Tag Archives: rosette gall

Hiking the Prairie with Willa Cather

” … that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.”—Willa Cather
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As I scanned the “On this date in history” in the newspaper Monday, there she was. Novelist Willa Cather was born Dec.7, 1873. Her writing explored life on the western prairies, and also, the desert Southwest.

For those of us who love any prairie—-tallgrass, mixed grass, or shortgrass—several of her passages are inseparable from the way we see the landscapes we walk through, prairie or otherwise. These sentences stay with us, as the best writer’s words do, surfacing when the winds riffle the tallgrass or the broad sweep of a prairie sky stops us in astonishment.

The original prairie has largely disappeared since the days of Willa Cather. In Oh Pioneers! she wrote, “The shaggy coat of the prairie…has vanished forever.”

I wonder what she would have thought about the tallgrass prairie of Illinois?

In honor of Willa Cather’s birthday this week, let’s hike the prairie together and view it through her writing.

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“I was born upon the prairie, where the wind blew free, and there was nothing to break the light of the sun.” — Oh Pioneers!

“There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm.” — The Song of the Lark

“As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea.” — My Antonia

“The red of the grass made all the great prairie the color of wine stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.” —My Antonia

“I wanted to walk straight on through the red grass and over the edge of the world, which could not be very far away.” — My Antonia

“Trees were so rare in that country, and they had to make such a hard fight to grow, that we used to feel anxious about them, and visit them as if they were persons.” — My Antonia

“Success is never so interesting as struggle.”–The Song of the Lark

The light and air about me told me that the world ended here: only the ground and sun and sky were left…

… and if one went a little farther there would only be sun and sky, and one would float off into them, like the tawny hawks which sailed over our heads making slow shadows on the grass.” — My Antonia

“The landscape one longed for when one was far away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!” –Death Comes for the Archbishop

The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.”–Oh Pioneers!

“There was nothing but land; not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.”–My Antonia

The land and all that it bore they treated with consideration; not attempting to improve it, they never desecrated it.” –Death Comes for the Archbishop

Thanks, Willa.

What prairie writers will you think about when you walk the tallgrass trails this week? Leave me a comment below, if you’d like to share your favorites.

Happy hiking!

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The blog quotes today are from various works of Willa Cather (1873-1947), who won the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours (1923). After graduating from University of Nebraska, she lived in Pittsburgh and New York City. Death Comes to the Archbishop was recognized by Time as one of the 100 best novels between 1923-2005. The opening quote is from My Antonia, and is engraved on Cather’s tombstone in Jaffery, New Hampshire.

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All photos taken at College of DuPage’s Russell R. Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL unless tagged otherwise (top to bottom): Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis) compass plant (Silphium lacinatum); Prairie Parking sign; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum); prairie pond; the prairie in December (college in background); little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) under ice, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL (2/19); trail to the trees; unusual rosette gall (Rabdophaga rosacea); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) over the prairie; sky over the prairie; fasciation on common evening primrose (Oenothera biennis); December on the prairie (college in the background); common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).

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Please consider giving the gift of books this holiday season! Support writers, small presses, and independent bookstores. Through December 31st, you can receive 40% The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction (2016) and Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History (2020) when you order directly from Northwestern University Press. Use the code HOLIDAY40 at checkout. At regular price, order Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit (with Thomas Dean) from Ice Cube Press (2019). Or order these three books from your favorite indie bookseller. Thank you, and happy reading!

A Twilight Prairie Hike

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”  — Rachel Carson

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December. The roads are choked with traffic; shoppers busy with the work of preparing for the holidays. Neighborhoods dressed in Christmas lights glow. Chicago radio stations swap out their playlists for Jingle Bell Rock and Frosty; Oh Holy Night and Santa Baby. The temperatures warm into the high 40s and then, plummet into the teens. We think of snow.

Under steel skies, the prairie is quiet, an impressionist study in golds, browns, and rusts.

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Sunday, Jeff and I drove to Crystal Lake, Illinois, where I gave a late afternoon talk on Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit.

signprairieview12819WM.jpg Afterwards, there was just enough light to go for a hike on the prairie, silent in the gathering dark. Mary, my delightful host, told me the prairie was originally a farm, run by Hazel and her husband, Otto Rhoades, president of Sun Electric Company. The 7,500 square foot education center was originally their home built in 1945.

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The McHenry County Conservation District purchased the property in 1993 and began converting the private home to an educational center.  Today, the center serves thousands of McHenry County children and families with low-cost nature programs, camps, and school field trips. These kids will grow up knowing that tallgrass prairie is something special.

