Tag Archives: prescribed burn

A Salute to Prairie Week

“The prairie is one of those plainly visible things that you can’t photograph. No camera lens can take in a big enough piece of it. The prairie landscape embraces the whole of the sky.”—Paul Gruchow

********

“Prairie Week,” so designated by the Illinois legislature as the third week in September, draws to a close today.

Summer on the Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

When you think of the word “prairie,” what comes to mind?

Sunset, College of DuPage East Prairie Study Area, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Is it prescribed fire, decimating the old, and encouraging the new?

Prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Is it the sweep of the charred land, with a whisper of green?

After the fire, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Is it the prairie in springtime, covered with shooting star?

Shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Or do you imagine the summer prairie, spangled with blooms?

Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Is it the smell of prairie dropseed, tickling your nose in the fall? Mmmm. That hot buttered popcorn smell, tinged with something undefinable.

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Crosby backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Or do you see prairie limned with snow, in its winter colors?

Sorenson Prairie in January, Afton, IL.

When you think of the word “prairie,” what comes to your mind?

Is it the call of dickcissel?

Dickcissel (Spiza americana), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Is it a butterfly that you see in your mind’s eye?

Regal fritillary (Speyeria idalia), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Or is it bison, claiming the Midwest tallgrass as their own?

What comes to your mind when you think of prairie?

Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), Vermont Cemetery Prairie, Naperville, IL.

It isn’t as important what you think of when you imagine prairie as this: That you think of prairie at all.

Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) and viceroys (Limenitis archippus) on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Often.

Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

And then, make it your own.

Wild lupine (Lupinus perennis), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Here, in the prairie state.

Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

Our landscape of home.

*****

The opening quote is from Paul Gruchow’s  (1947-2004) wonderful book, Journal of a Prairie Year. The full quote reads: . “The prairie is one of those plainly visible things that you can’t photograph. No camera lens can take in a big enough piece of it. The prairie landscape embraces the whole of the sky. Any undistorted image is too flat to represent the impression of immersion that is central to being on the prairie. The experience is a kind of baptism.” Gruchow’s legacy of love for the prairie continues to connect and engage people’s hearts and minds with the tallgrass.

*****

Join Cindy for a program or class!

Just moved ONLINE: September 27, 7-8:30 p.m.–-“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Arlington Heights Garden Club. Please visit the club’s website here for guest information.

ONLINE –Nature Writing Workshop 2 (through the Morton Arboretum): Deepen your connection to nature and improve your writing skills in this  online guided workshop from The Morton Arboretum. This interactive class is the next step for those who’ve completed the Foundations of Nature Writing (N095), or for those with some foundational writing experience looking to further their expertise within a supportive community of fellow nature writers. Please note: This is a “live” workshop; no curriculum. For details and registration, click here. Online access for introductions and discussion boards opens October 12; live sessions on Zoom are four Tuesdays: October 19, October 26, November 2, and November 9, 6:30-8:30 pm.

For more classes and programs, visit Cindy’s website at http://www.cindycrosby.com. Hope to see you soon!

Internet issues delayed today’s post. Thank you for your patience!

A Prairie Hike at Kankakee Sands

“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.”–John Burroughs

******

Jeff and I are returning from visiting family near Indianapolis. What makes a long car trip from Indianapolis to Chicago better? Our eyes meet. Bison!

We get off of I-65 with its semi trucks and heavy traffic, and slip over to U.S. 41. We need a hike on the prairies and savannas of Kankakee Sands in Morocco, Indiana.

Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Towering cumulonimbus pile up like cairns on the horizon. A few raindrops splat the windshield. The prairie sky seems to stretch forever.

Rainy day at Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Sections of the prairies have been recently burned. A mullein’s soft, fuzzy leaves are a contrast to the scorched earth. Look! Jeff points. A mourning cloak butterfly flutters by, so quick we almost miss the ID.

Great mullein (Verbascum thapsus), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

It seems as if you could hike for hours and never come to the end of the tallgrass.

Hiking trail, Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Today, we hope to get a glimpse of the largest members of the tallgrass prairie.

Bison viewing directions, Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

When we reach the bison overlook, it’s quiet. Not a bison in sight. Just a big stretch of prairie and sheets of storm clouds.

Bison overlook trail, Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

We hike a bit, then jump in the car to drive around, hoping to spot them.

Road through Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

And then, there they are.

Bison (Bison bison), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

We pull over, get out of the car, and watch them for a while.

Bison (Bison bison), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

In the distance, sandhill cranes begin to call. A bird sings from a nearby tree, but as much as I try, I can’t identify it. The bison slowly move off to the west. We hop in the car and head for home.

But we’re not done yet. Jeff, who is a history buff, wants to take a quick hike at Conrad Station, a nature preserve trail through a savanna nearby. We’ve hiked it before in the autumn, but we’ve never seen it in the spring. We try to remember exactly where the road is, leading to it, but get lost on back roads. It begins to rain. We turn the windshield wipers on. Swish. Swish. Things don’t look promising.

Driving through the rain near Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Then, we see the sign marking the ghost town.

Entrance to Conrad Station Savanna, Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

The rain has tapered off to dull pewter skies. We find the trailhead.

