Tag Archives: round-headed bush clover

Little Prairie in the City

“Wherever we look, from the dirt under our feet to the edge of the expanding cosmos, and on every scale from atoms to galaxies, the universe appears to be saturated with beauty.”–Scott Russell Sanders

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We went looking for beauty. We found it in the northwest corner of Illinois, on a day both foggy and cold.

The 66-acre Searls Park Prairie and wetland is tucked into a mosaic of soccer fields, jogging trails, picnic grounds, and a BMX bike track. Once part of a 230-acre family farm homesteaded in the 1850’s, today the prairie is a designated Illinois Nature Preserve and part of the Rockford Park District.

Fog drizzles the tallgrass with droplets, but no light sparkles. Staghorn sumac lifts its scarlet torches in the gloom, bright spots of color on this gray, gray day.

This remnant is mostly mesic prairie; or what I call the “Goldilocks” type of prairie—-not too wet, not too dry. Well-drained. Just right. Black soil prairie was once coveted by farmers as a fertile place for crops—farmers like the Searls, no doubt. For that reason, most black soil prairies have vanished in Illinois.

It’s quiet. Even the recreational areas are empty in the uncomfortably damp late afternoon. No soccer games. No picnics. The BMX bike track is closed.

The prairie seems other-worldly in the silence.

Prairies like this, tucked into cities, are important sanctuaries. Searls Park Prairie is known for hosting three state-listed threatened or endangered plant species. I don’t see any of the rare or endangered plants on my hike today. But I do see Indian grass….lots and lots of Indian grass.

Its bright bleached blades are etched sharply against the misty horizon. The colors of the drenched prairie are so strong, they seem over-exposed.

Thimbleweed, softly blurred in the fog, mingles with…

…round-headed bush clover, silvery in the late afternoon.

Canada wild rye is sprinkled with sparks.

Gray

Inhale. Ahhhh. Gray-headed coneflower seedheads are soggy with rainwater, but still smell of lemons when you crush them.

I pinch the hoary leaves of bee balm. Thymol, its essential oil, is still present. But the fragrance is fading.

Mountain mint has lost most of its scent, but still charms me with its dark, silvery seedheads.

Stiff goldenrod transitions from bloom to seed, not quite ready to let go of the season.

Overhead, a flock of tiny birds flies over, impossible to identify. There are rare birds here, although I don’t see any today. On our way to the prairie, we marveled at non-native starlings in the cornfields along the interstate, moving in synchronized flight. I’ve never been able to get this on video, but there are great examples of this flight found here. I’ve only seen this phenomenon in the autumn; one of the marvels of the dying year. Once seen, never forgotten.

On the edge of the prairie, wild plums spangle the gloom.

Such color! Such abundance.

I’ve read there is high-quality wet prairie here, full of prairie cordgrass, blue joint grass, and tussock sedge. We look for this wetter area as we hike, but the path we’re on eventually disappears.

No matter. So much prairie in Illinois is gone. So little original prairie is left. I’m grateful to Emily Searls for deeding her family’s farm to the city of Rockford almost 80 years ago, ensuring this prairie is preserved today.

So much beauty. We hardly know where to look next.

The sun burns briefly through the fog like a white-hot dime.

Dusk is on the way, a little early. We make our way back to the car, just ahead of the dark.

There are many different ways to think of beauty.

It’s always available for free on the prairie, in all its infinite variations.

Why not go see?

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The opening quote is from Scott Russell Sanders’ (1945-) The Way of Imagination. Sanders is professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN, where Jeff and I lived for a dozen or so years. After writing the opening quote, he follows it with “What are we to make of this?” and later “How then should we live, in a world overflowing with such bounty? Rejoice in it, care for it, and strive to add our own mite of beauty, with whatever power and talent we possess.” Oh, yes.

All photos from Searls Park Prairie, Rockford, IL (top to bottom): fog over the Searls Park Prairie; Illinois nature preserve sign; staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); white vervain (Verbena urticifolia); dedication plaque; foggy landscape; indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica); round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata); canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum); fog on the prairie; stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum); indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and wild plum (Prunus americanus); wild plum (Prunus americanus); autumn colors; Jeff on the Searls Park Prairie; sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus) in the mist; foggy day on the Searls Park Prairie; prairie landscape in the fog; unknown umbel.

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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.

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.

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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!

Tallgrass Prairie Tranquility

“Never be in a hurry; do everything quietly and in a calm spirit. Do not lose your inner peace for anything whatsoever, even if your whole world seems upset.” — Francis de Sales

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It’s mid-August on the prairie. Grasses push skyward, dominating the wildflowers that were so eye-catching in July.  Switchgrass. Indian grass. Big bluestem.

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Prairie dropseed has sent up its popcorn-scented grass sprays. When I smell its fragrance on the prairie, I feel nostalgic for movie theaters and baseball games. Some people think it smells like licorice, grapes, or cilantro.Prairie Dropseed SPMA 816WM.jpg

So begins the inexorable slide toward autumn. Amid the greens of the bright prairie plants and late summer blooms…ObedientPlantSPMA81220WM

…a few yellows and rusts stealthily mix in.

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The grasses take on a chartreuse hue in certain lights. Against this backdrop, stark silhouettes of summer seedheads stand.

