Tag Archives: snow

A Prairie Patchwork Quilt

“You have to keep taking the next necessary stitch, and the next one, and the next…you realize that the secret of life is patch patch patch. Thread your needle, make a knot, find one place on the other piece of torn cloth where you can make one stitch that will hold. And do it again. And again. And again. ” — Anne Lamott

***

It’s a ritual of autumn. The changing of our summer comforter to a heavy quilt, made for us by a friend. A few nights ago, as sleet tapped against the window, I slipped into bed and pulled the quilt close under my chin. Admired the patchwork. Taupe, rust, emerald, peach. Grass-green and olive. Pearl. Oyster.

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As he quilted, our friend incorporated the transient autumn colors of prairie grasses into the coverlet. I was nestled into the prairie itself. Deep under. I might go dormant. Sleep for several months. Awaken to a cleansing fire in February, and leaf out. Be fresher. Vibrant. Renewed.

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It’s a heavy quilt, made from denims and corduroys; a quilt that—like the Midwestern prairies—looks tough and ready to handle anything the future might throw at it. A quilt for the ages.

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As I slipped off to sleep, I thought of the thousands of tiny stitches in this quilt and the prairie it reflects.  The time and the care that one person put into one quilt. And the time and the care — all the “stitches” that have been put into the care and repair of the grasslands which have been lost to us in the Midwest.

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How will the grasslands “quilt” be patched back together?

We need the conservationist in the field, who is bringing back the bison. One stitch.

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We need the research student, who is trying to understand why the bison make a difference to the upland sandpipers and prairie vole and the dung beetle. Stitch. Stitch. Stitch.

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We need the steward who cares for the remnant where the new bison are browsing, and reconstructs new prairie plantings close by. She knows these new plantings won’t exactly replicate the old, but she hopes, she hopes… .

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The activist at the state capital, who has ridden the bus and marched with a sign, and spent the day pleading the case of the natural world to the legislators. Stitch.

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We need the poet who sees  little bluestem, red and wet under November rains, rippling in the wind, and wrestles with just the right words to share what she sees on paper. More stitches.

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Or the textile artist, the photographer, or the painter…

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…creating images that share prairie in ways that open doors of understanding to those who may not have experienced prairie before. Stitch.

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The gardeners, who make their backyards their painter’s palettes. They plant prairie patches that swirl and glimmer with color and motion. A neighbor pauses. Asks a question. A spark is kindled. Another stitch.

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Or people like my friend the quilter, who took up his needle and created something beautiful.

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Each person who places each stitch—one carefully thought-out restoration, one painstakingly done research study on hands and knees in the cold and rain—each photograph, wall hanging, poem, book, song, painting, quilt—

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—adds another stitch to the patches of the prairie patchwork quilt. Brings us closer to the beautiful whole of the Midwestern tallgrass that once was complete, and now is lost.

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Keep hoping.

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Keep stitching.

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Sweet dreams.

***

The opening quote is from Anne Lamott’s (1954-) Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair. Read some highlights of her book here.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: prairie patchwork quilt by Lynn Johnson; prescribed burn on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, United States Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy, Wilmington, IL;  volunteer collecting seed, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL, compass plant  (Silphium laciniatum) with water droplets, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL , purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea) on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; clouds over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; grasses in the rain at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  photographer at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Flint Hills prairie, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, U. S. National Park Service, The Nature Conservancy, Strong City, KS; fences at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, United States Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy, Wilmington, IL; savanna at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, United States Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy, Wilmington, IL;  Willoway Brook, The Schulenberg Prairie Savanna at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; harvesting big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, United States Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy, Wilmington, IL; fall at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; mouse tracks in the snow at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Franklin Grove, IL.

And with ongoing thanks to my friend Lynn Johnson, whose beautiful prairie patchwork quilt warms me and my husband Jeff each winter.  Kudos, my friend.

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.

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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.

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Deer move through the savannas, looking for browse.

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

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Winter Prairie Wonders

 “It is easy to underestimate the power of a long-term association with the land, not just with a specific spot but with the span of it in memory and imagination, how it fills, for example, one’s dreams…”–Barry Lopez

****

“There’s nothing much happening on the prairie now…right?” a long-time nature lover asked me recently. Here is what I want him to know.

To develop a relationship with a prairie, you will want to experience the spring burn.

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Learn the names of the summer wildflowers.