Trail through Conrad Station Nature Preserve, Morocco, IN.

Here in the savanna, the old town of Conrad Station once stood. Ruins of shattered buildings are everywhere. Jeff’s a history buff, and is writing an essay about the history of this place for a journal. He walks, looks, and takes copious notes. I’m here for the hike and the plants. Cleft phlox is everywhere, sprinkled across the savanna in various hues of palest lavender, white, and purple.

Cleft phlox (Phlox bifida), Conrad Station Savanna, Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

While Jeff explores the old ruins, I try to ID the lichen on the logs. Even with iNaturalist, my trusty phone ID app, I can’t make a positive ID.

Unknown lichen, Conrad Station Nature Preserve, Morocco, IN.

The wild lupine leaves are other-worldly, sparkling with raindrops.

Wild lupine (Lupinus perennis), Conrad Station Savanna, Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

History and plants. A good way to spend an hour. We are both so excited about our twin pursuits that we lose track of time. But as we drive back to the highway to return home in heavy traffic, we have no regrets.

An afternoon well spent.

*****

John Burroughs (1837-1921) whose quote kicks off this post, was a conservationist, writer, and naturalist. The seventh of ten children, he grew up on a farm in the Catskill Mountains of New York, where he fell in love with the rural life and the natural world. His father refused to send him to college, so Burroughs taught school to earn money to further his education. The John Burroughs Medal is awarded each year in April to a distinguished book of natural history (rarely fiction). I’m trying to read through them all, beginning with the most current. It’s a very diverse collection of medal-winners, and I’m enjoying the journey.

*****

Join Cindy for an upcoming program!

Online: Chasing Dragonflies: A Quick LookThursday, April 15, 12:30-1 p.m., Glen Ellyn Rotary Club. For information, visit www.glenellynrotary.org

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

SPRING WILDFLOWERS OF PRAIRIES AND WOODLANDS ONLINE, Thursday, May 6, 6:30-8 p.m. The Morton Arboretum. Join Cindy for a virtual hike through the wildflowers of late spring! Hear how wildflowers inspire literature and folklore. Discover how people throughout history have used wildflowers as medicine, groceries, and love charms. 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.

Three Reasons to Hike the April Prairie

“Little things make big things happen.”–John Wooden

********

In the woodlands, the hepatica are opening. Have you seen them?

Sharp-lobed hepatica (Hepatica nobilis acuta), East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Toothwort, spring beauties, and prairie trillium keep them company. In the prairie wetlands, marsh marigolds ring in the spring.

Marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), Cindy’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL (2017).

Is there a more exciting time in the Midwest than the first week of April? It’s too early for most prairie wildflowers in my northeast corner of Illinois. Give them a few more weeks, especially if the prairie was recently burned. But the prairie has other goodies to offer. Here are three reasons to go for a hike on the prairie this week.

1. In early April, some of the mostly unseen life of the prairie is made visible.

Meadow voles and prairie voles are cartographers, whose debossed maps across the tallgrass are mostly invisible the rest of the year under blankets of blooms and grasses. So much activity!

Meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus) and prairie vole (Microtus ochrogaster) tunnels across the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Anthills, those towering structures that go unnoticed and unremarked (unless you stumble across one on a workday), are standouts this week. I’m reminded of how little I know about these important insects, and their role on the prairie. There is always so much more to learn.

Ant structure, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Hole, holes, everywhere. Hiking cross-country across the prairie, the cinders from the prairie burn crunch crunch crunch under my feet, I barely grasp the sheer numbers of holes I see. Who are the occupants? Likely a wide assortment of mammals, reptiles, and insects. I wonder at this hole—is it a crayfish home? Illinois has 23 species of crayfish; I know very little about them. But I’d like to know more.

Possible crayfish hole (species uncertain), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Many of the holes and burrows are strewn with detritus or slung about with spiderwebs.

Burrow for unknown mammal with evidence of its snacks, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Early April is full of reminders that the prairie always has more to discover. It’s a never-ending story for those who are curious. The life of the prairie underground is a vital part of understanding what makes a tallgrass prairie healthy and vibrant. And yet. So much of my attention is focused on the life above the surface. I need to go deeper.

2. The first identifiable prairie plants are up.

And what a joy it is to see those spears of spiked lime green and shout: “Rattlesnake master!”

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The porcupine grass shoots of prairie dropseed, slightly singed by the prairie burn, are enough to make anyone smile.

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Walking the trails, I see small rounded leaves and whisper: Shooting star! My mind races ahead to the pink blooms to come.

Shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

April is only beginning to rev up her plant engine. Temperatures in the seventies and warm rains this week will invite more growth. These first small plants are a foreshadowing of the future.

3. Prairie ponds are open; prairie streams now run ice-free and clear.

Any day, common green darner dragonflies will return from the south or emerge from the prairie waterways. The first ones have already been sighted in the Chicago Region.

Common green darner (Anax junius), Nachusa Grassland, Franklin Grove, IL. (2020)

Along the shoreline of Willoway Brook, I spy mussel shells, likely discarded by raccoons. The ones I find on my hike today are each as big as my hand. I’m reminded that in the early to mid 1900s, Illinois had a thriving pearl button industry, fueled by freshwater mussels. Today, mussel-shell buttons are replaced by plastic.

