“Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile, the world goes on…” — Mary Oliver
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.
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.
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.
I scanned the pewter sky. So silent. The cranes were somewhere north now, ahead of the weather.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Jeff and I walked, and walked, and walked. In the creek, the new growth of cursed crowfoot spreads across the surface of the water.
Deer tracks sliced through the grasses and wildflowers and mud…
….showing where they had made their way through the prairie to drink here. I stepped across the footbridge and peered closer.
Iris speared through the stream. That vivid green! The prairie was coming alive.
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?”
My stewardship work on both prairies where i volunteer is on hold. As it should be.
All the hustle and bustle of tasks I once deemed imperative have taken a back seat to staying healthy.
Keeping others healthy.
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.
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.
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.
My backyard pond, covered with the white stuff just six hours before, was snow-free by 4 p.m.
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.
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.”
Around 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.
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.
Letting go of what we can’t control.
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.
But above that slushy mess, the flowering silver maples along the street signaled the hope of spring. Of a new season.
Each day is a new challenge.
Meanwhile, the natural world goes on.
We can still choose to pay attention.
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.
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.
Cindy’s classes have moved online! For current updates on classes and events, please go to http://www.cindycrosby.com.
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.