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Marvel at the fall colors.

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But don’t forget hiking the winter prairie, no matter how cold and gray the days may be. Because part of any good relationship is simply showing up.

The joys of a winter hike include the thimbleweed’s soft cloud-drifts of seeds. Like Q-tips.

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Or, the way prairie dock’s dotted Swiss leaves, brittle with cold and age, become a vessel for snow and a window into something more.

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Don’t miss the deep grooves, sharp spikes, and elegant curves of rattlesnake master leaves, swirling in and out of focus in the grasses. How can a plant be so forbidding–yet so graceful?

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In winter, you’re aware of the contrasts of dark and light; of beaded pods and slender stems.

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The goldenrod rosette galls are as pretty as any blooms the summer offers.

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The colors of the end-of-January prairie, which splatter across the landscape like a Jackson Pollock painting, are more subtle than the vivid hues of July.  But no less striking, in their own way. The winter prairie whispers color, instead of shouting it.

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On your hike, you may bump up against signs of life, like this praying mantis egg case.

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Or be dazzled by the diminutive drifts of snow crystals, each bit of ice a work of art.

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All of the flowers –and most of the seedheads–are gone. Many of the birds have flown south. Hibernating mammals sleep away the cold. But as life on the stripped-down prairie slows…

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…there is still much to see and to learn. And, isn’t slowing down and waiting an important part of any relationship?

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Yes, there is a lot happening on the winter prairie right now. But only for those who take time to look.

Why not go for a hike and see?

***

Barry Lopez (1945-), whose quote begins this essay, won the National Book Award for his nonfiction book, Arctic Dreams. His Of Wolves and Men” won the John Burroughs Nature Writing Medal (1978). Lopez graduated from Notre Dame University, and is currently  Visiting Distinguished Scholar at Texas Tech University. He has been called “the nation’s premier nature writer” by the San Francisco Chronicle, and writes compellingly about the relationship of people and cultures to landscape. Another memorable line from Arctic Dreams: The land is like poetry: it is inexplicably coherent, it is transcendent in its meaning, and it has the power to elevate a consideration of human life.” Well said. Lopez lives in Oregon.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): spring burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blue vervain (Verbena hastata) and pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; autumn on the prairie, Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy and Indiana DNR, Newton County, IN; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; wild senna (Senna hebecarpa), St. Stephen’s Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; goldenrod (probably Solidago canadensis) gall rosette (sometimes called “bunch gall”), St. Stephen’s Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; tallgrass, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL (Thanks to Charles Larry for the Jackson Pollock reference); praying mantis (Mantis religiosa) egg case, St. Stephen’s Prairie, Carol Stream, IL;  snow crystals, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; empty seedhead, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; tallgrass, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL.

The January Prairie Blues

“The blues tells a story. Every line of the blues has a meaning.”
— John Lee Hooker
***

“It is the life of the crystal, the architect of the flake, the fire of the frost, the soul of the sunbeam. This crisp winter air is full of it. “
–John Burroughs

***

It’s about that time of a new year when social media and newspapers take up stories about the blues. No, not the music. Rather, seasonal affective disorder; the general malaise of cold, gray days that dampens mood and motivation.

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Got the blues? Forget that trip to Florida to soak up sunshine.

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Instead, consider the prairie.

In January it offers its own particular brand of blues; a little antidote to blues of a more melancholy kind.

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Tune up with these “blues” for a moment or two; see if they chase the other blues away.  Follow me to the tallgrass.

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See how the mice stitch their tracks across the blue tint of the snow?

Consider the pale blue glints of ice crystals that briefly frost the grasses; vanishing in the hot breath of the morning sun.

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Marvel at the blue shadows in the snow, which form a background for the legato ripple of big bluestem leaves.

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Look up. Blue-gray clouds patch the prairie sky, filter sunlight. Trees and grasses change focus as blue sky appears, then disappears: Fade, then sharp. Fade, then sharp.

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A turkey flashes its iridescent feathers, shot through with silky blues. If you’ve got it, flaunt it.

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Notice a  jet contrail or two faintly striped in misty white overhead. Moments ago, there were people suspended in space here, headed for who knows where—and who knows why. Their story is traced across the wide blue sky. It only calls for  your imagination to spin it.

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There is even a home for the littlest “blues” –those feathered harbingers of happiness.

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The tallgrass rolls out the carpet, all blue and white sparkles.