Freshwater mussel shells (unknown species), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The mussel shells are nestled in green shoots. As a prairie steward, I’m aware of the verdant growth of invasive reed canary grass along the shoreline, already in process. I get the message. There is a lot of stewardship work to be done in the coming months.

The Schulenberg Prairie in early April.

Even in these early weeks of spring, I’m stunned by the prairie’s diversity. It’s a different awareness than in summer, when insects, blooms, and birds are center stage. Ants, crayfish, small mammals…the prairie burn aftermath briefly illuminates them for leisurely study. Soon, I’ll be distracted by the flying critters and colorful flowers of late spring and summer. Early April reminds me that there is so much more to the prairie than what can be seen in a single season.

By Willoway Brook, I stop for a moment and study the reflection of the trees beginning to leaf out in the savanna. The surface wobbles—now clear, then rippled—by the strong breezes which have swirled dust plumes across the ashes of the prairie this week.

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I reflect on the past year.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL (2018)

Then I think of the tallgrass season ahead. The life of the prairie unfolding.

So much to anticipate.

******

After the NCAA basketball tournament final last night, it seems appropriate to kick off this blog with a quote from Coach John Wooden (1910-2010). The beloved “Wizard of Westwood” won ten—count ’em—ten NCAA basketball championships in a dozen years (and seven in a row). His teams also won a consecutive record 88 games–wow! Read more about John Wooden here.

******

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

THIS WEEK! Virtual Wildflowers Walk Online: Section A: Friday, April 9, 11:30 am to 1:00 pm CST Woodland Wildflowers, Section B: Thursday, May 6, 6:30 to 8:00 pm 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.

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

After the Prairie Burn

“Barn’s burnt down. Now I can see the moon.”—Mizuta Masahi

*******

Look what’s rising over the newly-burned prairies. Sugar Moon? Worm Moon? Paschal Moon? By any name, it is beautiful.

Full moon over Cindy’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL.

At the Morton Arboretum just outside Chicago, there’s another sort of moonscape this week.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The Schulenberg Prairie, which burned a week ago.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Few people walk the just-burned prairie.

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Can you blame them, when hundreds of thousands of spring bulbs are in bloom in parks and preserves and backyards, not far away?

Crocus (Crocus vernus), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Native wildflowers are up in the woodlands. Virginia bluebells emerge, with leaves like ping pong paddles.

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), College of DuPage East Ecological Study Area, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Jacob’s ladder unspools its ferny leaves in the savannas.

Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans), College of DuPage East Ecological Area, Glen Ellyn, IL.

On the unburned Belmont Prairie just a few miles from my house, rattlesnake master spears through the soil.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

Native wild strawberries spread their leaves in the sunshine. Soon, white flowers and tiny strawberries will cover the prairie remnant here.

Wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

So much green growth on the prairies I walk this week! So many signs of spring flowers. You can see why people are out admiring the spring flowers.

Daffodil (Narcissus sp.), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

No wonder a blackened landscape holds little attraction.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

And yet. There is a different sort of way of experiencing beauty here.

Robin (Turdus migratorius), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

There’s a sense of something given away today in exchange for something in the future. A willingness to let go. To reset. To start over.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Loss is here, make no mistake about it. Fire is deadly. Fire is voracious. The prairie’s old apple tree, a relic of settlement, is burned beyond recognition. After years of surviving prescribed burns, it seemed a certain centenarian. Now, it will not see another season.

Old apple tree (Malus domestica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I’ll miss passing this little piece of history on my prairie hikes; a reminder that people like the ones who planted this apple tree—or its predecessors —forever changed the Midwest prairies. Another tree not far from it, which was prime real estate for the Baltimore orioles and their nests, will have to be removed for the safety of volunteers and visitors.

Fire-damaged tree on the edge of the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I walk the black earth and find more casualties. Bones. Two baby turtles, unable to scramble away from the wall of fire. A tiny beetle.

After the prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

All of these losses—and others—-are small griefs, but griefs none the less. Prairie management means trade-offs. What gives life to one plant or animal may be a death knell for another.

Signs of life are here—if you look closely. Tiny insects buzz along the singed earth.

Unknown insect—maybe a bee or wasp?—Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Mallard ducks quack their way down Willoway Brook.

Mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos), Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

And when I see the charred prairie willows…

Prairie willlows (Salix humulis humulis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…with their spring-soft “puffs”…

Prairie willows (Salix humulis humulis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…I feel the life of the prairie continuing on, more vibrant than before.

After the fire.

*****

Mizuta Masahide (1657–1723), whose quote begins this post, studied poetry under the tutelage of Matsuo Basho (1644 –1694) in Japan. Another of his lovely poems: While I walk on/the moon keeps pace beside me:/friend in the water.

*******

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

Virtual Wildflower Walks Online: Section A: Friday, April 9, 11:30 am to 1:00 pm CST Woodland Wildflowers, Section B: Thursday, May 6, 6:30 to 8:00 pm 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.

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

Prairie Fire Season

“Fire works best in nature as it does in the lab, as a catalyst. It interacts. It quickens, shakes, forces.” — Stephen Pyne

*****

It’s time.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Rising temperatures. Light winds. Rain, forecast later in the week. There’s a sense of urgency. This is the moment.

