit on the sand under the hot sun, the ripples on the Gulf remind me of the wind-waves that pass through the spiking grasses and wildflowers.

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It’s difficult to be away from the prairie, even for a few days in July. So much is happening! It’s a magical time. The gray-headed coneflowers pirouette into lemon confetti.

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Purple and white prairie clover spin their tutu skirts across the tallgrass; bee magnets, every one.

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Rosinweed’s rough and tumble blooms pinwheel open. Rosinweed is part of the Silphium genus, and perhaps the most overlooked of its more charismatic siblings.

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Cup plant, another Silphium sibling, is also in bloom. as are the first iconic compass plant flowers. Prairie dock, the last of the Silphiums to open here in Illinois, won’t be far behind.

The last St. John’s wort blooms seem to cup sunshine.

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The smaller pale blooms, like llinois bundleflower…

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…and oddball wildflowers, like Indian plantain, add complexity to the richness of the July prairie.

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Wild bergamot, or “bee-balm,” buzzes with its namesake activity. I’m always astonished each year at how prolific it is, but this season, it floods the prairie with lavender. Wow.

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The scientific name for bee balm is Monarda fistulosa; the specific epithet, fistulosa, means “hollow” or “pipe-like.” If you pay attention to a single flower in all its growing stages…

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….its intricacy will take your breath away. Look closer. Like fireworks!

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I love to chew its minty leaves; a natural breath freshener. Bee balm’s essential oil, thymol, is a primary ingredient in natural mouthwashes. Tea made from the plant has also been used as a  remedy for throat infections; its antiseptic properties made it historically useful for treating wounds.beebalm719SPMAWM

The hummingbirds and hummingbird moths, as well as the bees and butterflies, find it irresistible.

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Not only a useful plant, but beautiful.

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The air reverberates with sound on the July prairie: buzzing, chirping; the sizzling, hissing chords of grass blowing in the wind. Overhead, ubiquitous honking Canada geese add their familiar notes.

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In Florida, ospreys wake me each morning with their piercing cries. I see them soaring over the tallgrass prairie occasionally at home and at Fermilab’s prairies down the road in Batavia, IL, where they’re a rare treat. Here in Florida, they’re just another common note in the island’s soundtrack.

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It’s bittersweet to leave the tallgrass prairie in July for a week and miss some of its seasonal magic. The wildflowers are in full crescendo. The grasses unfold their seedheads and head skyward. The slow turn of the season toward autumn begins. You see it in the change in dragonfly species on the prairie, the sudden appearance of bottlebrush grass and Joe Pye weed flowers. To leave the Midwest for even a few days is to miss a twist or turn in the prairie’s ongoing story. Miss some of the magic.

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But displacement gives me perspective. A renewed appreciation for what I’ve left behind.

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The magic will be waiting.

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Joseph Nicollet (1786-1843), whose quote begins this post, was a French mathematician, philosopher, and astronomer who led explorations in what now is the Dakotas and Minnesota. His whose accurate maps were some of the first to show elevation and use regional Native American names for places. Nicollet’s tombstone reads: “He will triumph who understands how to conciliate and combine with the greatest skill the benefits of the past with the demands of the future.” Read more about him here.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sunset, Captiva Island in July, Florida; Schulenberg Prairie in July, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; St. John’s wort ( likely shrubby —Hypericum prolificum); Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), West side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Indian plantain (Arnoglossum plantagineum), Kent Fuller Air Force Prairie, Glenview, IL; wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) and a silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  sunflowers (probably Helianthus divaricatus) and wild bergamont (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada geese (Branta canadensis), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; osprey (Pandion haliaetus), Captiva Island, Florida; obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; sunset, Captiva Island in July, Florida.

Cindy’s Upcoming Speaking and Classes:

August 12, 7-8:30 p.m., Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Flyers, Fox Valley Garden Club, Aurora, IL. Free and open to the Public. Details here.

August 19-22, 8-5 p.m. daily, National Association for Interpretation Certified Interpretive Guide Training, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Register here.

August 29, 7-8:30 p.m., Summer Literary Series: Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit. Hope aboard the Morton Arboretum’s tram and enjoy a cool beverage, then listen to Cindy talk about the “prairie spirit” on the beautiful Schulenberg Prairie, the fourth oldest prairie restoration in the world. Register here.