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Embossed with blue shadows that pool in tracks across the snow; a promise of adventure and new beginnings…

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…and, a reminder that the “blues” can be beautiful.  Who knows? You  may even come to love them.

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The prairie blues, anyhow.  The best kind.

***

John Lee Hooker (1912-2001), whose quote opens this post, was a Grammy-award winning blues musician from Mississippi. The youngest of eleven children, he ran away from home at age 14 and eventually made his way to Detroit, where he found success as a guitarist, vocalist, and lyricist (although he was unable to read). He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1991) and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (2000). Listen to clips of his music on YouTube, including this rendition of “Blue Monday”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WNl2wXE90vk&index=318&list=PLu_npSo2nvWSIjcaewEUE9O-gk3W1xnfS

***

John Burroughs (1837-1921), whose quote from his book, “Winter Sunshine,” also opens this post, is honored as the father of the modern nature essay. The seventh of 10 children, he grew up in the Catskill Mountains of New York where he learned to love the outdoors. Burroughs later taught school in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, until he returned east to marry and work in banking. He continued writing, and eventually authored more than 30 books. He was a contemporary of the poet Walt Whitman, and kept company with John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt as well as other notables of that time period. Since 1926, the John Burroughs Association, founded in his honor, has awarded the John Burroughs Medal to the author of a book of natural history almost every year. Some of my favorite award winners include: Gathering Moss (Robin Wall Kimmerer, 2005); The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating (Elizabeth Tova Bailey, 2011);  Wind (Jan DeBlieu, 1999); The Control of Nature (John McPhee, 1990); and the classic, A Sand County Almanac (Aldo Leopold, 1977).

For a complete list of winners, see: research.amnh.org/burroughs/medal_award_list.html

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): on the way to Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; beach umbrellas on Sanibel Island, FL; blue sky with big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL;  ice crystals, interpretive trail, Fermilab, Batavia, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sky over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), Curtis Prairie at The University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum, Madison, WI; interpretive trail, Fermilab, Batavia, IL: eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) nesting box, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; sparkly snow with bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; people (Homo sapiens) tracks, Schulenberg Prairie savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; heart-shaped deer (Odocoileus virginianus) track, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The Trouble with “Leave No Trace”

Perhaps, you will absorb something of the land. What you absorb will eventually change you. This change is the only real measure of a place.”–Paul Gruchow

***

We are taught to “leave no trace” when we visit a natural area, such as the prairie. Pack out our trash. Stay on the path. Respect what we find. Yet, there is another side to this simple saying.

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Hike the prairie early in the new year. Look carefully. In the shady hollows, there are transitory marvels. Rock candy sticks of ice linger until the sun strikes. Then…vanish.

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The old is finished.

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The past months melt away.

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There are lingering signs of the life of the prairie to come.

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To hike a prairie is to be prompted to want to know more about it. Paying attention is one way to grow more deeply in understanding the tallgrass. Helping restore it with others is another.

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When we care for a place, we are more “careful” of that place. But familiarity sometimes breeds carelessness. So… How do we break out of the same patterns of thinking?

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How do we become less rigid in the ways of “knowing?”

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How do we open ourselves to seeing and thinking about prairie in new ways?

Come with me, and surf the grasses; ride the waves of the prairie in January. Admire the tweediness of the grass colors, bleached and burnished.

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Follow a path not taken before; explore in all directions. Who knows where you’ll end up? What might be found on the other side?

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It might not all be softness and light. The prairie can be harsh, unforgiving.

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No surprise. It’s a landscape that must be burned again and again to become strong.

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Through beauty and terror–and even, the ordinary–the prairie imprints itself on the heart.

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It reminds us of our insignificance in the big scheme of things.

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And yet.

It also whispers: “One person who lives intentionally can make a difference in the bigger life of a community.” Even if only a trace.

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Yes, if you’re careful and pay attention–stick to the trails, carry out your trash, speak softly, admire the blooms but don’t pick them– you may “leave no trace” in the tallgrass. If you give back to the prairie–learn the names of its community members, help gather its seeds, pull weeds —you may leave traces on it of the best kind.

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But be warned. The trouble with “leave no trace” is that the prairie does not follow the same principles you do. It will cause you to think more deeply. To care more fully. To pay attention more intently.

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The prairie will leave its traces on you. And you will be forever changed by the encounter.