Time to burn the tallgrass prairie.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

In 2020, the Covid-19 lockdown occurred during prescribed fire season. For the first time in recent memory, the Schulenberg Prairie—like many prairies—was left unburned.

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

So much was surreal about 2020; not the least was to see the prairie in its second year growth. Spring wildflowers were partially invisible under thatch and old grasses. Black walnut saplings, sumac, and gray dogwood moved in. Prairie shrubs looked, well, shrubby, without their annual fire regime. Most stunning was the prairie pasture rose, which grew taller than I’ve seen it before, with beautiful rose hips that lingered into spring.

Pasture Rose (Rosa Carolina) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

And now, in a matter of four hours, the last two seasons of tallgrass growth have gone up in smoke.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

A red-tailed hawk hovers, waiting to pounce on any small mammals running ahead of the flames. How do they know what fire will do? I wonder. Nearby, a field sparrow sings from a wild plum tree, oblivious to the spectacle taking place. I often find hawk feathers and other bird feathers on my hikes here; now, there will be no trace. Only ashes and bird song.

Feather, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

A woman pulls her car to the side of the road; rolls down her window. “Do you know why they’re doing this?” she asks. It’s an excellent question. The short answer is this: Prescribed fire helps keep a prairie healthy. Without fire, we would lose our prairies.

Fire keeps brush and trees from taking over the tallgrass and turning it to woodland.

Bur Oaks (Quercus macrocarpa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Spring burns warm the ground. The blackened soil heats up much more quickly than unburned soil. This tells the prairie plants it’s time to grow.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Old leaf litter—dead plants—vanish in the flames, freeing up space for new growth.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Fire also helps control some weedy plants that might otherwise take over the prairie and outcompete native plants. The prescribed burns help prairie stewards maintain diversity.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I watch the hardworking women and men of the fire crew check the prairie for hikers, then lay down a waterline around each area to be burned.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The water line, back-burns, mowed pathways, and the gravel road create boundaries that help keep the fire within a contained space.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

With the help of a drip torch, different portions of the prairie are set on fire.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Up in flames go the prairie dock leaves.

Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Mountain mint seedheads turn to ashes.

Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The last lingering seeds of carrion flower: vanished.

Upright Carrion Flower (Smilax ecirrhata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Late figwort disappears into the inferno.

Late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The last vestiges of 2020 on the prairie are only a memory.

False sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides) Shadow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Fire is usually something we fear.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Today, we embrace it. Welcome it. Respect it.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Losing our prairie burn season in 2020 was only one of many losses in a year full of assorted griefs.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

But with today’s prairie fire, I feel joy.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

At last. There’s hope for the season ahead.

*****

Stephen Pyne (1949-) is professor emeritus at Arizona State University, and the author of The Perils of Prescribed Fire from which the opening quote for this post is taken. He’s written 34 other books, most of them about fire. Listen to his Ted Talk How Fire Shapes Everything here.

*****

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

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.

A Brief History of Trees in America: Online, 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.

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.

The Prairie Whispers:”Spring”

“The afternoon is bright, with spring in the air, a mild March afternoon, with the breath of April stirring… .”—Antonio Machado

*******

It’s 63 degrees. I leave my heavy winter coat, gloves, and scarf in the closet and pull out my windbreaker for the first time in months.

Treeline in bright sun, East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Winter hasn’t quite let go. No mistake about it. But the five senses say a shift in seasons is underway.

Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) and Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), Dick Young Forest Preserve Prairie, Batavia, IL.

In between the prairie dropseed planted along the edges of my backyard patio, the crocus and snowdrops have emerged from their dark sojourn underground.

Crocus (Crocus sp.) , Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

When I dug them in last October, the pandemic seemed to have gone on forever. Vaccination was only a dream. Spring seemed a long way off. Today, I count the flowers—10, 20, 40… . Look how far we’ve come.

Crocus (Crocus sp.) ,Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Cardinal song wakes us in the morning. The windows are cracked open to take advantage of the smell of clean, laundered air.

Tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

On the prairie trails I see a honey bee, flying low to the ground, looking for something blooming. Not much. Warm temperatures and hot sun have brought the earliest prairie fliers out today. My ears catch the buzz—a sound I haven’t heard in months. Soon, I won’t even register it when the pollinators are out in numbers. Today, that “buzz” is still new enough to catch my attention.

Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Dick Young Forest Preserve, Batavia, IL.

In the afternoon, hundreds of sandhill cranes pass overhead, their cries audible even inside the house. We stand on the back porch, eyes shielded against the bright sun, watching.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Cindy’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Waves upon waves upon waves. Heading north to the top of the world. Flying determinedly toward something they only dimly remember.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Dick Young Forest Preserve, Batavia, IL.

On the prairie, ice still slicks the trails where shadows lie. We pull on knee-high rubber boots and slosh through slush.

Trail through Dick Young Forest Preserve prairie, Batavia, IL.

In spots the paths are springy like a mattress. The trail gives unexpectedly and I tumble down, sprawling, laughing. It’s like sinking into a pillow– although a cold, muddy one. In spring, there are so many new sounds and scents it’s easy to forget to watch your step.

Bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Burdock burs, grasping at their last chance to hitchhike a ride, catch our clothes. We spend a few minutes pulling them off. Ouch! I’d forgotten how sharp they are. Years ago, I remember our collie getting into a big patch of burdock. Impossible to remove. I spent a good long while with the scissors, cutting the burs out.

Dick Young Forest Preserve prairie blues, early March, Batavia, IL.

All around me are the last seeds of 2020; those that remain uneaten by voles, undisturbed by winter storms. Seed dispersal is so varied on the prairie! Wind and animals; people and birds—we all have a role to play in the continuing life of plants. Even now, the vanishing snow is filtering the fallen seeds into the soil, ready for a new life.

Indian hemp or dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Inhale. The smell of damp earth. Not the scent of fall’s decay, but something similar.

Goldenrod (Solidago sp.) “bunch gall”, East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The fragrance teases my nose. Tickles my memory. It’s the spring’s “prairie perfume.”

The sky begins to cloud with tiny popcorn cumulus. The warmth of the day takes on a bit of a chill. These are the last days of tallgrass.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Any day now, fire will come to these prairies. Smoke-plumes will rise in the distance. The old season will be burned away.

After the prescribed fire, Fermilab Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL. (2018)

Until then, the brittle grasses and battered wildflowers wait, tinder for the flames.

Nachusa Grasslands, prescribed fire on Big Jump Prairie (2016).

Today, spring seems like something exotic, something new.

Cattails (Typha sp.), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

It’s not a shout yet. It’s barely a whisper.

Wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Dick Young Forest Preserve prairie, Batavia, IL.

But listen.

Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Can you hear it?

*****

The quote that opens this post is by Antonio Machado (Antonio Cipriano José María y Francisco de Santa Ana Machado y Ruiz) (1875-1939) from Selected Poems, #3. Machado is regarded as one of Spain’s greatest poets. Reflective and spiritual, his poems explore love, grief, history and the landscape of Spain. A longer excerpt (as translated by Alan Trueblood), reads: “The afternoon is bright, /with spring in the air, /a mild March afternoon,/with the breath of April stirring,/ I am alone in the quiet patio/ looking for some old untried illusion -/some shadow on the whiteness of the wall/some memory asleep/on the stone rim of the fountain,/perhaps in the air/the light swish of some trailing gown.”

*******

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

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.

March on the Tallgrass Prairie

March winds and April showers, bring forth May flowers.Nursery rhyme inspired by Geoffrey Chaucer

******

Tempestuous March opened meteorological spring yesterday with a whisper, rather than a shout. In like a lamb…

Twilight blues of the vanished prairies over DeKalb County, IL.

Does that mean March will go “out like a lion”?

Sunset over DeKalb’s vanished prairies.

Those of us in the tallgrass prairie region know that with March, anything is possible.

Willful, changeable, whimsical March.

Stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

March is thaw season. Mud season. Melt season. Even as the ice vanishes by inches in prairie ponds and streams…

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…we know the white stuff hasn’t surrendered. Not really.

Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

March is the opening dance between freeze and thaw.

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, IL.

Snow and rain. Fire and ice.

The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

It’s a teasing time, when one day the snow sparkles with sunlight, spotlighting the desiccated wildflowers…

Unknown aster, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…the next, howling winds shatter the wildflowers’ brittle remains.

Pale Indian Plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

March is shadow season. Light and dark. Sun and clouds.

Gray-headed Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

It’s been so long. So long since last spring. So many full moons have come and gone.

Full Snow Moon, West Chicago, IL.

We remember last March, a month of unexpected fear. Shock. Grief. Anxiety for what we thought were the weeks ahead…

Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…which turned into—little did we know—months. A year. Hope has been a long time coming.

Unknown asters, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

But now, sunshine lights the still snow-covered prairie.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Deep in the prairie soil, roots stretch and yawn.

Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Seeds crack open.

Round-headed Bush Clover (Lespedeza capitata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

A new season is on the way.

Canada Geese (Branta canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

In March, anything seems possible.

Trail through the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Hope seems possible.

******

The nursery rhyme “March winds and April showers, bring forth May flowers” is likely adapted from the prologue to Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. There, it reads a bit inscrutably for modern readers: “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote, The droghte of March hath perced to the roote… . ” Chaucer, who was born sometime between 1340-45, is called “the first English author” by the Poetry Foundation. Troubled by finances, he left The Canterbury Tales mostly unfinished when he died in 1400, possibly because “the enormousness of the task overwhelmed him.” Chaucer is buried in Westminster Abbey; the space around his tomb is dubbed the “Poet’s Corner.”

******

Join Cindy online for a class or program this spring from anywhere in the world. Visit http://www.cindycrosby.com for more.

Sunday, March 7, 4-5:30pm CST: Katy Prairie Wildflowers, offered through Katy Prairie Conservancy, Houston, Texas. Discover a few of the unusual prairie wildflowers of this southern coastal tallgrass prairie. Register here

Thursday, March 11, 10am-noon CST: Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History is a book discussion, offered by Leafing through the Pages Book Club at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (Morton Arboretum members only) Registration information here.

