Tag Archives: spring

Naming the Prairie Community

“That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.” —Aldo Leopold

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Spring is here, and with it the smell of toasted prairie.

prescribedburntwoweekslaterSPMA33119-spring.jpg A night or two of rain, some sunshine and rising temperatures, and the burned landscape greens up. Add a dollop of chlorophyll; the scent of wet earth. It’s the scent of spring in my little corner of the world.

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With the obliteration of last season’s desiccated foliage after the prescribed fire, signs of the prairie community are open for investigation. It’s worth taking a hike to go look at the hidden, now made visible for a moment in time.  The fire reveals the tunnels across the prairie. But who uses them? Meadow voles? Prairie voles? Or something more wriggly, perhaps?

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With the tallgrass cover stripped away, a giant ant hill comes into focus. Hmmm. Didn’t know that was there. Did you know a group of ants is called a “colony?” Good name for them.

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This particular mound is a big one. Soon, it will be smothered in lush grasses and wildflowers and for all purposes, invisible until next spring.

The prairie bursts with new growth on this cold, sunny day.  As I hike, Willoway brook, freed of its burden of ice, murmurs in the background.  I feel myself relax.

Almost under my hiking boot, I see a native thistle, lime green against the blackened prairie. Pasture thistle? I think so.  But I’m not completely sure.

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A bird calls from the nearby savanna. I listen, but can’t remember which species goes with the song.  Hmmm… .   I’ll be re-learning bird songs and plant ID from now until fall; saying goodbye the tattered remains of the last year’s prairie….

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… reacquainting myself with plants and birds as they make their appearance.

As I’m looking for the unknown bird calling from the prairie’s edge, I notice a maple’s bark-chewed branch. Squirrels know maple sap flows in early spring, and that they’ll get a tasty treat if they gnaw the bark. Occasionally, when the sap runs from one of the chewed places, then freezes, I break off and lick a “maple sap-sicle” —sweet and a bit earthy tasting. But it’s too warm for maple sap-sicles this evening.

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Squirrels. The collective name for a group of squirrels, I discover, is called a “scurry,” depending on what source you consult. The maple tree has its scurry of squirrels as well as birds. And that mysterious bird is singing again. I take out my phone and record it. I’ll do more research  back home.

Birds are pouring into Chicago. Every day brings arrivals from the south. A group of birds is a flock, I remind myself. Easy, right? But I recently learned that when a mixed group of birds bands together to look for the same type of food, they are called a “foraging guild.” Cool!

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Nuthatches, both the white-breasted nuthatch and the red-breasted nuthatch show up at my backyard feeders by the prairie patch each afternoon, scuffling with the downy woodpeckers for peanuts. On the edge of the prairie, I watch them peck their way around the trees. A group of nuthatches, I discover, is called a “jar.” Not sure what this nuthatch thinks about that.

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The prairie real estate market is booming. In early April, just outside of Fermilab Natural Areas’ prairies and Nachusa Grasslands, you can see large numbers of herons flying with grasses and twigs in their bills, building their nests.

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You may know that herons nesting together form a “rookery” or “heronry.” But did you know a group of these birds is called a “siege” of herons? That’s a new one for me!

Smaller, but just as interesting, are the field sparrows looking for seeds and insects on the blackened ground. I’ve seen the collective name as “host of sparrows,” “knot of sparrows,” and “quarrel of sparrows.” Which one do you prefer?

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On the two-weeks-burned Schulenberg Prairie, the male mallards are paddling along Willoway Brook, looking for mates.  Spring is the beginning of the mating season for many birds in the prairie community.  The ubiquitous Canada geese, which mate for life, are already scouting out nest sites. (Groups of geese are called “a gaggle” or a “skein.”).

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Even the mallard ducks have special names. I’ve seen the word “sord” or “sword” used; also the more expected “flight”or “flock”. Even “daggle” of ducks and “doppling” of ducks.

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Which brings us full circle to where this “group-of-living-things” tangent began, doesn’t it? It’s fun to learn the collective names of members of the tallgrass community.

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What are some of your favorites? Leave a comment and let me know. I enjoy puzzling over bird songs and plant seedlings; thinking about collective names, feeling the sun on my face and the nip of the still-sharp spring air on my nose.

But its not all delight at this time of year on the prairie. There is loss, as well. On my hikes after the burn I find the charred bones of small mice and voles, who couldn’t out-scramble the prairie flames. A raccoon with a luxurious pelt, which looks asleep, but has been felled into eternal slumber by distemper. Feathers blowing across the trail, doubtless from an arriving spring migrant that became a fox or coyote’s snack.

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It’s all part of the deep joy I feel on the prairie. Not some superficial feeling. But rather, the feeling that comes with the reality of the tallgrass. Beautiful? Yes. But it’s no Hallmark  greeting card. There is life here, with all its glorious growth and bad luck; successes and failures.

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The contrast of life and death; the familiar and the strange; cold nights and warm days; loss and renewal; all mingle together in a mish-mash of community on the just-burned prairie. So much to observe. So much to learn.

So much to love.

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So much to pay attention to.

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Aldo Leopold is best known for his book, A Sand County Almanac (1949); and also, as the father of wildlife ecology, wilderness systems in the United States, and conservation ethics. Read more about him and his work here.