***

The opening quote in this essay is by Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) from Journal of a Prairie Year (Milkweed Editions). Gruchow suffered from severe depression; for many years he found solace in the outdoors and on the prairie. Among his other works are Boundary Waters: Grace of the Wild; The Necessity of Empty Places; Travels in Canoe Country;  and Grass Roots: The Universe of Home.  His writing is observational, wryly humorous, attentive to detail, and reflective. If you haven’t read Gruchow, let this be the year that you do.

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): snow on the tallgrass, Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; ice crystals on the path, Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; pale purple coneflower seed head (Echinacea pallida), Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; snow pocket melting in the sun, Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; removing invasives, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) leaf, Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; ice, Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; grasses in January, Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; prairie road, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL;  hiking on New Year’s day, Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; working to restore bison, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; snowy road, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; tracks through frost, Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL. 

A Sense of Wonder

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

***

We often talk about the five senses. But there is a sixth sense as well; rarely utilized. A sense of wonder.

How is your sense of wonder at the end of 2016? A little jaded? A bit cynical?

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If so, try this.

Go for a twilight hike on the prairie with a child.

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Let the child be your guide. See what they notice? Even dried seed capsules, like those of the evening primrose, seem touched with wonder.

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There is no need to teach or instruct. Just observe. Marvel together at the signs of prairie voles, which tunnel through the snow. Discover their “luge”chute trails fingered across the prairie. Explore the tunnel holes. How deep do they go?

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Inhale, air sharp with cold.

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Does it smell of bee balm, all pepper and mint?

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Now, look up.  At this time of day, you might see a “sundog” — those thumbprint rainbows–riding the sunset.

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Look down. Taste a little of the cold, clean white stuff. Let it tingle on your tongue.

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Twirl the brittle ribbons of big bluestem leaves, which take on new grace in last light.

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Break off a grass stem. It’s the perfect writing instrument to draw on snow.

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Queen Anne’s lace, an unwelcome intruder on prairie restorations, shocks with its eye-popping winter silhouette. A child doesn’t distinguish between invasive plants and native plants. So you are free to admire its intricate architecture together (even while you plot the weed’s demise come spring).

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Stained glass has nothing on the last crumpled leaves of figwort, backlit by the sunset. Listen to it rustle in the breeze.

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Squirrels print blue-shadowed butterflies across the prairie savanna. Where do they lead? Go, and find out.

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Paths around the prairie were mowed before the snow, ready to act as barriers for the prescribed burn come spring. The chopped grasses look like toothpicks stuck in a sparkling sandy beach. Tan cigarettes stubbed out in an ashtray? Or — what do they remind you of?

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Discover small, colorful things: a jumble of fungi, moss, and lichens blurred together on a broken branch.

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Guess who made tracks at the edge of the stream? Hmmm.

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A mink… I think. Getting a drink?

No matter how much you hike the tallgrass prairie, there is always more to discover; to see, touch, smell, taste, and listen to. Every time you spend time there, you’ll experience something new. Something wondrous.

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As you hike, reflect. What road will you choose to travel in the new year? The way of cynicism about people, and disappointment in the world you find yourself in? Fear and anxiety about the future? Or the way of anticipation and wonder at the marvels all around?

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It’s up to you.

****

The opening quote was written by marine biologist Rachel Carson (1907-64), and comes from her book, The Sense of Wonder, which inspired this essay. Carson is best known for Silent Spring, which helped spark the conservation movement. The Sense of Wonder chronicles how Carson introduced her adopted son, Roger, (orphaned when her young niece died unexpectedly) to the marvels of nature. Carson overcame many discouraging professional obstacles–and heartbreaking personal tragedies–to create meaningful work on behalf of the natural world and to inspire us to pay close attention to its marvels. If you haven’t read The Sense of Wonder, it takes less than 30 minutes. A good investment of time, and a simple New Year’s resolution to keep.

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sunset, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: hiking at twilight, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common evening primrose (Oenothera biennis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: vole tunnel, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sundog over author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL;  snow drifts, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem leaf (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; drawing with grass stems, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; fox squirrel (Sciurus nigertracks, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; mowed grasses, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; lichens, moss, and fungi, Schulenberg Prairie savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; mink (Neovison vison) tracks along Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sun halo with sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) over author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; road to Thelma Carpenter Unit, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. 