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As the light fades on the prairie, so do the sounds. We move a short way down the path and realize the day is almost gone. Our hopes of hiking the  six and a half miles of hiking trails through the prairie and savanna restorations, culminating at the banks of the Fox River, won’t happen this time. This short walk will only be a taste of what this place has to offer.

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Just over the horizon a plume of smoke lifts, likely a neighbor burning leaves.

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In the gloaming, the grasses and wildflowers take on a mysterious aspect. The prairie has been called “a sea of grass” in literature, and I can imagine these wildflowers at the bottom of an ocean floor, waving gently in the current.

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As we hike, I think of the old farm and the lives spent in agriculture here. It would be a shock to Hazel and Otto to see these acres, likely wrestled from prairie at one time, turned back to tallgrass prairie again.

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John Madson, in his eloquent book, Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie, talks of visiting the area where his great-grandparents turned tallgrass into farm. He wrote: “What would they think in our time if they could stand in the Walnut Creek Refuge and look over a prairiescape again? They might deplore it as so much foolishness, feeling somehow betrayed by this replication of a wilderness they had been so proud to have tamed. Or would they see it for what it really is—a common ground between their lives and ours?”

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Walking through the tallgrass, I try to envision it as farm in the forties. My imagination fails. Prairie stretches across the horizon. In the dim light, the grasses  become waves crashing into the savanna.

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But the wildflowers have amazing detail and grace, like this goldenrod rosette gall on a goldenrod plant.

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Even the weedier prairie natives, like evening primrose, seem festive.

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A deer emerges from the tallgrass, shadowed, then motionless, so much that Jeff and I almost miss our “Illinois state animal.” The deer reminds me of the book I’ve been reading, Wilding: Returning Nature to Our Farm , by Isabella Tree. Set in Great Britain, Tree tells of the experiment her family undertakes to let their intensive agricultural venture go and then, watch the land recover. They add old English longhorns, fallow deer, red deer, and Exmoor ponies to their land to churn it and fertilize it. They withhold herbicides. Quit planting. Then, they watch the exhausted land become healthy again. As birds and insects return to their thousands of acres, the neighbors are aghast to see good cropland be “wasted.” Of the experiment, Tree writes: “It was an affront to the efforts of every self-respecting farmer, an immoral waste of land, an assault on Britishness itself.

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Reading Madson and Wilding reminds me that our ideas about how to use the land and what we value are always changing, always in transition. Land use isn’t always something we agree on. Prairie, because it is so nuanced, may be seen as land that is “wasted.” Couldn’t that land be better used? But when you build a relationship with prairie, you understand its true value.

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I wonder what my grandchildren will make of prairie, and how they will care for the landscape they’ve inherited. How they will change it. I think of the next generations. What will they value when they explore the prairie trails? Will they see the beauty and sense of history that permeates these places?

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Prairieview ‘s work—and the work of other prairie education programs for families and schoolchildren—gives me hope.  That we will invest in children and their prairie experiences. That we will let them absorb the beauty and mystery of the prairie through personal time spent hiking and exploring the tallgrass. That educators and parents will help them understand the value of its plants and its animals. Then, our children will have a reason to love the prairie community and care about its future.

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We’ve not gone very far into the tallgrass, but it’s time to turn around and head for the car. Dusk has turned to dark. Just a bit of light remains.

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We’ll be back.

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The opening quote is from Rachel Carson’s (1907-1964) The Sense of Wonder. Begun as a magazine essay, the book is a stirring call to nurturing children’s sense of delight and marvel over the natural world.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken this week at Prairieview Education Center, Crystal Lake, IL except where noted: prairie at Prairieview Education Center in December; welcome sign; Prairieview Education Center; little bluestem (Schizachyium scoparium); view from the education center; trails through the prairie; mostly bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); switchgrass (Panicum virgatum); mixed grasses and savanna in the dusk; rosette gall, made by the goldenrod gall midge (Rhopalomyia solidaginis); evening primrose (Oenothera biennis); white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus);  compass plant (Silphium lacinateum); young child explores the prairie, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata); common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).

Thanks to Mary, Barbara, and the good folks at Prairieview who hosted the booksigning and talk on Sunday. And thank you to Dustin, who recommended “Wilding” to me.

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Please join Cindy at one of her upcoming classes or talks in the new year!

Nature Writing and Art Retreat, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, February 22 (Saturday) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Cindy will be facilitating the writing portion. Register here.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26.  Details and registration here.

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum. For details and registration, click here.