Tag Archives: saul lake bog nature preserve

The Art of Prairie Restoration

This world is but a canvas to our imagination.” — Henry David Thoreau


Winter is wonderful. Usually.

But this past week has been a rollercoaster ride of temperature swings from high 50s plunging to near zero; sunshine and gloom, snow and rain. In other words, typical. Fog blew in and settled on the prairies, coloring everything gray. A drag on the spirits.


One of my go-to cures for the January blues—or should I say grays—is The Art Institute of Chicago.

I wander in. Immediately there is a blast of color and light in the Impressionist Gallery. Ironically, even the canvas,”Paris Street: Rainy Day,”  seems bright and cheerful.

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The Monet waterlilies…


…bring back memories of summer in the prairie wetlands.

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I soak up the primary hues of paintings in the Modern Wing.


Thinking of hikes through the snow this month…

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In unlikely stairwells, I stumble across reminders of  blue skies, obscured by clouds this week.

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I  imagine the prairie skies, hidden for so long behind shrouds of fog and curtains of snow and rain.


As I stroll the halls and gaze at the creations showcased in this iconic place, it’s a good reminder of the courage of those who strove, against all odds, to create something beautiful out of nothing. These painters, sculptors, and other artists who had a vision.

Like some other folks I know.

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Prairie restorationists and artists have a lot in common. We think of restoration as a science. But it’s also about creativity.

Prairie restoration begins with a vision.

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The dream of how the land might be healed, imagined in the mind of a steward or site manager.

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There’s a lot of trial and error. Preliminary sketching, if you will; a few rough drafts. Sometimes, you scrap everything and start over.


There may be misunderstandings along the way. People who don’t get it. They look at your “project” and shake their head. They wonder out loud if you have wasted your time.

“Weeds. It’s just a bunch of weeds.”


Bet you’ve heard that one before, haven’t you?


But you keep on moving forward. You believe in what you are doing. You look for the breakthroughs.


Without imagination—without creativity—without courage—the best prairie restorations don’t happen.


The rewards don’t always come in your lifetime. But the work you do isn’t for yourself, although the tallgrass is gratifying in a thousand different ways. You work, knowing you leave a legacy for those who will come after you. You think of them, as you drip with sweat, freeze, or pull weeds; plant seeds.

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You can see the future in your mind. Envision it. That end result. And as artists and restorationists know, it’s worth the work. It’s worth the wait.


Think about it.

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The writer Henry David Thoreau, whose quote opens this essay, was a naturalist, philosopher, writer, transcendentalist, and social reformer. A favorite quote from Thoreau, “We can never have enough of nature.” His 1849 essay, “Civil Disobedience,” continues to stimulate thinking about human rights. His most famous book is “Walden.”

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): prairie plants in the fog at Saul Lake Bog Nature Preserve, Land Conservancy of West Michigan, Rockford, MI; “Paris Street: Rainy Day,” 1877, Gustave Caillebotte, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; “Waterlily Pond,” 1917-19, Claude Monet, European Painting and Sculpture, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; prairie pond, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Clear Creek, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; “Yellow Hickory Leaves with Daisy,” 1928, Georgia O’Keeffe, American Art Gallery, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; beech (Fagus sylvatica) leaves on snow, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; “Sky Above Clouds IV,” 1965, Georgia O’Keeffe, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; sky over Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, United States National Park Service, The Nature Conservancy, Strong City, KS; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) and volunteer weeding, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; volunteers collecting seed, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) seedpod, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; “A and the Carpenter “I”, Sam Gilliam, 1973, Modern and Contemporary Art, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; barb wire and Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; “Grayed Rainbow,” 1953, Jackson Pollock, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL;  ice and grasses, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; snowy trail through Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove, IL; pasque flowers (Anemone patens, sometimes Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; late summer on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; “The Thinker,” Auguste Rodin, Rodin Exhibition, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL (add to the conversation here). 

A March Prairie Tempest

“In the spring, I have counted 136 different kinds of weather inside of 24 hours.” — Mark Twain


Tempest  ‘tem~pest’ (noun):  a violent windstorm, especially one with rain, hail, or snow.

Temperamental March comes in like a lion in Illinois, all twisters and high winds. Perhaps not a true tempest in the purest sense, but certainly leaning toward tempestuous.

The tallgrass ripples and blurs  in 50-mph gusts.


Prairie managers consult weather forecasts. What is the wind speed? Wind direction? Humidity? March in Illinois is a season of prescribed fire.  In prairies and woodlands; savannas and wetlands, invasive plants are knocked back as the flames blacken the ground. Warming it for new life to come.


Up, up, up goes the smoke. Particles practice hangtime long after the burn is over. The smoke particles filter out the wavelengths of certain colors, but reds, oranges, and pinks come through. The  result? Vivid sunsets. As if the flames have leapt into space. Motorists slow, marveling at the skies.

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Just when spring-like weather seems here to stay, March hits the rewind button. Snow fills the  forecasts. Flakes fall overnight, covering prairies like sifted sugar. Or…

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… slathered on like heavy frosting.


Deer move through the savannas, looking for browse.


In the icy air, sundogs–bright patches of iridescence–tint the clouds just after sunrise and right before sunset.



