Cindy Crosby is the author, compiler, or contributor to more than 20 books. Her most recent is "The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction," (2017 Northwestern University Press). Look for her new book, "Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit" in spring of 2019 (with Thomas Dean, Ice Cube Press). Her writing is also included in "The Tallgrass Prairie Reader" (2014, University of Iowa Press). She teaches prairie ecology, prairie literature, and prairie ethnobotany in the Chicago area, and is a prairie steward who has volunteered countless hours in prairie restoration. See Cindy's upcoming speaking and teaching events at www.CindyCrosby.com.
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Tag Archives: snow
“How important it is to walk along, not in haste but slowly, looking at everything and calling out Yes!”– Mary Oliver
Ask for their top 10 list of February destinations, and most of my friends would tell you “anywhere warm.” I agree. Toward the end of a Chicago region winter, I’m ready to shed the shivery cold for a few days and escape to some far-flung beach down south.
But the beach in February is not my number one destination. I include walking trails through prairie remnants in winter a little higher on my list.
Tonight, Jeff and I are walking the Belmont Prairie in Downer’s Grove, Illinois. It’s small, as prairies go, but as a remnant—part of the original Illinois tallgrass prairie which escaped development and the plow—it’s special. Writer John Madson wrote in Where the Sky Began that his “feeling for tallgrass prairie is like that of a modern man who has fallen in love with the face in a faded tintype. Only the frame is still real; the rest is illusion and dream.” Remnants remind me of those “faded tintypes.” Ghosts.
Very little of our original prairies have survived; about 2,300 high quality acres are left in Illinois. Another reason to be grateful for Belmont Prairie’s 10-acre remnant.
The grasses are weather-bleached and flattened now. You can imagine how references to the prairie as a sea came to be. Walking the trails here, amid the waves of winter tallgrass, can leave you unsteady on your feet, a little like wading through the surf and sand.
A creek glistens. Puddles of snowmelt glow. I’ve been re-reading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series this winter, and the creek puts me in mind of Galadriel’s silver elvish rope that helped Frodo and Sam continue their quest to darkest Mordor. Magical. A tiny sliver of creek is also iced in on the right—can you see it in the grasses? Barely visible, but the setting sun sets it alight.
As we hike, Canada geese begin to settle in, pulling their V-string necklaces across the twilight overhead.
Geese have a bad rap here in the Chicago suburbs, but I admire their sense of direction, their seamless ability to work as an aerial team, their perfectly spaced flight pattern. Their confidence in knowing the way home.
Honk-honk! The soundtrack of dusk.
A crescent moon scythes its way across the burgeoning gloom.
Still enough light to see. The reflections of ice spark the last light.
Poke around. In the mud and snow pockets, trapped in north-facing crevices, there are signs of spring to come. A few spears of green. Water running under the ice.
Look closely, and you may find a few tracks. Mammals are out and about in the cold. Birds. In my backyard, close to the prairie patch, we’ve been feeding the birds extra food during the bitter temperatures, and they, in turn, have graced us with color, motion, and beauty. As I scrubbed potatoes before having some friends over for dinner this weekend, my mundane task was made enjoyable by watching the interplay at the feeders outside my kitchen window. Scrubbing potatoes became meditation of sorts. Outside were squabbling sparrows. The occasional red-bellied woodpecker. Juncos–one of my favorites–nun-like in their black and white feathered habits. The occasional burst of cardinal color. Darting chickadees. Nuthatches, hanging upside down, zipping in for a peanut or two. Downy woodpeckers, like this one.
The seeds on the ground attract more than birds. There are gangs of squirrels, well-fed and prosperous. If I wake early, I might spot a large eastern cottontail scavenging seeds, or even a red fox, whose antics with her kits have delighted us in the neighborhood over the years (and kept the resident chipmunk herds in check). Once in a while, over the years, we’ll surprise her on our back porch.
Another backyard visitor through the year is the opossum, who finds the seeds under the bird feeders a nice change of diet.
The opossum’s face looks a bit like a heart, doesn’t it? It reminded me that Valentine’s Day is Thursday. Time to find or make a card, and perhaps shop for a book or two for my best hiking partner. Speaking of him….
As Jeff and I head for the parking lot at Belmont Prairie, the great-horned owl calls from the treeline that hems the tallgrass. I hear the soft murmur. Who-Who- Hoooo.