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

The Prairie Conservation Cradle

“Unique in the world, the University of Wisconsin Arboretum is the birthplace of a practice called restoration ecology. ” –Liz Anna Kozik

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When I was a bookseller, I had a t-shirt that read “So many books. So little time.” Today, as a prairie steward, I need a shirt like this—-only with “prairies” instead of the word “books.”

With this in mind, I visited University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Arboretum over the weekend with an agenda: Curtis and Greene Prairies. One day to hike the two and discover their treasures. One day—and I knew it wouldn’t be enough.

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I check the closed Visitor Center to see their business hours. Open at 9 am. Barn swallows have plastered two nests over the Visitor Center doors, and the moms and dads aren’t especially happy to see me.

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They line their nests with grass. How appropriate! It’s only 7:30 am, so I have plenty of time to hike before the bookstore opens. I wander through the visitor center prairie display gardens, which have some lovely plants I’ve struggled to replicate back in Illinois. Hello, prairie smoke!

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We’ve lost this iconic plant on the Schulenberg Prairie where I’m a steward, and I’ve been looking for local seed sources to jump start it again. So far, no luck.

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Prairie smoke has also disappeared in my backyard prairie planting. I wonder. Did I burn my prairie patch too early one year? Or is it just too wet? I’m not sure why I lost it. All I know is I want it again. Pure prairie plant envy.

The Visitor Center overlooks the 73-acre Curtis Prairie, known as the oldest prairie restoration in the world, established in 1935.  I’ve visited the Curtis Prairie before, but only in winter.  Today, it’s already warm, and there’s not a cloud in the sky.  Spiderwebs encrusted with condensation are thrown across the wildflowers, and sparks of light glint from every grass blade.

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Dew-covered wild geraniums send up their signature seed pods along the shadier edges of the trails. You can see why this plant’s nickname is “cranesbill.”

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Cream wild indigo sprawls across a grassy incline in the sunshine.

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Shooting star is in differing stages of bud, bloom, and seed. I relish the transitions.

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Except for the occasional jogger out for a morning run, there’s plenty of solitude. But the prairie is busy with the zip and whir of wings. A red-winged blackbird calls, then a black saddlebag dragonfly zooms by. Song sparrows tune up. Green frogs strum their broken banjo strings, calling nearby.

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I hike through the puddles, and then through a wall of willows on one side of the prairie trail following the frog calls. On the other side of the willows is a small pond.

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Worth investigating. Squish. Squish. Squish. My boots sink into the muck with each step through the willows. I glass the water with my binoculars and….there! A muskrat cuts through the pond, then dives.

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Not far away, a turtle sticks its head out of the water, soaking up sun. It’s a veritable “Where’s Waldo”  to see it in the algae. Good camouflage.

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I could spend the rest of the morning here, seeing what shows up, but the slant of my shadow tells me it’s time to get going.  A moth flies out of the grasses, close to the edge of the trees. Later, back home, I consult my Peterson’s Guide to make the ID. A fan-footed moth! Such subtle coloration. I’m not sure what exact species, but I’m learning.

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The morning has slipped away. Returning to the parking lot, I stumble across…an egg? What in the world? At first, I think someone has dropped their breakfast. Then, I remember the large birds I saw here on my winter hike. Turkeys!

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The Arboretum’s bookstore is open now. I ransack it for prairie books, then take the titles to a local coffee shop and ply myself with caffeine as I flip through them. Books on nature. Prairie ID guides. A children’s book on bees for the grandkids. Ballasted by books and jazzed by the java, I pull out my map and prepare to tackle my second goal: Greene Prairie, the second-oldest prairie restoration in the world.

I make the mistake of driving to it. After several misses, back and forth across “the Beltline” highway which splits the Arboretum in two, I finally find a tiny parking lot piled with gravel. There’s a small opening in a fence. Success! Later, I learn I could have hiked here under the Beltline from the Curtis Prairie. Next time.

