“We come and go but the land will always be here.” —Willa Cather
Just when I made a New Year’s resolution to learn the names of cloud types, a sheet of gray stratus clouds moved in last week. Gray. Gray. Gray. That was the story here. There’s something to be said for consistency, I suppose. On a walk with friends along the Fox River this weekend, I looked for color. A few mossy greens. Some russet leaves.
The creek that ran to the river reflected that metallic, stratus-filled sky.
As we watched the Fox River slip by, even the birds seemed to lack color. The Canada geese were spiffed up in their yin-yang tuxedoes.
Common mergansers floated by, intent upon their errands, barely within the reach of my camera.
In the distance, a few common goldeneyes floated just out of reach of my zoom lens. But wait—what’s this?
A tundra swan! A bird I’ve never seen, and one of the more infrequent ones for Illinois. Our friends, who brought us here specifically for this reason, pointed out the ID markers which differentiate it from other swans, including a small amount of yellow on the bill.
Nearby, two other tundra swans floated under the flat, silvered sky.
You can see why the swamp rose mallow would approve! Thinking about the mallow and its magenta leads me down the rabbit trail of other prairie magentas. After I posted the “Viva Magenta” color of the year announcement this week on Facebook, many folks chimed in with their favorite magentas in nature.
Prairie sunrises and sunsets…
The deep, rich magenta of dogwood stems in winter.
The rich magenta of sumac-washed leaves in autumn.
The bramble sharp branches of iced wild blackberry, which winds its way through the prairie, ripping and tripping.
I think of the dragonflies I chase across the prairies in the summer’s heat. None of the Illinois’ species bring the color magenta to mind. But! I remember other dragonflies in other places, like this roseate skimmer in Tucson, Arizona.
Today, here on the Fox River, magenta isn’t much in evidence. But there’s joy in every bit of color along this river, no matter how subtle.
There is delight in remembering the times nature has exploded with “viva magenta” both in flight…
…and in bloom.
And there is happiness in seeing some rarities that while, perhaps lacking in color, don’t lack for excitement and awe.
Who knows what else January may bring? The new year is off to a great start.
Why not go see?
The opening quote is from writer Willa Cather (1873-1947) from O Pioneers! Cather spent part of her childhood in Nebraska, and graduated from University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She wrote compellingly about life on the prairies.
Join Cindy for a Class or Program this Winter
The Tallgrass Prairie in Popular Culture—Friday, January 20, from 10-11:30 a.m. Explore the role the tallgrass prairie plays in literature, art, music—and more! Enjoy a hot beverage as you discover how Illinois’ “landscape of home” has shaped our culture, both in the past and today. Class size is limited. Offered by The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL; register here.
Nature Writing Workshop— Four Thursdays (February 2, 9, 16, and 23) from 6-8:30 p.m. Join a community of nature lovers as you develop and nurture your writing skills in person. Class size is limited. For more information and to register visit here.
“Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” — Mary Oliver
The last week of the year is a good time for reflection. I’ve been thinking about all of you; the wonderful readers who have joined me on this virtual prairie hike adventure.
Eight years ago this week in December of 2014, I wrote the first post for Tuesdays in the Tallgrass. About 40 people joined me for that initial post, mostly family and close friends, who encouraged me by clicking “follow” and then, reading each week.
Thanks to so many of you who love prairie and the natural world, this week the “odometer” ticked over to 1,000 followers. In the world of social media, of course, that’s small potatoes. But not to me. Each of you are an important part of this virtual prairie community.
Each week, your readership reminds me of how many people love the natural world.
It’s also a reminder of how important it is, as the late poet Mary Oliver said, to “tell about it.” It’s not enough to enjoy the natural world and the prairie for ourselves. Sharing it with others—or as the remarkable Dr. Robert Betz once said—making “a real effort to educate the public about (the prairie’s) importance as a natural heritage and ecological treasure” is an ongoing necessity. If you and I don’t share the wonders of the natural world with others today, how will they make the personal connections that ensure the prairie’s survival in the future?
What a world of wonders the prairie offers us! When you count the Tuesdays over the past eight years, that’s 416 virtual hikes we’ve made together.