Prairieclovergrasses81220SPMAWM.jpgGalls appear, and other oddly-shaped growths on plants difficult to put a name to. This season, I’ve gotten more emails from my prairie students than ever before about prairie plants and their strange diseases, leaf malformations, and unusual wilting or die-offs. I keep The Morton Arboretum’s free Plant Clinic busy with my queries, and discover these issues are likely born out of insect damage, spring’s soaking rains, and summer’s dry spells of heat.

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Other plants, like this great angelica, cast off their blooms. Only structure is left behind.

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As I walk on the prairie, or work in my garden and backyard prairie patch, I find myself doing some mental doomscrolling. Each morning, I read the newspaper. The pandemic drags on. Bitter battles over school openings. Hand sanitizer recalls. Protests. Politics. Even the post office seems to be in turbulence—and isn’t it supposed to be the most reliable institution of all? Who would have thought, back in March, that the world would still be so full of turmoil?

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If I dwell on these things for too long, it tilts me toward despair. It’s then that the natural world brings me back to center. I remind myself to focus on what’s in front of me.

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Breathe in. Least skipper butterflies flutter through the tallgrass, the color of autumn leaves.

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Over there: a Peck’s skipper nectaring on red clover.

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Breathe out. Mellow eastern tiger swallowtails nectar at the zinnias in my backyard…

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…jostling for position with the eastern black swallowtails nearby.

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Immediately, I feel better. Butterflies are always a sure spirit-lifter.

As are the Odonates. As I wade the prairie creeks and streams in August, I have a ringside seat for dragonflies and damselflies. None I’ve seen this week are rarities. But all of them are wondrous. I love the fragile forktail damselfly’s exclamation marks on his thorax. Can you find them?vSomething to be excited about.

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It’s worth stopping for a moment to watch the female ebony jeweling damselfly’s fluttering movements across the stream. (Look out behind you!)FemaleEbonyJewelwing81520WMWBSPMA.jpg

Her mate is waiting, a little further up the shoreline.

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Stream bluets fly in tandem; the first part of the mating ritual.

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Willoway Brook runs low and clear, limned with damselflies on both sides.

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Powdered dancers.

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Their brighter-hued cousins, the blue-fronted dancers.

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Along this stream, I find the always-spectacular american rubyspot damselfly. He even makes his perch, the invasive reed canary grass, look good.AmericanRubyspot81520SPMAWBWM

As I wade through Willoway Brook one afternoon, distracted by the sight of American Rubyspot tenerals—newly-emerged damselflies—all around, I find myself sticky with spiderwebs. The maker seems invisible. Then, I come face to face with a fishing spider.

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She’s not happy with my mayhem. I apologize, then continue wading up the stream.

Most of the insects I pass stream-side and on the prairie ignore me, as this grasshopper does.

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Unless I trouble them in some way—or get too close–they are busy with their personal lives: eating, mating, eating some more. Politics, personal anxieties, the postal service, protests—the prairie is oblivious to it all.

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Instead, it goes about the business of emergence, growth, and reproduction, continuing a cycle that goes back thousands of years. It’s restful.

Many of these prairie insects I see on my hike are familiar, like this common pondhawk. Nothing too exciting.

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But what extraordinary wonder there is in the ordinary.

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And what comfort there is on the prairie, when it seems chaos is all around!

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It’s a good reminder of what I already know, but sometimes forget. This week, I’ll  spend a little less time with the news. More time on the prairie and in my backyard garden.  Now, more than ever, we need the natural world.

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Francis de Sales (1567-1622), whose quote begins this blog post, is the patron saint of the deaf.  He was noted for his patience and gentleness.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby from the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, unless designated otherwise (top to bottom): Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) (2018); prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) (2018); obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana); prairie dock (Silphium lacinatum); the Schulenberg Prairie in mid-August; unknown growth on round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata); great angelica (Angelica atropurpurea); bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix);  prairie skyline as viewed from Willoway Brook; Least Skipper butterfly (Ancyloxypha numitor); Peck’s Skipper butterfly (Polites peckius); eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; eastern black swallowtail butterfly (Papilio polyxenes), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; fragile forktail damselfly (Ishnura posita), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna; ebony jewelwing damselfly female (Calopteryx maculata); ebony jewelwing damselfly male (Calopteryx maculata); stream bluets (Enallagma exsulans); bridge over Willoway Brook; powdered dancer damselfly male (Argia moesta); Blue-Fronted Dancer damselfly male (Argia apicalis); American Rubyspot Damselfly male (Hetaerina americana); fishing spider (Dolomedes sp.); unknown grasshopper (iNat says it is Heperotettix viridis, the Snakeweed Grasshopper, but I am unsure); common pondhawk dragonfly male (Erythemis simplicicollis); American groundnut (Apios americana); trail on the Schulenberg Prairie.

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Join Cindy for an Online Class this Autumn! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for all speaking and class announcements and details.

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” Begin a new session in September through The Morton Arboretum! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional Zoom session. Classes are limited to 50. Register here.