Friday, April 9, 11:30a.m-1pm CST: Virtual Spring Wildflower Walk —discover the early blooming woodland and prairie plants of the Midwest region and hear their stories. Through the Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Register here.

5 Reasons to Hike the February Prairie

“If you stand still long enough to observe carefully the things around you, you will find beauty, and you will know wonder.” — N. Scott Momaday

******

Zero degrees. My backyard birdfeeders are mobbed.

White-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The squirrels take their share. I don’t begrudge them a single sunflower seed this week.

Fox squirrel (Sciurus niger), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

It’s tempting to stay inside. Watch the snow globe world from behind the window. It’s warmer that way. But February won’t be here for long.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Let’s pull on our coats. Wrap our scarves a little tighter. Snuggle into those Bernie Sanders-type mittens.

Ice and snow on unknown shrubs, West Side, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Need a extra push, during these polar vortex days? Consider these five reasons to get outside for a prairie hike this week.

******

  1. Bundle up in February and marvel at the way snow highlights each tree, shrub and wildflower.
East Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Enjoy how the snow drifts into blue shadows on the prairie, punctured by blackberry canes. A contrast of soft and sharp; staccato and legato; light and dark.

Snow drifts into wild blackberry canes (Rubus allegheniensis) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Notice: Rather than being muzzled and smothered by snow, the prairie embraces it, then shapes it to its February tallgrass specifications.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve prairie plantings, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Downers Grove, IL. (2018)

Snow in February creates something wonder-worthy.

2. The restrained palette of February demands our attention. Ash and violet. Black and blue. A little red-gold. A bit of dark evergreen.

Prairie plants along the shore of Crabapple Lake, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

You’d think it would be monotonous. And yet. Each scene has its own particular loveliness.

Wetland with prairie plants, East Side, Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

We begin to question our previous need for bright colors…

Bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2018)

…as we embrace the simplicity of the season.

Road to Thelma Carpenter Prairie, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. (2016)

As we hike, there’s a yearning for something we can’t define. More daylight? Warmth? Or maybe, normalcy? Our personal routines and rhythms of the past 12 months have been completely reset. There’s a sense of resignation. It’s been a long winter. February reminds us we still have a ways to go. Keeping faith with our prairie hikes is one practice that grounds us and doesn’t have to change. It’s reassuring.

Possibly burdock (Artium minus), Lyman Woods, Downers Grove, IL.

3. In February, we admire the elusiveness of water. It’s a changeling. One minute, liquid. The next—who knows?

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

Winter plays with water like a jigsaw puzzle.

Ice forms in Belmont Prairie’s stream, Downers Grove, IL (2020)

February’s streams look glacial.

Bridge over the DuPage River prairie plantings in February, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Snuggle into your parka and be glad you’re hiking, not swimming.

4. If you are a minimalist, February is your season.

East Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Everything is pared to essentials.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardi) leaves, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Many of the seeds are gone; stripped by mice, extracted by birds.

Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2018)

Everywhere around you are the remains of a prairie year that will soon end in flames.

Prescribed burn sign, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

What you see before you is the last whisper of what is, and was, and what will be remembered.

Hidden Lake in February. (2018)

Look closely. Don’t forget.

5. In February, turn your eyes to the skies. What will you see? The marvel of a single red-tailed hawk, cruising over the tallgrass in the distance?

Prairie planting with red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis0, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

A sundog—that crazy play of sunlight with cirrus that happens best in the winter? Or a sun halo, blinding, dazzling?

Sun halo, Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL. (2020)

Maybe it will be a full Snow Moon at the end of this month, setting sail across the sub-zero sky. Or a daylight crescent moon, scything the chill.

Crescent moon, Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL. (2020)

What will you see? You won’t know unless you go. Sure, it’s bitter cold. But soon, February will only be a memory. What memories are you making now?

Coyote (Canis latrans) on the trail through the Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The prairie is waiting.

*****

N. Scott Momaday (1934-) is the author of Earth Keeper (2020), House Made of Dawn (1968, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Literature in 1969) and my favorite, The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969), a blend of folklore and memoir. Momaday is a member of the Kiowa tribe, a group of indigenous people of the Great Plains. Writer Terry Tempest Williams calls Earth Keeper “a prayer for continuity in these days of uncertainty.”

*****

Join Cindy in 2021 for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a complete list of virtual offerings. Need a speaker? Email me through my website. All classes and programs with Cindy this winter and spring are offered online only. Join me from your computer anywhere in the world.

Begins Monday, February 8 (SOLD OUT) OR just added —February 15 (Two options): Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online (Section A or B)--Digitally explore the intricacies of the tallgrass prairie landscape and learn how to restore these signature American ecosystems as you work through online curriculum. Look at the history of this unique type of grassland from the descent of glaciers over the Midwest millions of years ago, to the introduction of John Deere’s famous plow, to where we are today. We will examine different types of prairie, explore the plant and animal communities of the prairie and discuss strategies specific to restoring prairies in this engaging online course. Come away with a better understanding of the tallgrass prairies, and key insights into how to restore their beauty. All curriculum is online, with an hour-long in-person group Zoom during the course. You have 60 days to complete the curriculum! Join me–Registration information here.