It’s a lot of stories; a lot of hikes. Yet, each week we barely scratch the surface of the diversity, complexity, and marvels of the tallgrass prairie and the natural world. There is so much to see!
Tuesdays came no matter where I found myself. So, we’ve dreamed about prairie together as I corresponded on my travels from far-flung Sicily…
… to the deserts of Arizona…
…. to the mangrove swamps in Florida.
But I’ve learned that I don’t need to travel the world to find marvels. The best adventures are waiting for us in our own backyards.
Most of our adventures together have been in the tallgrass, of course. Together, we’ve explored remnant tallgrass prairies, national prairie preserves, cemetery prairies, planted prairies in parks, and large tracts of Nature Conservancy prairies.
We’ve investigated birds on the prairie and at the backyard feeders…
….as well as turtles, snakes, butterflies, bunnies, bees, beetles, coyote, opossum, beavers, muskrats, and anything else that flies, buzzes, or hovers. As I’ve learned more about prairie pollinators and prairie plants, you’ve cheered me on, gently corrected my wrong ID’s, offered ideas on your own favorite places, and said an encouraging word or two at just the right time.
You’ve hiked with me through some difficult times, through my cancer diagnosis and recovery; through a new knee that got me back on the prairie trails again; and through a medical issue that sidelined me for several months this fall, unable to do much more than photograph the prairie plantings and the garden in my yard. Your encouragement and comments have been an important part of the healing process.
As a former bookseller, I couldn’t write about prairie here without also writing about the books I love. Over the years, we’ve rounded up a yearly list of favorite and new prairie books each season, a tradition I’ve come to enjoy (and I hope you have, too!). And, as I’ve penned this blog, I’ve written or co-authored three additional books, all of which took inspiration from the discipline of writing this weekly missive. Every one of you has played a role in my books, because your questions and comments informed and encouraged those writings.
As I write this note to you at the end of 2022, we continue to navigate a world-wide pandemic. Here in Illinois, during the holidays, we are experiencing a “triple-demic” of RSV, flu, and Covid-19. Another daunting aspect of life in 2022 is the lack of civility and care for each other that the news headlines trumpet daily. Sometimes, the world feels like a scary place. But whatever a week brings, I always feel the joy of knowing this little prairie community is here on Tuesday, ready to share with me in the excitement and delight of a virtual hike.
“To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience,” wrote the Irish poet and novelist Patrick Kavanagh. To know the tallgrass prairie—or even the small plantings in my suburban yard—would take several lifetimes. But what an adventure it is!
At the end of 2022 I want to say thank you. Thank you for reading. Thank you for giving me a bit of your time each Tuesday morning. Thank you for the constant stream of well-wishes; of “shares,” and “retweets” and Facebook reposts. Especially thank you to those who take time to click the comment button from time to time and say how much you love prairie, or if you enjoyed a particular post or photograph, or that you want to recommend a book title. Maybe you sent me a link to an interesting website, or you have an idea about how to get rid of buckthorn or honeysuckle, or you wanted to share a “prairie recipe” or tip. Thank you for being a community.
Most of all, thank you for getting outside. If you live in prairie country, thank you for hiking the prairies. For planting prairie in your gardens. For volunteering on a prairie, or dedicating your professional life to caring for prairie, or sharing prairie with a child. Thank you for photographing prairie and sharing prairie with your friends. If you live in a different part of the country, or the world, thank you for admiring prairie and for caring for the natural world, as I know some of my readers do from across the miles. My prairie may be your forest, or wetland, or river. We are all stewards of wherever we find ourselves.
As this year of prairie hikes comes to a close, thank you for caring. Knowing you are out there continues to be an inspiration to me, through the light and dark places as we hike the prairie trails, wade in the prairie streams looking for dragonflies and damselflies, watch for bison…
…and explore the natural world together.
As the poet Mary Oliver wrote, “Paying attention: This is our endless and proper work.”
What a joy that work can be! I can’t wait to hike the trails in 2023 together.
Happy New Year! See you next week on the prairie.