“Nature Writing Online” Begins Monday, October 5, through The Morton Arboretum. Want to commit to improving and fine-tuning your writing for six weeks? This is a great opportunity to jump start your blog, your book, or your journal writing while working from home, supplemented with three evenings of live evening Zoom classes on alternate weeks. Watch for registration information coming soon.

Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Read a review from Kim Smith here. (And check out her blog, “Nature is My Therapy” — you’ll love it!)

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Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton 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 this chaotic time.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction. 

A Little Prairie Solace

“Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile, the world goes on…” — Mary Oliver

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Jeff and I began the hopeful work of garden prep on Sunday. We added a new raised bed and filled it with compost and top soil; then knocked down some old zinnia and tomato stalks in an older raised bed and carted them away.  I spaded and forked in a dollop of compost here, breaking up a dirt clod over there. And then — look! A few sprouting onion sets, missed from the year before. Something alive and growing! So welcome.

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In the herb garden, the chives were up. My Egyptian walking onions were vital enough to cut some of the tops and use them in an omelet. The first greens of the year. In the backyard prairie patch, the signs of life were less evident. But I know it’s only a few days  until the life-force of new plants push through the ground. Spring.

As I raked topsoil, we heard a racket overhead. Waves and waves of sandhill cranes.

The cranes, as it turned out, were flying just ahead of a snowstorm that has since blanketed the Chicago region. By bedtime Sunday, the garden we had readied was covered with white. The pond and the prairie patch as well. We woke Monday morning to a completely different backyard that the one we’d gardened in the day before.

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Everything looked softer somehow, the harsh edges of unraked leaves and prairie grass stalks in the backyard blunted by snow. The activity and bag-lugging and digging the day before was over now for a while.

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I scanned the pewter sky. So silent. The cranes were somewhere north now, ahead of the weather.

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On Saturday, the Illinois shelter-in-place order was announced. Feeling unsettled by events, Jeff and I went to the Belmont Prairie for a short hike.

The prairie was empty.

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The sandhill cranes flew over as we hiked. It was reassuring, somehow—certainty in the midst of uncertainty. The cranes migration is a rhythm of spring, as dependable as the sun rising in the morning. Knowing that cranes of some species have been around for at least 10 million years is a comfort. Their lives go on.

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The creek flowed through the prairie, winding its way through this remnant as it likely has since time before human memory. Western chorus frogs sang from the wet areas. Creeeeek! Creeeek!

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A train whistled in the distance. High—oh so high in the sky—a plane  from O’Hare took off for parts unknown, and I thought of my niece, returning that same day from Australia after a study abroad cut short. How glad I was to know she was on her way home! I wondered—how much longer will planes continue to fly?  Will travel cease, as it did after 9/11? Unimaginable, only a month ago, that we would ponder these questions today.

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But life is full of the “unimaginable” right now. I thought of the stories I was hearing from friends; fears for health, for job security, for older family members far away.

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Jeff and I walked, and walked, and walked. In the creek, the new growth of cursed crowfoot spreads across the surface of the water.

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Deer tracks sliced through the grasses and wildflowers and mud…

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….showing where they had made their way through the prairie to drink here. I stepped across the footbridge and peered closer.

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Iris speared through the stream. That vivid green! The prairie was coming alive.

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I turned from the footbridge and made my way along the path. Would the Belmont Prairie stewards be able to burn this remnant prairie this season? How, when groups of people can no longer gather? Disruption. When will life return to “normal?”

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My stewardship work on both prairies where i volunteer is on hold. As it should be.

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All the hustle and bustle of tasks I once deemed imperative have taken a back seat to staying healthy.

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Keeping others healthy.

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And yet. In this midst of knowing so many of the ordinary tasks I take for granted would cease, it felt like a relief to do something—even if “doing something” essentially meant doing nothing. Or at least, less of what I was accustomed to.

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In our new work-from-home rhythm, Jeff and I went for a walk Monday morning, admiring the transformation of our suburban street. A few houses down, the  neighborhood children—sequestered at home, with schools closed—had made a snowman.Snowman 32320WM

By Monday afternoon, the snow had all but melted. In the wetlands at the Arboretum, the skunk cabbage was in bloom. People were out walking in the neighborhood, desperate perhaps for some fresh air.

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My backyard pond, covered with the white stuff just six hours before, was snow-free by 4 p.m.

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This new rhythm of our days—the rhythm of sticking close to home—has its rewards. The backyard in close proximity has taken on new significance.  I refill the bird feeders, and marvel at the common but welcome birds that visit. Laugh at a fat robin that attacks the suet, or the herd of mourning doves that peck at the safflower seed. The squirrels even get a pass this week as they scale the feeders—a Herculean task, due to squirrel baffles and other deterrents. Their ability to make me laugh is worth a few pounds of birdseed. The snow this weekend brought out the first truly “gold” goldfinches, which showed up at the thistle feeder in full mating plumage. A change of color. Another signpost of spring.

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After our morning walk on Monday, Jeff and I worked from home until supper time. Then, we went for another walk to end the day. We’ve both found that a 30-minute hike helps alleviate the stress that can accumulate when the news of the day feels like…well…too much. These walks are bookends to the day that are helping us establish new rituals of “normalcy.”

Indiangrass32120BelmontPrairieWM.jpgAround and around and around the block we walked, oohing and aahing over simple things. The sound of a cardinal singing. Lichens patterning a a tree branch in olive green. We even saw an owl.