How to Speak Fluent Prairie

“Although place-words are being lost, they are also being created. Nature is dynamic, and so is language.” –Robert Macfarlane

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What’s in a name? The Oxford Junior Dictionary has eliminated some words from its children’s dictionary that name things.  Acorn. Willow. Buttercup. Kingfisher–and, other words that are about nature. Adults I encounter no longer seem to have a reference point for common names of plants and other members of the natural world.

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In an adult prairie ethnobotany class I taught this July, I casually mentioned the silky fluff or pappus of milkweed seeds in a pod. Several of my students exchanged blank looks. “You know,” I said, pointing to the milkweed plant in bloom. “The seed pod that comes after the flower.”

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A few people smiled and shook their heads.  I asked for a show of hands. “How many of you know what a milkweed pod is?” There were a few nods. But, almost one third of my class did not know what a milkweed pod was. Nor had they cracked one open to sail the canoe-like pod shells on a creek. They hadn’t blown the silky seeds into the wind and watched them float off toward the horizon. The words, “milkweed pod,” and “milkweed seeds” had no meaning for them.

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It got me thinking — if words  like “kingfisher”  are disappearing from our vocabulary in dictionaries and “milkweed pod” no longer conjures up a visual memory or experience for people, how can we return these words to use? Perhaps learning more specific words for the inhabitants of the natural world and sharing them with others in ordinary conversation is one way to keep our landscape full of rich and beautiful names.

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But –are there other words we need to imagine and create for the natural world?  Surely there are names we haven’t yet thought of yet. Can we meet this hemorrhage of word loss by contributing our own new words for things on the prairie –descriptions, perhaps, that have not been invented yet? Let’s try a few.

Is there a name for the sandpapered curve of a compass plant leaf in winter, dry and brittle?

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Or a term for the color of pink that flushes the sky in a frigid, December sunrise?  IMG_9021 (2).jpg

What might we call the sound of white wild indigo seed pods, rattling in the wind?

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Is there a name for the flotsam and jetsam that blows into a coneflower seed head in winter?

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Does the voice of a prairie stream, rushing through the ice and snow, beg for a new word to describe it?

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A group of coyotes is called a pack. But is there a name to describe a pair of them, picking their way through the snow and ice, moving toward me? Perhaps better yet — a word to describe how I feel at that moment?

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What do you call a clump of snow, caught in the stems of the figwort plant?

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“Arch” seems like the wrong word to describe the Canada wild rye seeds against a winter sky. An “apostrophe of rye seed”? An “eyebrow” of wild rye? A “bristle” of rye? Or?

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When wild quinine turns silver in the frost, but still emits its clean, fresh scent, what word describes it?

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What do you call the sun, when it attempts to break through the wintry sky? And –is there a word for the green of plants persisting under snow? Or for a single tree, punctuating a prairie landscape?

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What do you think?

To express the beauty of the prairie–and the natural world– in all its sensory appeal, we may require a new vocabulary. Let’s put one together. I have my words for all of the above. What are yours?  Think of compiling this list as a good occupation for a cold winter’s afternoon. Or try this — the next time you hike the prairie, what new word descriptions would you add to the prairie’s dictionary and thesaurus?

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Learn some new names for plants, birds, insects, and animals on the prairie. Keep names from becoming lost. Make up your own descriptions for specific things when you can’t find them. Use them. We need these new words –and–we need the existing words we are losing. They help us notice the details. They remind us of the splendor of the natural world. When we use specific words and names, we invite others to appreciate the rich diversity found in tallgrass prairie.

Ready? Let’s get started.

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British writer Robert Macfarlane’s (1976-) opening quote in this essay is from  Landmarks, in which he seeks to re-wild language with specific names for what we discover in the natural world. MacFarlane’s work can be dense, but like all good things, benefits from a second look and a close paying of attention. He believes that if we lose the names for things in the natural world, we may also lose those very places and plants, critters, and landscapes that are named through a gradual lack of interest and care. Worth thinking about.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Nachusa Grasslands in December (Thelma Carpenter Unit), The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; common milkweed pod (Asclepias syriaca);  white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis), author’s birdfeeders by her prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant (Silphium lacinatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; December sunrise, author’s prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) seed pods, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) , Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; two coyotes (Canis latrans), Hidden Lake, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL figwort (Scrophularia marilandica) with snow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; December at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  Thelma Carpenter Unit, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.