Jeff and I once found a great horned owl here—perhaps this very one— in daylight, high in a tree on the edge of the grasses. I owl-prowl sometimes through the woods, hunting for bone and fur-filled scat pellets under trees. Find a pellet under a tree, look up, and you’ll occasionally get lucky and see an owl.
I think about Mary Oliver’s poem, “Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard,” which begins….”His beak could open a bottle… .” As someone who teaches nature writing in the Chicago region, I love to read this poem to my students. The sounds of Oliver’s word choices (“black, smocked crickets”), her contrasts of terror and sweet, and her descriptions (“when I see his wings open, like two black ferns”) remind me of the joy of words, images, and our experiences outdoors.
Oliver’s poem about the owl ends; “The hooked head stares from its house of dark, feathery lace. It could be a valentine.”
The owl calls again. I think of the people and prairie I love. And, the joy that sharing a love of wild things with others can bring.
It’s a happiness not quite like any other. Try it yourself. And see.
Mary Oliver (1936-2019), whose words from Owls and Other Fantasies opens this blogpost, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet (1984, American Primitive) and winner of the National Book Award (1992, New and Selected Poems). Her admonition, “Pay attention. Be astonished! Tell about it.,” is some of the best advice I know. She died in January.
All photographs copyright Cindy Crosby, from Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL, unless noted (top to bottom): beach umbrellas, Sanibel Island, Florida; sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus); Canada rye (Elymus canadensis); parking lot at sunset; grasses on the prairie; creek through the prairie; Canada geese (Branta canadensis) heading home; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) at sunset; crescent moon over the tallgrass; ice in the grasses; creek ice with new growth; downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; red fox (Vulpes vulpes), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; sunset over the prairie; Belmont Prairie treeline; treeline at the edges of the prairie; Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) with common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pappus.
“Let us go on, and take the adventure that shall fall to us.” — C.S. Lewis
Wolf Road Prairie! How could anyone resist visiting a nature preserve with a name like this one? It seems ripe with possibilities for adventure.
The sunshine over the 80-acre preserve is welcome, although the wind makes the temperature seem colder than the high 20s.
Jeff and I drive around the preserve, unsure where where the trails are. We can see prairie plants, so we know we’re in the right place. Hmmm.
Time to ask directions. A helpful member of the “Save the Prairie Society” is shoveling snow, getting ready for an open house at the historical structure on the property. He greets us warmly, and shows us where the trails begin.
We see right away we’re not alone on the prairie. Look at those tracks! Rush hour.
Little critters have left their imprints, like sewing machine stitches, across the prairie.Who made the tracks? We wonder. Prairie voles? Mice? Difficult to tell.
We cross through a wetland…
…and see other signs of the preserve’s inhabitants.
A nest of a bird, long flown.
I’m puzzled by the interesting galls on the sunflowers. My gall knowledge is limited. Sunflower crown gall, maybe?
There’s a goldenrod bunch gall–sometimes called a rosette gall—I recognize on the other side of the trail. Like a dried out winter flower of sorts.
I make a mental note to refresh my gall knowledge—at least of the goldenrod galls! There’s so much to learn while hiking the winter prairie. Always something new, something different. Later at home, I’ll chase down different bits of information, based on our hike. Crown gall. Bunch gall. Adventures of a different kind.
As we hike the south-side prairie savanna remnant…
…we find sidewalks, left over from a pre-Depression Era time when this acreage was slated for a housing development. The contractors got as far as putting in the sidewalks before the project was scrapped. Jeff, who’s a history buff, is delighted.
I’m excited, too. According to an excellent article by the Salt Creek Greenway Association, the preserve was threatened again by a proposed housing development in the 1970s. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources and Forest Preserve District of Cook County were able to acquire the acreage and save the fine examples of savanna and black soil prairie remnant. What a success story!
In January 2019, the story continues. Although the cooler palette of Wolf Road prairie in winter tends toward white, brown, and blue, with bits of pale yellow…
…little bluestem warms up the tallgrass with reds and golds. Its last clinging seeds sparkle in the sunshine.
Winter on the prairie brings certain plants into focus. Little bluestem is only one example.
In the summer, I appreciate pale purple coneflowers for their swash of pink-purple color across the grasses. In January, I find myself focusing on a single plant’s structure.