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What will the next few days bring? We don’t know.  Every day is a new challenge in focus. We choose what we can control: Kindness. Patience. Attentiveness.

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Letting go of what we can’t control.

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As we walked around the block, we noticed that the snowman, made that morning by the kids down the block a few hours earlier, was now only a memory.

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But above that slushy mess, the flowering silver maples along the street signaled the hope of spring. Of a new season.

 

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Each day is a new challenge.

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Meanwhile, the natural world goes on.

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We can still choose to pay attention.

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The opening quote is from the poem, Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver. This particular poem has been so widespread and oft-quoted that people tend to dismiss it. It remains one of my favorites. Haven’t read it? Check it out here. You’ll be glad you did. Stay well, my friends.

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All photos and video taken at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL;  unless otherwise indicated (top to bottom): garden bed, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis); author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn,IL; garden beds, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; trail through Belmont Prairie; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis); creek through Belmont Prairie; Indian hemp/dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum); round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata) (infected with a virus); cursed crowfoot (Ranunculus sceleratus–thank you Andrew Hipp, for the correction!); thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica); footbridge over the creek; iris (unknown species); compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium); pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida); queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota); snowman, author’s neighborhood, Glen Ellyn, IL; skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus); The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; pair of goldfinch (Spinus tristis) previously taken in April 2019, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans);  owl, species uncertain, author’s neighborhood, Glen Ellyn, IL;  little girl checks out the natural world; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium); snowman, author’s neighborhood, Glen Ellyn, IL; silver maple (Acer saccharinum), author’s neighborhood, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); Belmont Prairie trail.

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Cindy’s classes have moved online! For current updates on classes and events, please go to http://www.cindycrosby.com.

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Have you always been curious about the native landscape of the Midwest, but didn’t have time to read?  Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit (order directly from Ice Cube Press) and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction  from Northwestern University Press (order from your independent bookseller if they remain open or deliver, or from Amazon.com for delivery in April.).  I’m grateful for your support in this difficult time for prairie, books, small publishers, and freelance writers like myself.

February Prairie Joys

“The season was…caught in a dreamy limbo between waking and sleeping.” — Paul Gruchow

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And so, February slogs on. We slip on ice, shovel the driveway, or shiver as cold slush slops into our boots. The sky alternates with bright sun and scoured blue skies to gray sheets of clouds that send our spirits plummeting. It’s difficult to not wish February gone. And yet, there is so much February has to offer. So much to enjoy! Hiking the Schulenberg Prairie and savanna after the snow on Valentine’s Day Friday, I was reminded of this.

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It’s 14 degrees Fahrenheit.  Brrr! There’s something comforting about water running under the ice in Willoway Brook.

In other parts of the prairie stream, the water looks like a deep space image, complete with planets, asteroids, and other star-flung matter.

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Wrinkles of ice form on the surface, like plastic wrap on blue jello.

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This slash of blue stream owes much of its color to the reflected February sky. Bright and sunny. So welcome after a string of gray days!

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However, to say the brook is blue is to overlook its infinite variations in color. Leaning over the bridge, I knock a drift of powdered snow loose. It sifts onto Willoway Brook and sugars the ice.

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The prairie is quiet. Roadway noise from a nearby interstate is an ever-present current of background sound, but the “prairie mind” soon learns to filter it out. My “prairie steward mind” notes the numbers of Illinois bundleflower seedheads along the stream, a mixed blessing here. We planted this native as part of a streambank rehab almost 20 years ago. Now, the bundleflower is spreading across the prairie in leaps and bounds and threatening to become a monoculture. What to do, what to do.

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For today, I’ll just enjoy its unusual jolt of shape and color. Wait until spring, bundleflower. I’ll deal with you then. Meanwhile, I enjoy some of the less rowdy members of the prairie wildflowers. Bee balm with its tiny pipes, each hollow and beginning to decay, shadowed in the sunlight. It’s easy to imagine hummingbirds and butterflies  sipping nectar here, isn’t it? Its namesake bees love it too.

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The February prairie is full of activity, both seen and unseen. A few sparrows flutter low in the drifts. Near the bee balm, mouse tunnels and vole holes pock the snowbanks.

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Coyote tracks, their shamrock paw prints deeply embedded in the slashes of snow, embroider the edges of the tallgrass.

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The remains of prairie plants have mostly surrendered to the ravages of the season.

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Carrion flower, a skeleton of its former self, catches small drifts. Such a different winter look for this unusual plant!

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Pasture thistle stands tall by the trail, still recognizable. This summer it will be abuzz with pollinator activity, but for now, the queen bumblebees sleep deep under the prairie. Waiting for spring.

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The Schulenberg, a planted prairie, and Belmont Prairie, a prairie remnant, are less than five miles apart but feel very different.  On Sunday, Jeff and I drove to Downer’s Grove and hiked the Belmont Prairie. The bright sun and warming temperatures—44 degrees! —-also made Sunday’s hike a far different proposition than my Friday hike at 14 degrees on the Schulenberg Prairie.

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The shallow prairie stream at Belmont glistens with ice fancywork.