February 24, 7-8:30 p.m. CST: The Prairie in Art and Literature Online. The tallgrass prairie is usually thought of for its diverse community of plants, animals, and insects. Yet, it is also an inspiration for a creative community! In this interactive online talk, natural history author and prairie steward Cindy Crosby will explore historical and contemporary writers and artists, musicians, and other creatives working in the prairie genre: from Neil Young to Willa Cather to graphic comic artists, quilters, and jewelers expressing the prairie through their work. See the prairie in a new light! Come away inspired to appreciate and express your love of the tallgrass as you enjoy learning about this prairie “community.” Offered by The Morton Arboretum: Register here.

The Prairie in November

“November comes–And November goes–With the last red berries–And the first white snows.”—Elizabeth Coatsworth

*****

They’re leaving!

Winds from the northwest. Blue skies. Temperatures falling. I see the text from Jeff at work alerting me, and hurry outside. I don’t have to ask “who” is leaving. It’s that time of year. Look up and—Yes! There they are.

Hundreds of sandhill cranes choreograph their way over the house, a tsunami of sound.

Their high-pitched cries, unlike anything else in nature, carry for up to two and a half miles. As they fly their intricate patterns, they become invisible for a moment. I shade my eyes against the sun and then—-there. They turn and are visible again. Headed south. The cranes pirouette in some previously agreed upon rhythm, scatter, then reform their arcs across the blue–blue–blue sky.

I watch until they’re gone.

See you next year.

*****

We’re on the downhill side of November, with the year’s finish line appearing just over the horizon. Last week, Jeff and I unpacked the Christmas lights and decorations, longing for the spirit of the season to buoy our spirits.

The neighbors are doing the same. My 2019 self might have made wisecracks about the resulting mishmash of scarecrows and snowmen; leftover Halloween pumpkins and poinsettias; cornucopias and candy canes. But my 2020 self silently cheers them on as I walk the neighborhood and admire the latest decorations. My yard reflects the same holiday collision.

On the tallgrass prairie, plunging temperatures, random snows, high winds, and then—strange balmy days full of sunshine—have burnished the prairie to metallics.

Golds.

Rusts.

White golds.

Bronzes.

Pewters.

Glimpses of mixed metals appear in the Illinois bundleflower seedheads scattered along the prairie streams. I love how the sunshine sparks the interior of the seedpods ember-red.

Willoway Brook runs low and cold…

…reflecting the mood of the skies, which capriciously swing from sunshine to clouds to rain to snow and back again, all in the space of 24 hours.

The prairie’s newly-mown edges are ready for spring burns. Bring it on!

Everywhere, as I drive around town, are rising columns of smoke. Stewards lay fire to woodlands and wetlands, mostly, but a few prairies as well. These fires, made by humans but emulating nature’s processes, will ensure healthy, vibrant natural areas for generations to come.

In the evenings, brilliant sunsets, shrouded by smoky skies, tell of the hard work done by prairie stewards.

The sandhill cranes will continue moving through these brilliant skies in the weeks to come. As I hike, I wonder. What will life look like when they return from migration in the spring?

I feel hopeful. Until they return, my prairie hikes and walks outdoors will help keep me feeling that way.

You, too?

Elizabeth Coatsworth (1893-1986) was a prolific author and a Newberry award winner (1931) for The Cat Who Went to Heaven. Her husband, Henry Beston, was author of The Outermost House, and her daughter, Kate Barnes, was the first poet laureate of Maine. She lived in Maine and Massachusetts.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, unless tagged otherwise (to to bottom): November skies; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), author’s prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), author’s prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; rose hips (Rosa carolina); wild grapevine (Vitas spp.); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium); side-oats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula); late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica); wild blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis); Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis) reflections in Willoway Brook; November skies on the edge of the prairie; mown prairie in November; prescribed fire (2014); November sunset, author’s prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); hiking the prairie in November.

*****

Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization in 2021. Email Cindy through http://www.cindycrosby.com.

Literary Gardens Online: Friday, Dec.4, 1-2:30 p.m.CST– Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby from wherever you live in the world for a fun look at gardens in literature and poetry. From Agatha Christie’s mystery series, to Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Goudge, Rumer Godden, May Sarton, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Gilbert, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, and Lewis Carroll–and many more! This class is online. Register here through The Morton Arboretum.

Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.

Chasing Dragonflies Final Cover 620.jpg

Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org, direct from Northwestern University Press (use coupon code NUP2020 for 25% off), or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during these unusual times.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (phrelanzer). Or visit her website at http://www.cindycrosby.com. See you there!

Fire Season

Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.” -Gilda Radner

*******

The smell of smoke drifts through our open windows. A few miles away, a white plume rises.

Fire! Prescribed fire.

At the forest preserves, the Arboretum, and conservation sites, flames creep along the woodland floor. Embers smolder. A tree chain smokes.

It’s prescribed burn season in the woodlands, and even on a few prairies and wetlands. In the Chicago region, a stream of blessedly warm, dry days have made conditions right for fire.

Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.

Fall burns are a management tool stewards and site staff use to encourage healthy natural areas. Spring burns will follow in 2021. In late winter or early spring, we burn the tallgrass prairies.