Culver’s root, bereft of summer pollinators and long past bloom, takes on sinuous grace and motion in stark relief against the snow.
Even the rough and tumble goldenrod assumes a more delicate beauty in silhouette.
I imagine what this prairie, savanna, and wetland preserve will look like in a few months. Covered with wildflowers. Limned with birdsong. Full of diverse color and motion. Still, seeing Wolf Road Prairie under a layer of snow in the sunshine has its own beauty.
We almost lost this prairie. Twice.
I’m grateful to hike it today.
In a time when so many of our natural areas are threatened, Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve stands as an example of what can happen when people care. What other prairies or natural areas should we speak up and protect today, which might otherwise be lost, underfunded, or developed? These are adventures in caring. Adventures in making a difference.
Somewhere, a new prairie adventure is waiting.
The opening quote is from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, a book in the series “The Chronicles of Narnia,” by C.S. Lewis. I love this series, and read it out loud to my adult children when they were growing up.
All photos this week are from Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sky over the wetland; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) in the prairie display garden; hiking the north side of Wolf Road Prairie; small mouse or vole tracks in the snow; cattail (Typha latifolia, Typha angustifolia or Typha x glauca); unknown bird’s nest; possibly sunflower crown gall (a plant disease); goldenrod gall bunch or rosette—made by a goldenrod gall midge (Rhopalomyia solidaginis); prairie savanna with bur oaks (Quercus macrocarpa); old sidewalk under the snow in the savanna; snow shadows on the prairie; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium); pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) seedhead; Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum); goldenrod (possibly Solidago canadensis); sign for Wolf Road Prairie; trail headed south with little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), a rusty orange haze along the trail and in the distance.
Thank you to the members of the Save the Prairie Society and Heritage Project Committee who so generously pointed out trails, gave us a tour of The Franzosenbusch Prairie House Nature Center and Museum, and were warm and welcoming on our visit there. Check out their Facebook page and other social media.
“How is it that the snow amplifies the silence, slathers the black bark on limbs, heaps along the brush rows?”–Robert Haight
Love it, hate it, delight in it, complain about it—it’s here. Snow. A blizzard dropped almost eight inches of snow on the western Chicago suburbs overnight this week. According to our Chicago weather guru Tom Skilling and friends, this month is now tied for the third snowiest November on record here.
A snowfall can transform the prairie in a matter of hours. Brittle grasses and spent wildflowers, under the influence of snow, become something otherworldly. Magical, even.
Trees are down, cracked and slung to the ground by the weight of the wet white stuff. On the prairie, the tallgrass is broken and smothered, reshaped by wind and weather. Snow has given the prairie sharp new geometric angles; while at the same time softened some of the rough edges.
The blizzard-strength gusty winds, greater than 35 mph, pounded snow into the bird feeders by my backyard prairie patch. As the storm slowed Monday morning, hungry birds began lining up at the feeders like planes at O’Hare Airport. This downy woodpecker, below, was working hard to get peanuts without much success until my husband, watching the bird hammer fruitlessly on the snowed-over tube, took pity and trudged outside to chip the ice off.
In nearby forest preserves and natural areas, coyotes took advantage of the weather to go for a stroll and admire their tracks.
These coyotes, birds, and other fauna of my backyard and the regional prairies are grateful for temps that hover in the low thirties. Ponds and streams, limned by snow, none-the-less stay open. Drinking water is secure. The dark open water of my backyard prairie pond is an inkblot in the bright, white snow.
Under periodic sun, the snow-sprayed prairie sparkles. It’s impossible not to marvel, especially this early in the season when a snowfall hasn’t lost its power to enchant us. Later in the winter, of course, we’ll become less captivated by its charms. Does snow have its downsides? Sure. Ask those who threw out their backs shoveling driveways, or my neighbor whose tree crumpled under the heavy white stuff and smashed her family room window. The family who is—24 hours after the storm—waiting for power to be restored to their neighborhood. Those whose flights are cancelled. The drivers who wait for a tow truck, after sliding off the icy roads.
Snow can be dangerous, and at a minimum, an inconvenience.
But, as you scrape off your car windshield this morning, or add those extra scarves, gloves, and warm layers to prepare for your morning commute, take a moment to consider the grace of snow. How it transforms the familiar to the unfamiliar. How it takes the prairie and the rest of our world by storm, then gives it a makeover.