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The prairie plants here—what’s left of them in February—display infinite variety as they do on the Schulenberg. Nodding wild onion.noddingwildonionbelmontprairie21620WM.jpg

Rattlesnake master, its seedheads slowly disintegrating.

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Rattlesnake master’s yucca-like leaves, once juicy and flexible, are torn into new shapes. The textures are still clearly visible.

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Soft arcs of prairie brome…

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…are echoed by curved whips of white vervain nearby.

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The compass plant leaves bow into the snow, slumped, like melted bass clefs.

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I can identify these plants. But then the fun begins. What is this seedhead, knee-high by the trail? Such a puzzle!

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Without plant leaves, ID becomes more challenging. But the usual suspects are still here. A chorus of tall coreopsis…

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…and the wild quinine, now devoid of its pungent summer scent.

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Soft Q-tips of thimbleweed are unmistakable.

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As is the round-headed bush clover silhouette; a burst of February fireworks.

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February is flying by. There’s so much on the prairie to see before it ends.

Why not go look?

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Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) penned the opening quote to this post, taken from the chapter “Winter” from Journal of a Prairie Year (Milkweed Editions, 1985). Gruchow remains one of my favorite writers; his treatises on Minnesota’s tallgrass prairie and rural life are must-reads.

All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Schulenberg Prairie and prairie savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook in ice and thaw, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ice on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ice on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ice on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; vole tunnel (may be a meadow vole or prairie vole, we have both!), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; trail through the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; carrion vine (likely Smilax herbacea) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; skies over Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; stream through Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; nodding wild onion (Allium cernuum), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL;  rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie brome (Bromus kalmii), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; white vervain (Verbena urticifolia), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; unknown, possibly purple or yellow meadow parsnip (Thaspium trifoliatum/flavum), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL.

Thanks to Illinois Botany FB friends (shout out Will! Evan! Paul! Duane! Kathleen!) for helping me work through an ID for the possible native meadow parsnip.

Join Cindy for a class or event!

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. Sold Out. Waiting list –register here.

The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction– February 29, Saturday 10-11 a.m.,  Aurora Public Library,  101 South River, Aurora, IL Open to the public! Book signing follows.

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.  

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

A Holiday Hike in the Tallgrass

“If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere.”—Laura Ingalls Wilder
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It’s 50 degrees. Can it really be December?

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Jeff and I took a break from wrapping gifts this weekend and went for a hike on the Belmont Prairie, a small remnant in Downer’s Grove, IL. The weather was flawless.

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We were greeted immediately.

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As a prairie steward, deer aren’t a welcome sight. But I enjoyed the fluid grace of this white-tail in motion as it bounded into the treeline. Nearby, flattened grasses showed where the deer may have spent the night.

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Many prairie plants in December are almost unrecognizable. Goldenrod leaves , shaped by weather and age, look like ribbon curls. Remember old-fashioned ribbon candy? It was a staple of my childhood holidays. This stage of the plant brings it to mind, albeit with a little less color.

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Goldenrod gall rosettes are as jaunty as spring wildflowers. It’s difficult to believe an insect is the artist behind this creation.

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The bright sunshine and deep shadows of early afternoon throw familiar plants into unfamiliarity. Rattlesnake master leaves, toothed and deeply grooved, bear little resemblance to the juicy green foliage of spring and summer.

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The rattlesnake master seedheads are brittle and alien-esque in the bright sun.

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Prairie dock leaves remind me of an elephant’s trunk.

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I hum tunes from “The Nutcracker” when I see these picked-over pale purple coneflower seedheads on the prairie. This one looks like a ballerina in a stiff tutu with her hands in the air.

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I love the backlit drum major’s baton of the round-headed bush clover…

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…and the weathered beads of wild quinine, like tarnished silver that needs a little polishing.

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On this unseasonably warm day, I think of the Schulenberg Prairie where  I’m a steward and the volunteer hours my team spent weeding and cutting; planting plugs and seeding this year. Many of them, through patient ID work, discovered several new plant species. By coming out to the prairie at night, we were able to ID almost a hundred moth species new to our site this season. Patiently, volunteers made progress on invasive plant removal. We renovated our prairie display beds. Made our prairie more visitor-friendly. All reasons to celebrate.

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There were some disappointments. I think of a few tasks undone. The seeding that didn’t work out. The back-ordered equipment that never arrived.  New signs that were damaged and now, need to be replaced. All part of caring and preserving precious prairie places. Beautiful places like the prairie where I’m hiking today.

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It’s good to take a moment and pause before the new year begins, with all its planning and possibilities. To feel joy over a year well spent. To be grateful for the many people and organizations who make these prairies possible through their hard work, vision, and support.

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To be grateful for the progress we made. Always, it seems our efforts are three steps forward, two steps back. But always…progress. Worth celebrating.

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, and a Wonderful New Year to All!

******

Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose quote opens this post, was the popular author of the “Little House” children’s series. I’ve been reading Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder this week and am struck anew by the hardships and difficulties families experienced through westward expansion, the Dustbowl years, and the Great Depression. Quite a different perspective than I had reading these books as a child! Winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize.