Mary Oliver (1935-2019), whose quote opens this last post of 2022, wrote compellingly about experiencing the natural world. In New and Selected Poems, she writes: “When it’s over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement.” Yes.
Join Cindy for a Class or Program this Winter
The Tallgrass Prairie in Popular Culture—Friday, January 20, from 10-11:30 a.m. Explore the role the tallgrass prairie plays in literature, art, music—and more! Enjoy a hot beverage as you discover how Illinois’ “landscape of home” has shaped our culture, both in the past and today. Offered by The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL; register here.
Nature Writing Workshop— Four Thursdays (February 2, 9, 16, and 23) from 6-8:30 p.m. Join a community of nature lovers as you develop and nurture your writing skills in person. For more information and to register visit here.
Illinois Prairie needs you! Visit Save Bell Bowl Prairie to learn about this special place—one of the last remaining gravel prairies in our state —and to find out what you can do to help.
***Note to readers: All undated photos were taken this week.
“But if we don’t understand and care for the smaller manifestations of wildness close at hand, how can we ever care for the great wildernesses?” —Conor Gearin
Temperatures hover around zero in the Chicago region. The “Winter Storm to End All Storms” seems to have fizzled out in a matter of less than half a dozen inches. And here I sit, in 70-degree weather. In Florida. There’s a part of me that’s sad to miss the first real snow of the season. A small part of me. (A very teeny, tiny part.)
But there’s solace knowing that this week, I’m absorbed in learning the names of birds, blooms, dragonflies, shells, and other flora and fauna of southwestern Florida. This region, which I’ve visited for almost 45 years, doesn’t hold the same place in my heart as the Illinois tallgrass prairie, my landscape of home. But hiking here reminds me of the breadth and depth of diversity of the natural world, and the joy of discovery. Here’s a postcard to you:
Hello from Florida! Visiting this tropical region in December and January jolts me out of my sense of normalcy about what “winter” looks like. It reminds me that the way I experience life in this season in the Chicago region is completely different than how my neighbors to the south experience it. What a change from the Midwestern prairie! Displacement—a complete change—is a good reset for me to begin a new year.
Here are a few of the wonders I see on my hikes:
My first Mangrove Skipper.
The Great Pondhawk. A new dragonfly species for me!
Another “lifer” is the Mottled Duck, paddling through the mangroves. (Don’t know what a “lifer” is? Take this quiz.)
Ducks are easy to overlook, when there are these birds around. Roseate Spoonbills!
Wow. Such shocking pink. They look like they were run through the wash in the whites load with one red sock, don’t they?
Only the hibiscus rivals it here for color.
And—of course—there are pelicans.
So many pelicans. A flock of pelicans is called a “pouch of pelicans” or sometimes, a “squadron of pelicans. Fun!
Swimming near the pelicans is a mama manatee and her baby.
Four—or are there five?—are at the marina. I learn manatees are large, gray-ish aquatic mammals that feed on sea grasses. They can weigh up to 1,200 pounds, similar to a bison! Baby manatees stay with their moms for up to two years. Boat collisions pose a threat to this species, so hanging out by the boat docks, as these manatees are doing, isn’t a great idea. (Read more about manatees here.)
As I watch them surface every few minutes for air, I find myself wondering about the future for this unusual mammal. I think of the Illinois bison at Nachusa Grasslands, Midewin National Tallgrass Preserve, and Fermilab back home, and how bison have been preserved in good numbers at these places after near extinction. Maybe there is hope for the manatees, too.
Bison are the biggest hazard on my prairie hikes back home. But here, it’s a large reptile.
Yikes. They may weigh more than 750 pounds! See you later, alligator.
As the sun sets over the Gulf Coast, I pack my bags and prepare to head home.
I’ll miss the delights of the island’s natural wonders, but my heart is in the tallgrass. I can’t wait to see the prairie with a little snow on it. At last. Even if the temperature is 70 degrees colder than it is here.
Sending you love from the Sunshine State!