After a snowfall, I see the world differently. The transformation of the November prairie overnight by snow jolts me out of the ordinary; gives me pause. If this large-scale transformation of the landscape can happen in such a short time, are there other transformations, less visible, that are possible for myself?
This massive snowfall, which altered everything I see around me, reminds me of how much change is possible in only a day. How everything can be renewed, on a large scale as well as small. I’m prompted to see—again—that the world is a beautiful place; full of wonder.
I needed this encouragement, here at the end of November. You too?
Robert Haight, whose thoughtful words about snow begin this blog, is a writer and environmentalist who teaches at Kalamazoo Valley Community College in Michigan. Among his books of poetry are Feeding Wild Birds and Water Music. You can read the full poem “How is it that the Snow” here.
Robert Haight is a writer who teaches at Kalamazoo Valley Community College. Among his books of poetry are
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL: virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana) Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: author’s prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) at the feeder by the author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; Schulenberg Prairie Savanna with coyote (Canis latrans) at sunset a few years ago at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; wild grape vine (Vitis unknown species) in winter, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL.
“It’s spring fever. That is what the name of it is. And when you’ve got it, you want—oh, you don’t quite know what it is you do want— but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!” –Mark Twain
Spring? It’s giving us the cold shoulder on the prairie.
What a wacky, wicked April. Many prescribed burns were done late or not at all. Snowy days. Frigid nights. Wild winds. Plants stubbornly stay put under the blackened soil of the burned prairies. They know what’s good for them.
On the edges of the prairie, the trees look dormant and colorless. What happened to the flush of green buds, the chatter of birds? Looking and listening, you’d think it was November instead of April.
It’s enough to make you weep.
Look carefully, under the fallen autumn leaves moldering in the woodlands and savannas surrounding the prairie. You’ll see the seasons are changing. Spring beauties tentatively open in the infrequent sunny hours, pinstriped with pink. Euell Gibbons, best known for his books on wild food foraging and for appearing in Grape-Nuts commercials, lauded the joys of the edible tubers, known as “fairy spuds.” He also cautioned that they were much too pretty to eat. I agree.
Spring is in the half-dressed bloodroot blooms, unfurling cautiously, testing the air.
If you look hard, you may find some blooms. In the past, various concoctions of bloodroot have been used medicinally, including to control dental plaque, but today, those uses come with a lot of cautionary talk.
Spring is in the hepatica blooming along the edges of the prairie, its persistent leaves worn and ragged after being nibbled during the winter. First the furry buds appear.
Wow, that color!
We need hepatica in bloom this week! It’s a morale booster.
Spring is in the tender new leaves of Dutchman’s breeches.
The fringed growth promises delicate flowers, just days away.
Spring is in the pasque flowers which escaped the flames of a prescribed burn. The buds look furred against the cold.
In my backyard prairie planting, shooting stars green up, ready to take off…
…and skyrocket into bloom. Imagine that pink! Soon.
Sure, the April skies are gloomy. And we’re winter-weary.
Hang on to hope. Look for the clues. Bright spots in the landscape—if you pay attention.
Everything is about to change. Do you feel it? Spring is coming.
Mark Twain (1835-1910), whose quote opens this post, is the pen name for Samuel Clemens, an American writer, riverboat pilot, failed gold prospector, and inventor. He grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, on the Mississippi River, and his pen name, Mark Twain, is steamboat slang for “twelve feet of water.” One my favorite Twain quotes: “The secret to getting ahead is getting started.”
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Pasture thistles (Cirsium discolor) in the April snow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; just-burned Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bare trees in April with an unknown hawk, Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN; spring beauties (Claytonia virginica), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot emerging, Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot in bloom, Schulenberg Prairie visitor Station, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hepatica (Hepatica nobilis acuta) emerging, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hepatica (Hepatica nobilis acuta) in bloom, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hepatica (Hepatica nobilis acuta) in bloom, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) emerging, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) in bloom, Franklin Creek Natural Area, Franklin Grove, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatilla pantens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) emerging, author’s backyard prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) in bloom, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Kankakee Sands in the middle of April, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN; goldfinch (Spinus tristis), Schulenberg Prairie, the Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Note: Please don’t pick, consume, or use wildflowers without permission and/or expert knowledge. Many are toxic and almost all are best left alone for us to conserve and enjoy. Happy spring!