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All photos this week copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL, unless noted otherwise (top to bottom) : thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica); view from the trail looking toward subdivision; white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus); flattened prairie grasses; goldenrod leaves (Oligoneuron rigidum); goldenrod gall rosette (Rhopalomyia solidaginis);  rattlesnake master leaves (Eryngium yuccafolium), rattlesnake master seedheads (Eryngium yuccafolium); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); pale purple coneflower seeds (Echinacea pallida); round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata); wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), the prairie in December; milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pappus; Christmas ornament, author’s yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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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. 

Where the Wild Things Are

“In wildness is the preservation of the world” —Henry David Thoreau

*****

This past week, I enjoyed mingling with more than 2,000 other like-minded folks at the Wild Things Conference here in the Chicago region. The synergy created was a radiant spot in a cold, gloomy February. So many people invested in the natural world! So many who gave up their Saturday to learn and share more about wild things. It gives me hope for a brighter future.

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This February, I find myself needing reasons to hope. I enjoy winter. But I’m ready for spring. The signs are beginning to pop up. Lately, as we sleep with our window cracked open to the frigid air, I wake to cardinals singing their spring songs. They drop in for breakfast at our backyard feeders.

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The first sandhill cranes are winging their way high over the region, heading north.  It’s a sure sign that despite the brutal temps and snow, change—spring— is coming.

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The birds always know, don’t they?

After the Wild Things conference, Jeff and I did a reverse migration and headed south to spend a few days on the Florida beaches. We left 50-mph winds and zero temps, shaking snow off our boots, and stepped into another world of sandals and sunshine. It was appropriate that a “mackerel sky” was starting to form on our arrival.

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Are you familiar with this old rhyme?

Mackerel sky, mackerel sky, sometimes wet and sometimes dry.

Or a slightly different version:

Mackerel scales and mare’s tales, make tall ships carry low sails.

Supposedly, seasoned sailors know when a “mackerel sky” forms—-cirrocumulus or altocumulus clouds (the puffy ones) in rows, sometimes with mare’s tales (the wispy cirrus clouds) showing high winds aloft, a weather change was on the way.

So, we weren’t surprised when storm clouds moved in a few hours later.  The birds knew! There was a frenzy of activity beforehand, including a beach-combing blue heron, looking for lunch.

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The skies over the Florida sands  are full of wings. Some birds, like the osprey, we have back home. In the warmer months. I occasionally see them high over the prairies and hear their unmistakable cries.ospreyCaptiva219WM.jpg

Gulls, like this one below, are familiar Chicago residents as well.  Only the backdrop is different.

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I always struggle with gull ID. I brought my old battered National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of North America  with me, but there are pages and pages of gulls. I squint at the gull on the beach in the bright sun, then thoughtfully turn the pages of the guide. Ring-billed gull, perhaps? What do you think?

Other birds here, like the white ibis, remind me that no matter how many birds I recognize from the prairies back home, this is a different world. At least the ibis is an easy ID. The beak is a give-away. And look at those baby blues!

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When I think of the wildflowers of the prairie in February….

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… and contrast them with Florida’s February blooms…

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…it might seem like hands down, Florida would have my heart. Here the February air smells like sweet flowers. We’ve been sniffing all the blooms, but have yet to find the particular flower source. Hibiscus? Nope. Bougainvillea? Nope. A mystery.

At home on the Illinois prairies, the winds smell of snow. Color is a distant memory.

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But as much as I enjoy the heat and the sun, I miss the wild things of home. “We can never have enough of nature,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. True whether we’re in a convention center with 2,000 people talking about mosses and birds at Wild Things, hiking alone on a prairie in winter, or puzzling over a gull ID on a beach in Florida.

I’m grateful for the wild things —wherever I find myself. You too?

***

Henry David Thoreau (1817-62) is best known for his classic, Walden. His words, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…” are some of the most famous lines in nature literature.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; male and female northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Jasper Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area, Medaryville, IN; sky, clouds, and sand, Captiva Island, FL; great blue heron (Ardea herodias), Captiva Island, FL; osprey (Pandion haliaetus), Captiva Island, FL; possibly ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis), Captiva Island, FL; white ibis (Eudocimus albus), Captiva Island, FL, round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; hibiscus (Hibiscus, species unknown), Captiva Island, FL; the invasive Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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Join one of Cindy’s Classes This Week!

Nature Writing–online and in-person, The Morton Arboretum. Begins Tuesday, Feb.26 online! Register here.

History of Wilderness in America –Feb. 28, The Morton Arboretum, part two of two classes. (Closed)

Dragonfly Workshop, March 2, 9-11:30 a.m., Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. Free and open to the public, as well as for new and seasoned monitors. Pre-registration required: Email phrelanzer@aol.com.

December Prairie Delights

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

*****

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

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

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The melting ice glitters on the grasses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Little Prairie on the Freeway

“I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. And because  I cannot do everything, I will not refuse  to do the something I can do.” ― Edward Everett Hale

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Strong winds. Gray skies. A cold drizzle. Not an optimal day to go for a prairie hike.

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But you hike when you have time to hike, and weather be hanged. Today, Hinsdale Prairie steward Kath Thomas has promised me a tour of a prairie remnant, just down the street from her house. Not much more than an acre, it’s a tiny remnant island adrift in a sea of development.