Because of COVID in 2020, many prairie stewards and staff were unable to gather in large groups to use prescribed fire. For those of us used to seeing this predictable cycle of the prairie season, the unburned prairies—now tangled and tall—were one more curveball in an unpredictable year.

I missed the usual spring dance of fire and flammable grasses; the swept-clean slate of a newly-burned prairie this March. Early wildflowers were difficult to find, buried under the thatch of last-year’s Indian grass and big bluestem. The prairies, untouched by flame, seemed out of kilter all summer. Alien.

This spring, prairie willows flowered. For the first time in remembrance on one prairie where I volunteer, prairie roses put on second year growth. Now, in November, the willows are thick and tall. Bright rose hips are sprinkled through the brittle grasses.

Although I’m not working on the fire crews this season, I feel a rush of adrenaline when I see the tell-tale towers of smoke in the distance. They tell me life is back on track again. That there is some semblance of normality. Welcome back, prescribed fire.

Out with the old, in with the new. Sweep away this year. Let’s start over.

Fire can be a destructive force. But these fires are healing.

They bring the promise of rejuvenation. I know next spring and summer, the prairies, savannas, and woodlands will brim with color. Motion. New life.

As I hike the trails and drive through areas being burned, I watch the flames lick the ground clean of the remains of 2020. Hikers stop and gawk. Through the haze, cars move slowly. Driver’s rubberneck. A yellow-slickered volunteer talks to two walkers, waving her hands as she explains why they are torching the woodlands.

It’s a seeming grand finale for the plants on the woodland floor. But under the ashed soil, the roots of wildflowers and grasses wait for their encore. Spring.

Change is on the way.

*****

Last week, as Jeff and I hiked the prairie trails, we saw them. Woolly bear caterpillars! These forerunners of the Isabella tiger moths were a delightful appearance in the midst of a chaotic week; a sign that the regular rhythm of the seasons was in play. Their appearance was calming. I knew these woolly bears—or “woolly worms” as some southerners call them—were looking for an overwintering spot.The woolly bear’s stripes, according to folklore, predict the coming winter weather.

The small cinnamon stripe I saw on this one points to a severe winter. Hmmm.

Last autumn, the woolly bears I found had a larger cinnamon stripe than this season, indicating a mild winter. I riffled through the old digital records on Google and discovered that in 2019-2020, we had the fourth-warmest December through February period on record.

Way to predict the weather, woolly bear! Although science doesn’t put a lot of stock in these caterpillar forecasts, it’s a fun idea. It will be interesting to see how the 2020-2021 winter season shakes out, stripe-wise.

We like to know what’s coming. We want to know the future. Yet the past eight months, we’ve learned to live with ambiguity. Each day has brought its particular uncertainty—perhaps more than many of us have ever had—in one big gulp.

Life is full of ambiguity, even in the best of times. This year—when even simple rituals like meeting a friend for a morning at the coffee shop have been upended—it’s been draining. Fear and anxiety are constant companions for many of us. Some have lost loved ones. Others have grappled with an illness our medical professionals are still trying to get a handle on. And yes, even the comforting work we do on prairies and natural areas came to a stop for a while.

I’m grateful for the woolly bears, and the normal rhythm of life they represent. I’m also grateful for the fires I see, although for the 100-acre Schulenberg Prairie—like many other prairies—the prescribed burn will be set in the spring. But the mowed firebreaks are a foreshadowing of what’s to come.

New beginnings are ahead.

I feel my spirits lift, thinking about a fresh start. A new season.

I’m ready. Let’s go!

*****

The opening quote is from Gilda Radner (1946-1989) an original cast member of the comedy show “Saturday Night Live.” One of her best-quoted lines, “It’s always something.” She died from ovarian cancer.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby and are taken at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, unless otherwise indicated (top to bottom): smoke plume from prescribed burn, East Woods; video of prescribed burn, East Woods; tree on fire, East Woods; smoke in the East woods; ashes after prescribed burn, East Woods; Schulenberg Prairie prescribed burn (2013); Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie; New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Schulenberg Prairie; rose hips (Rosa carolina), Schulenberg Prairie; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Schulenberg Prairie; burned over prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) on the Schulenberg Prairie parking lot strip; Schulenberg Prairie Savanna in summer; prescribed burn in the East Woods; woolly bear (Pyrrharctia isabella), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; woolly bear (Pyrrharctia isabella) on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Schulenberg Prairie (2019); prescribed burn sign; mowed firebreak on the Schulenberg Prairie; bridge at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; possibly a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), West Side prairie planting.

*****

Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization–now booking talks for 2021. Email Cindy through http://www.cindycrosby.com.

Register for Cindy’s Literary Gardens Online: Friday, Dec.4, 1-2:30 p.m.CST– Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby from wherever you live in the world for a fun look at great (and not-so-great) gardens in literature and poetry. From Agatha Christie’s mystery series, to Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Goudge, Rumer Godden, May Sarton, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Gilbert, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, and Lewis Carroll–and many more! This class is online. Register here through The Morton Arboretum.

Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org, direct from Northwestern University Press (use coupon code NUP2020 for 25% off), or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during these unusual times.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (phrelanzer). Or visit her website at http://www.cindycrosby.com. See you there!