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It’s cool and quiet. Not another soul on the trail. Plenty of poison ivy. I’m glad I wore my knee-high rubber wading boots. Gnats swarm around my face, and I’m grateful for my headnet. My boots sink into the sandy trails, rutted  with rainwater.

So beautiful.

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The woods open up to sunshine on sandy knolls, covered in wildflowers. Balsam ragwort splashes gold on both sides of the trail, with fluffy field pussytoes mixed in, going to seed.

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And then, there’s the lupine. Wow.

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I admire the blue-purple spikes, something we don’t have on the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum where I’m a steward, only a few hours drive south. Amazing how a relatively short distance can result in such different species! Different soil types. Different prairies.

Around a curve, over a rise —and there! Hoary puccoon. We have a few straggly plants on the Schulenberg Prairie, but nothing like this profusion of golden blooms. So this is what hoary puccoon looks like when it’s in its happy place, I think. (I later discover this is hairy puccoon, which helps explain the difference!)

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And suddenly, I see it. Greene Prairie.

 

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Yes! It’s been on my bucket list for a long time.

But what’s this? A sign! No Hiking. Trail Closed.  Oh no! I stand in front of the sign for a bit, considering.  Too much rain? Too much mud—too damaging to the prairie to hike it.  I hike around the prairie, looking for the next interior trail. Same signs here. Plus an  interpretive sign.

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Interesting information. Context. Guidance for hikers like me, hoping to learn about an unknown place. A place I’m not going to explore in the way I’d hoped today.

Looking longingly into the larger prairie area—and reluctantly deciding to be good and not hike it anyway—I take the open trail that skims the edges of the tallgrass. It opens up occasionally to give me vistas of what I won’t be able to hike through. What a tease! These glimpses will have to serve. I’ll hope for drier weather on my next trip. And I vow the “next trip” will be soon.

As I move away from the interior prairie trails, my first reward for being a rule-follower today is… wild turkeys. A group of three move across the path, hustling a bit as I approach. There’s a ruffle of feathers; a show of wings…

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…a bit of turkey posturing. Cheered, I continue onward.

The second reward is a dragonfly. The 12-spotted skimmer is a common Odonate, but no less beautiful for its ubiquity.

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We both bask in the sunshine as I stop and admire it for a while.  I realize the day-long hiking adventure has worn me out, and I’m at the furthest point from my car possible. It’s nice to have an excuse to rest.

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Something becomes familiar to me only after a long relationship with a place. These common things  I’ve seen today—12-spotted skimmer dragonflies, hoary puccoon and prairie smoke—are touchstones when I explore places with a community I don’t know much about. Like these beautiful Wisconsin prairie restorations. My relationship with these prairies is still new, and I’ve got a lot to learn from them.

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I think of the juxtaposition between the common and the rare, the familiar and the unfamiliar as I begin the hike back to the car through the lovely Southwest Grady Oak Savanna. The past—Greene and Curtis Prairies. They became a foundation for the future—the work that we do to protect and restore prairie today.  What can I learn from the past? How does it inform the future?

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There’s so much to see here. So much to understand and pay attention to. It’s tough to leave.

But I’ll be back.

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The opening quote is from Liz Anna Kozik, Stories of the Land: Critters, Plants and People of Ecological Restoration, which was written and illustrated for her masters of fine arts degree in design studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. See some of Liz’s fine arts work in prairie restoration comics, textiles, and words here.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby from University of Wisconsin Arboretum, Madison, WI: (top to bottom) welcome sign; barn swallow (Hirundo rustica), Visitor Center Display Gardens; prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), Visitor Center Display Gardens; prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), Visitor Center Display Gardens; wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), Curtis Prairie; cream wild indigo (Baptisia bracteata), Curtis Prairie; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), Curtis Prairie;  trail through Curtis Prairie with willow wall; Curtis Prairie Pond; muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus), Curtis Prairie Pond; turtle (possibly Chrysemys picta), Curtis Prairie Pond; fan-footed moth (species uncertain), Curtis Prairie; turkey  (Meleagris gallopavo) egg, Curtis Prairie; entrance to Grady Tract/Greene Prairie; trail to Greene Prairie through the savanna; pussy toes (Antennaria neglecta), Green Prairie Grady Tract; wild lupine (Lupinus perennis), Green Prairie Grady Tract; hairy puccoon (Lithospermum caroliniense), Green Prairie Grady Tract; view of Greene Prairie; Green Prairie interpretive sign; wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo);  12-spotted skimmer dragonfly (Libellula pulchella), Greene Prairie-Grady Tract; bench on the hike to Greene Prairie; shadows on the Curtis Prairie trail; large-flowered beardtongue (Penstemon grandiflorus), Visitor Center display gardens.