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What’s a prairie remnant? Simply put, it’s a piece of the original tallgrass prairie that has not been plowed or destroyed. Illinois once had 22 million acres of tallgrass prairie; only about 2,300 high quality acres remain. Other Midwestern states have even more dismal statistics. These remnants are often tucked into old cemeteries, or the corners of farm fields. Along railroad tracks. On rocky hilltops unsuitable for plowing. Or, places like this alongside a freeway that escaped notice.

Mowers have knocked back the prairie on the freeway side…

signhinsdaleprairieWM102818.jpg…and it’s been trimmed back along the sidewalk which flanks it on the west.

There’s a roar of traffic from the freeway.

 

The din is overwhelming. A prairie — here? Really? If there is birdsong, it’s erased by the sounds of trucks.  And yet…you feel it. This is a special place.

As we hike, Kath points out the bluebird houses. Anybody home? Nope, not today. Too late in the season.

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As we brush aside the tallgrass and hike deeper into the prairie, the real treasures emerge. Over here, spent prairie gentians. To the left, prairie dropseed, lime-colored for autumn. Just ahead, the bloomed-out spikes of Liatris, blazing star, with a few ballet-skirted seedheads of Echinacea; pale purple coneflower.

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Other treasures appear as we  walk. Prairie dock. prairiedockHinsdalePrairie102818.jpg

Some rough-cut leaves of compass plant.

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All of these tell us we’re walking through prairie, not an old field. Signs of a survivor.

The rain starts up again. Wind and wet blur the grasses into a watercolor of motion.

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The rain also brings out the globe-dark silhouettes of rattlesnake master…

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…and pops of black-eyed Susan seedheads. I imagine these two plants in summer; their flashes of silvery white and lemon yellow.

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Reality, in the form of more cold drizzle, brings me back to the present. Kath will be the first to tell you this little prairie remnant is here because of Dr. Robert Betz, who identified prairie bush clover (Lespedeza leptostachya) here in the 1970s and championed the prairie’s survival. We don’t find the prairie bush clover as we hike today, but we do find round-headed bush clover. Not nearly so unusual, but still intriguing.

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Look around and discover a jewelry box full of plant gems.  New Jersey tea with its blown-out seedheads and curl of last leaves. Bee balm, with its powdered leaves at the end of the season, exhaling an astringent scent. Big bluestem, the Illinois state grass, waves its turkey-footed seedhead against the gray sky.newjerseyteaHinsdalePrairie102818WM

 

The Hinsdale Prairie refuses to give up the ghost, despite inroads from utility work, encroachment by development, and occasional mowing on the east and west side that shaves off precious portions of the tallgrass. Crown vetch, teasel, and daylilies threaten to dispossess the Indian grass, little bluestem, and wild quinine.

wildquinineWMCROSBYHinsdale102818.jpgKath does everything she can to raise awareness of this remnant. She founded “Friends of Hinsdale Prairie,” dedicated to advocating for the prairie on social media and with local government. She intercedes for the prairie when she sees unusual activity, like utility trucks parking on the grasses or neighbors throwing yard waste into the wildflowers. She picks up trash. Each day brings a new challenge. And Kath is only one person.

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But she’s one person changing the world, making a difference. Right where she lives.

Kath inspires me that change is possible—if only we will step up. Take care of the places right in front of us. Tell others why something matters.

How will you change your world? There’s never been a better time to find out.

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The opening lines of this blog are from Edward Everett Hale’s The Book of Good Cheer.  His words have been quoted and re-quoted in various forms. Hale (1822-1909) was a poet, novelist, Chaplain of the United States Senate, and member of the  Academy of Arts and Sciences. He advanced social reforms such as better access to adult education, religious tolerance, and abolition of slavery.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby at the Hinsdale Prairie, Hinsdale, IL (top to bottom): sunflowers (Helianthus maximilian); Hinsdale Prairie remnant along the freeway; old prairie preservation sign; video of IL-83 passing on the west of the prairie; bluebird house; rough blazing star (Liatris aspera) and other plants, including pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) and prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); tallgrass in October; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium); black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta); round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata); New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus); wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium); Kath Thomas, Hinsdale Prairie remnant, Hinsdale, IL.

A big thanks to Kath Thomas for her tour of the prairie, and her gracious hospitality. You can help support the Hinsdale Prairie by joining Kath at Friends of Hinsdale Prairie on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Read more on Facebook about the history of this important prairie remnant.

10 Reasons to Hike the October Prairie

“…I cannot endure to waste anything so precious as autumnal sunshine by staying in the house. So I have spent almost all the daylight hours in the open air.” –Nathaniel Hawthorne

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What do you think of in October? Halloween candy sales? Pumpkins? Fall foliage?

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There’s more this month than squash and sugar going on, or a few maples turning color. Really. October is one of the most satisfying months on the tallgrass prairie. Here’s why you’ll want to go for a hike this week.

#10. Those October color contrasts! So vivid and striking. And how could the seeds of something on the prairie called “carrion flower” be so pretty?

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#9. That sky.  Take a moment, find a comfortable place in the sunshine to lay on your back, and cloud-watch for a while in the tallgrass. Wow.

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#8. Once familiar plants take on a whole new personality in October.  Like this false Solomon’s seal. Worth hunting for.