The opening quote is from Conor Gearin’s essay “Little Golden-Flower Room: On Wild Places and Intimacy” from the digital magazine The Millions. His essay is included in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2019 (edited by Sy Montgomery), a book I purchased at Gene’s Books on Sanibel Island, one of my favorite independent bookstores. Gearin’s essay beautifully explores one small Iowa prairie remnant.
Need a New Year’s Resolution? Help save Bell Bowl Prairie, an unusual hill remnant prairie that is slated for destruction by Chicago-Rockford International Airport. Your action can make a difference! See how at www.savebellbowlprairie.org
“…words are all we have of wings.” — Mark O’Connor
There’s nothing like an air travel delay to offer hours of unplanned time to ponder the miracles of flight. This week, I traded Illinois’ tallgrass prairies for Gulf Coast beaches, with about a break-even in temperature (it’s 98 down south; 96 on the prairie as I type this). It might be easy to get snarly about a three hour delay on the flight home and easily undo all the tranquility of a week’s vacation. Tranquility can be only surface deep sometimes; with tension lurking just under the surface.
But instead, I decide to think over the past week. One of the great aspects of displacement is exposure to unfamiliar flora and fauna. It offers you a chance to see the world with new eyes. It reminds you what a diverse and delightful place the world can be.
I miss the tallgrass prairie wildflowers, which I know are spectacular this week.
I remind myself of this as I admire the neon hues of Florida hibiscus.
In Florida, the familiar jostles against the unfamiliar. Across the beaches; over the ponds and mangrove pools, dragonflies and damselflies tirelessly patrol for mosquitoes. A new place means new species of tropical dragonflies. This gives me an excuse to peruse Odonata websites, in search of names. Such glorious colors! Like this scarlet skimmer.
And funky patterns….
… like the ones on this four-spotted pennant. (Could have guessed the name of this one, right?) . I feel a bit nostalgic for the dragonflies and damselflies that are patrolling the prairies back home—just a two-and-a-half hour jet flight away.
But it’s the birds that demand my full attention. Shorebirds. Herons of every possible description and hue.
Yellow-crowned night herons in full breeding plumage.
Some are familiar visitors to the prairie during migration or in the summer. These white pelicans, for example. You’d think this photo was taken in Florida…
… but in fact, these white pelicans were ones I saw at Nachusa Grasslands at the end of last month. Down south now, I wonder about their migration patterns. What do they think of the change from beach to prairie and back again? Is it as jolting for them as it is for me?
Beach birds like the pelicans will find the company they keep in Illinois a little different. Although the tallgrass prairie birds have some startling color combinations…
…Florida’s roseate spoonbill’s bright pink screams for your attention.
Hard for our little prairie Henslow’s sparrow to compete, isn’t it?
Despite all the color and sizzle and “gee-whiz-look-at-me” that the Gulf Coast beaches and their birds and dragonflies have to offer…
Opening quote is from the poem, “The Mutton Birds,” by Australian Mark O’Connor (1945-), in “The Olive Tree: Collected Poems.”
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): alligator (Aligator mississippiensis) in lily pond, Sanibel Island, FL; yellow crowned night heron in breeding plumage (Nyctanassa violacea), J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, FL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hibiscus (Hibiscus, unknown species), Sanibel Island, Florida; scarlet skimmer dragonfly (Crocothemis servilia), Captiva Island, Florida; four-spotted pennant dragonfly (Brachymesia gravida), Captiva Island, Florida; juvenile tri-colored heron (Egretta tricolor), J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, FL; yellow crowned night heron (Nyctanassa violacea) in breeding plumage, J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, FL; American white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bob-o-link (Dolichonyx oryzivorus), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; roseate spoonbill (Platalea ajaja), J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florida; Henslow’s sparrow (Ammodramus henslowii), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; sunset on Captiva Island, Florida; sunset on Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL.
Cindy Crosby is the author, compiler, or contributor to more than 20 books. Her most recent is "Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History" (Northwestern University Press, 2020). She teaches prairie ecology, nature writing, and natural history classes, and is a prairie steward who has volunteered countless hours in prairie restoration. See Cindy's upcoming online speaking events and classes at www.cindycrosby.com.