Cindy’s Speaking and Classes in June:

Friday, June 14Dragonfly and Damselfly ID at The Morton Arboretum, 8-11:30 am (Sold Out)

Thursday, June 20The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Story, Apothecary, and Love Charm Shop, 7-9 p.m., Rock Valley Wild Ones, Rock Valley Community College with book signing. More information here. Free and open to the public!

Wednesday, June 26: Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online through The Morton Arboretum. Register here, and complete the course at your own pace over 60 days.

Just added! Friday, June 28Dragonfly and Damselfly ID at The Morton Arboretum, 8-11:30 a.m. Register here.

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

An Extravagance of Wildflowers

“There is something classic about the study of the little world that is made up by our first spring flowers—all those which bloom not later than April.”– Donald Culross Peattie

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The “little world” of spring wildlowers is in full swing in the prairie savanna and neighboring woodlands. Let’s go take a hike and look.

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The palm warblers flit through the trees, a prelude to the waves of warblers to come.

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By an old log, hepatica is blooming in whites and purples. The fuzzy new leaves, which replace the winter-weary ones, are emerging below. Oh, hepatica! You always say “spring” to me.

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I love the range of color, from deep purple to  lavender to snow white.

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Close by, the yellow trout lilies are just beginning to bloom. Tiny pollinators are finding them, like this little one.

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You may have grown up calling the yellow and white trout lilies “dogtooth violets.” By any name they are marvelous. The yellow seem all the more special for their scarcity here in the savanna where I walk, although they are prolific in other parts of the Midwest.

The mayapples are up in full force, unfurling their umbrellas.

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Rue anemone, trembling on its ethereal stems, is even less prolific than the yellow trout lilies in the prairie savanna. I look for the small stand of it each year, and feel a sense that all is right with the world when I find it.

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Jacob’s ladder leaves lace the landscape, while Virginia bluebells look as if they will explode any moment.

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Bloodroot is in full swing, and the bee flies are delighted.

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The blood root flowers last about three days, then the petals shatter. I’m enjoying them while they last.

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Most of the Arboretum’s visitors this week are strolling through the hundreds of thousands of daffodil blooms on display, a golden sea under the oaks. I can’t blame them much; the daffodils are spectacular this spring. But my heart is with these spring ephemerals, like the wild blue phlox with its candle flame of a bud, poised to emerge.

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In 1935, Donald Culross Peattie wrote in his Almanac for Moderns of spring wildflower time: “Happy are those who this year, for the first time, go wood wandering to find them, who first crack open the new manual, smelling of fresh ink, and rejoice in the little new pocket lens.”

Beautiful.

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True happiness, indeed. Happy hiking this week!

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Chicago-born Donald Culross Peattie (1898-1964) was an influential nature writer who inspired generations of naturalists. An Almanac for Moderns is his daily guide to observing the natural world through 365 days of the year. He advocated for the protection of Indiana Dunes, which recently became a National Park.

All photos this week are from The Morton Arboretum prairie savanna and woodlands, copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, palm warbler (Setophaga palmarum), hepatica (hepatica nobilis acuta), hepatica (hepatica nobilis acuta), yellow trout lily (Erythronium americanum), mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides), Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), bloodroot  (Sanguinaria canadensis), wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata), spring beauty (Claytonia virginica).

 

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Cindy’s classes and speaking events this week:

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online continues–offered through The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Register for the June online class here.

Tuesday, April 23, 7:30  p.m.–Prairie Plants at Home, Villa Park Garden Club. Free and open to the public! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for specific location.

Friday, April 26--Spring Wildflower Walk, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (Sold out)

Saturday, April 27–Dragonflies and Damselflies–Blue Line Financial luncheon (Private Event)

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.

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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.