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#7. Sometimes, the seedheads of prairie plants are  just as interesting as the flowers—or more so. True of this pale prairie coneflower? You be the judge.

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#6. Round-headed bush clover might double as a Pinterest craft project with pom-poms gone awry.

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#5. Each prairie trail promises adventures, just around the corner.

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#4. Step outside in the evening. Glorious sunsets, followed by clear, crystal-splattered starry nights make every October twilight show time.

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#3. If you’re a prairie steward like I am, sumac may be a pain in the neck. So aggressive! But in October, you can’t help but catch your breath at its colors. The lower slant of the autumnal sun backlights them just so. Sumac are the stained glass windows of the prairie cathedral.

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#2. There’s a dreaminess that October brings to the prairie; a sense of other-worldliness in the plants blown out to seed, the changing hues of the grasses. Everything seems a bit unmoored; adrift.

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#1. Seeing the seeds disperse on October breezes offers hope for the future, doesn’t it? Even when it seems that chaos is the order of the day, the prairie goes about its regular business. Just as it has done for thousands of years.

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The days are shortening. October is half over.

If you haven’t hiked the prairie this week, what are you waiting for? Why not go see?

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Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) was a novelist born in Salem, Massachusetts, and the author of such required high school reading as The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables. He was a contemporary of Abraham Lincoln, and when  he died, his pallbearers included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Hawthorne is considered by some to be one of the greatest fiction writers in American literature.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo) patch, Jon-a-Mac Orchard, Malta, IL; upright carrion flower (Smilax ecirrhata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; clouds over Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; false Solomon’s seal (Smilacina racemosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata), Taltree Arboretum/Gabis Arboretum, Purdue Northwest, Valparaiso, IN;  path to the prairie, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset, Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie, Glenview, IL; smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bridge to the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; butterfly weed (Asclepius tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

A Prairie Wish and a Prayer

 “Labor brings a thing nearer the heart’s core.” –Mary Webb

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For prairie volunteers, it’s impossible to walk the tallgrass in December and not think of endings. This month is the symbolic culmination of a year’s worth of stewardship; the grand finale of planning, sweat, risk, small successes and—sometimes—epic failures. Three steps forward, two steps back.

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Take a deep breath. Look around you. Everything that can go to seed has flossed out; emptied itself into the wind and soil. Wade into the tallgrass. Bits of seed silk fly out in  pieces all around, a little prairie mock snowstorm.

Sun slants through seedheads; sparks stalks and stems into silver and gold.

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Hike the trails and mull over the season that has passed. Muse on the new season still to come. 

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In the distance, smoke hazes the prairie, tumbles above the treeline. 

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Natural resource managers, taking advantage of the warm, dry conditions, lay down prescribed burns in the nearby woodlands and wetlands. But not yet on the prairie. Soon, we tell the tallgrass. Very soon. Your turn will come.

December has been, by turns, warm and balmy; all sunshine then thunder; bitter and breezy.

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Listen closely as you hike the prairie trails and you’ll hear the tell-tale sounds of the end of juice and sap. The rustle of switchgrass. The brittle rattle of white wild indigo seed pods.

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The indigo stems snap off in 50 mph winds then roll, tumbleweed-like, across the prairie, scattering their progeny.

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Broken—but accomplishing their evolutionary task of moving around their DNA. In years to come, we’ll see the results: those incomparable white wild indigo blooms. Close your eyes. Imagine.

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But for now, look closely.  Who knows what you’ll see? A heightening of intense rusts and coppers, right before the final brutal bleaching freezes of January and February.

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Keep looking. You may see the occasional fluke or strange oddity as nature deals the tallgrass a wild card.

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Admire the blown-out stars of asters, spent for this season. Think of the seeds they’ve dropped in the rich black prairie soil, which now harbors a constellation of future blooms for the coming summer.

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New beginnings. They’re all here. Think of what weeding, a bit of planting, and a little dreaming might help this prairie become.
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So much possibility.
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Make a wish. Say a prayer.
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Your hard work may be mostly done for this season. But it has brought this little patch of tallgrass very close to your heart. Let your imagination run wild for what this prairie might become.

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Because on the prairie in December, anything for the coming year seems possible.

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Mary Webb (1881-1927), who penned the opening quote, was an award-winning English poet and romantic novelist. Her health ultimately failed from Grave’s Disease; her marriage failed as well and she died alone and with her last novel unfinished at age 46. Her writing reflects her fatalism and compassion for suffering. Gone to Earth (1917) expresses her horror of war; Precious Bane (1924), whose heroine has a disfiguring impairment, received the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse Anglais award, a French literary prize. She is known for her intense creativity, mysticism, and her love for the natural world.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Schulenberg Prairie in December, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cream wild indigo (Baptisia leucampha), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  unknown brome (Bromus spp.), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; prescribed burn, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) seed pods, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) upside down stalks, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie in December, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata) with mutation because of fasciation (viral, genetic, chemical), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; unknown aster, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias  syriaca) pods, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pappus, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hand with common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pappus, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nomia Meadows Farm Prairie, Franklin Grove, IL.

Thanks to Illinois Botany FB page for their help with my question about fasciation and the round-headed bush clover, especially Paul Marcum.