March is mercurial. A month of hellos and goodbyes. Farewell to the last thimbleweed seeds…

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…goodbye to the Indian hemp seeds.


March is also a month of hellos. Mosses stand out in the savanna, bright green and scarlet. Chlorophyll is in the air. If you listen closely, you’ll hear a whisper: Grow! Grow!


Small leaves spear through old grass and leaf litter. Such welcome color! We greet each new prairie plant shoot like an old friend we haven’t seen in a while.


Try to describe the month of March on the prairie, and you may find the exact terms elude you; move in and out of focus.


Why? The March prairie is a changeling child–the offspring of wind, fire, snow, hail, rain, and sun. Of opposites. Hot and cold; push and pull; destroy and grow.


A prairie tempest. Within that tempest brews a new season.

Something to anticipate.


The opening quote  is from Mark Twain (1835-1910), whose real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens. He was born and raised in Missouri, then later lived in New York and Connecticut. Twain’s writing was noted for its satire and humor. Among his greatest works are  The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: high winds, Nachusa Grasslands, Thelma Carpenter Unit, The Nature Conservancy,  Franklin Grove, IL; prescribed fire, wetlands around Klein Creek, Carol Stream, IL;  rush hour after a day of local prescribed burns, Glen Ellyn, IL; tallgrass with snow, Saul Lake Bog, Land Conservancy of West Michigan, Rockford, MI; snow on bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; young white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) in the savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: sundog, Lake Michigan; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Great Western Prairie, Shooting Star Trail, Elmhurst, IL; dogbane/Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), Great Western Prairie, Shooting Star Trail, Elmhurst, IL; moss in the savanna, Nachusa Grasslands, Tellabs Unit, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; spiderwort (Tradescantia bracteata), Great Western Prairie, Shooting Star Trail, Elmhurst, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Great Western Prairie, Shooting Star Trail, Elmhurst, IL; goldenrod (Solidago, species unknown), Great Western Prairie, Shooting Star Trail, Elmhurst, IL.


A Little Prairie Bog Magic

“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.” ― Theodore Roosevelt


The word apokatas’tasis–from the Greek–means to “restore.” I hold this word in my mind on a cold sunny day, hiking one of Michigan’s off-the-beaten-path gems: Saul Lake Bog Preserve in Rockford, Michigan, just outside Grand Rapids.

The original tallgrass prairie range stretches into Michigan further than one would think. Since 2000 at the preserve, old pasture near the bog is being slowly restored to prairie. One acre at a time.


The preserve is a mosaic of wetlands, woodlands, and prairie.  Occasional bird calls provide a soundtrack as  I hike the two-track through the woods on my way to the prairie. It’s quiet. So quiet. A welcome contrast to the noisy Chicago suburbs I call home.


The two-track that leads to the prairie is riddled with snow-filled potholes. Each is shadowed with images of  the last dry leaves that still cling to the overhanging tree branches above.


The dirt two-track ends in a parking lot and trailhead. Through the trees, a boardwalk leads to the bog.

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I ease across the wood planks, listening to the ice underneath the walkway crackle and break at every step.


Nearby, the willows show off their soft furry catkins. A sure sign of spring on the way.


Even in early March, the bog has bright sweeps of color.


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Admiring the russets and golds of the leatherleaves–and the occasional cottony tuft of tawny grass here and there–I’m grateful for the sunshine and the solitude. But as I walk back to the prairie, I realize I’m not alone.


I hike around the prairie loop as the sky swings back and forth between bright blue and dull gray. A chilly wind rattles the stalks of last season’s grasses and wildflowers.


A turkey vulture circles; checks me out. It decides I’m still healthy. Then glides away.


At Saul Lake Bog Preserve, prescribed fire helps keep the prairie healthy, and helps hold invasive plants at bay. Seed collecting, followed by seed sowing, increases plant diversity.


Each year, volunteers expand the prairie. It is slow labor, with little in the way of a quick payoff.  The work of restoration– apokatas’tasis–of any kind, prairie or personal, is difficult and often slow. It can be painful. The results may not be apparent for years. But Saul Lake Bog Preserve’s prairie reminds me: The end result is worth it.


Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt (1858-1919) was a naturalist, historian, adventurer, and at age 42, our 26th (and youngest) president of the United States. A sickly child, he found joy in the natural world. Later in life, after losing his wife and his mother, he lived in the Dakotas and found solace in the “wilderness” of the American West. His later adventures in the Amazon River Basin are chronicled in the riveting book, River of Doubt, by Candace Millard. Roosevelt helped shape many of the original conservation policies that help protect our national parks and nature preserves today.


All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Saul Lake Bog Nature Preserve, Land Conservancy of West Michigan; Rockford, MI:  sky over restored prairie; video clip of forest with tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) calling; pothole shadows; boardwalk into Saul Lake Bog; fence shadows on boardwalk snow; flowering furry male catkins of willows (Salix, unknown species); Saul Lake Bog; leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne calyculata) leaves;  mink (Neovision vison) tracks; mixed prairie plants in early March; turkey vulture (Cathartes aura); bluebird house in the tallgrass.