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All photos and video clips copyright Cindy Crosby—today’s posts are from the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL unless otherwise noted: Schulenberg Prairie about two weeks after the prescribed burn; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) sprouting; unknown tunnel after the burn; ant mound or hill on burned prairie; Willoway Brook video clip; probably native pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor); old prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) leaf; sugar maple (Acer saccharum) branch gnawed by squirrels; white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis); white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis); great blue heron (Ardea herodias) rookery, North Aurora, IL; field sparrow (Spizella pusilla) ; Canada geese (Branta canadensis) in flight; male mallard duck (Anas platyrhynchos) (notice the band on his leg); male mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) on Willoway Brook; sunset in the Schulenberg Prairie savanna; Schulenberg Prairie after the prescribed burn;  black walnut (Juglans nigra) and new growth.

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For more on group names for living things, check out the book A Charm of Goldfinches by Matt Sewell, and these lists of collective names from the Baltimore Bird Club and MNN.com. The names used here came from these and other sources. Have fun!

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Cindy’s classes and speaking this week:

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online continues through The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Nature writing online and in-person concludes tonight at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Just released! Order from your favorite independent bookseller or Ice Cube Press here.

With grateful thanks to our sponsors: The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Friends of Neal Smith Wildlife Preserve, Grinnell College Center for Prairie Studies; and The Tallgrass Prairie Center at the University of Northern Iowa. Great places, great folks.

Tallgrass Conversations cover Cindy Pick9a

Spring Prairie Thaw

“Keep busy with survival…remember nothing stays the same for long, not even pain. Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go.”  ― May Sarton
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Mid-March in the Chicago region feels like emergence from a long dream.  The world is waking up. Slowly.
We blink in the sunshine. Rub our eyes. Stretch.
Listen!
What’s that sound?
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It’s the sounds of water. The prairie creek thaws. At last!
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Melted snow runs into cracks and crevices. Water tunes up; provides a musical soundtrack for the tallgrass once again.
Sure, it’s not officially astronomical spring until March 20, another week away, when winter officially ends.
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 But you can see the transitions in play.
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Not quite spring yet? Tell that to the birds. They know better. Soon, migrants will pour through the skies, piping their songs to us Midwesterners. We’ll ask each other, “Was that a white-throated sparrow singing?” They are common migrants and occasional winter residents here in Illinois. Every spring, I hear them calling on their way north, headed for the upper Midwest and Canada. It’s just a matter of days, now. I’m listening.
Speaking of birds…In the tallgrass, one has pecked through the Chinese mantis egg case  I’ve been watching all winter. The case is in tatters. Goodbye, little future insects! Praying mantises are pretty merciless predators themselves, so perhaps it’s justice.
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It’s a savage world out there, especially at the end of winter when survival is still bitterly won. Hunger gnaws. Reserves are low. Hang on. Don’t quit. Sit it out. You can make it!
Soon, the March mud season will give way to color and song. For now, I welcome the sunshine, the melt and the thaw.
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Cardinal songs in the morning. The “oke-a-leeeeee” conversations of red-winged blackbirds as I hike the prairie trails by the brook.
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The first green shoots. The last old stands of dried grasses and wildflowers, fuel for the coming prescribed burn. You can feel spring trying to punch through the cold; break out of the gray and the gloom.
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The old order is passing. Something new is on the way.
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Breathe in. Can you detect spring in the air? It’s in the scent of water. The smell of earth. That subtle scent of green. Feel the mud cling to your boots. Hear spring’s tentative first notes as the prairie community warms under the March sun.
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Later, we’ll demand more than these small pleasures from the tallgrass.
But for now, they are enough.
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The poet May Sarton (1912-1995), whose quote begins this post, was also the author of numerous fiction and nonfiction books, including “Recovery.” She was particularly interested in aging, illness and depression (and our responses to both); solitude; personal, emotional, and artistic growth; our need for community and dependency on others; and the close observation of the natural world. Read “Mud Season” about her spring garden here. “Fluent, fluid…” said one reviewer of Sarton’s work; another wrote that her words are, “…direct and deeply given.”  Her writing, however, has been largely snubbed by major critics. She died of breast cancer at the age of 83. Read more in her obituary from The New York Times.
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All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bubbles under the ice, Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ice waterfall, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; water running into crevices at Fermilab Prairie’s Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL;  ice on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Chinese mantis ((Tenodera sinensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook ice, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) singing on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.
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Pre-order Cindy’s New Prairie Book By Clicking Here Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit (Cindy Crosby and Thomas Dean), Ice Cube Press. Releases in April, 2019, full-color hardcover, $24.95. Also available at The Arboretum Store: https://www.mortonarb.org/visit-explore/arboretum-store
Cindy’s Classes in March
Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online March 27 (The Morton Arboretum—work at your own pace from home and hone your knowledge of prairie)

Prairie by the Numbers

“It was, at last, the time of the flowers.” — Paul Gruchow

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Oh, what a difference a little rain makes!

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Spring has arrived in the Chicago region—at last, at last! The savannas and prairies are awash in color and motion. Warblers and butterflies everywhere you look…

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…garter snakes sashaying out in the bright light to sun themselves…

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…and of course the wildflowers, in all their amazing complexity.

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My Tuesday morning prairie team is busy updating our plant inventory, a daunting task that has run into its second season. This spring, we are looking for a hundred or so plants out of the 500 from the inventory that we couldn’t find in 2017. The last complete prairie inventory was wrapped up in 2005, so we need a check-in on what’s still here, and what has disappeared or moved into the prairie. Knowing the plants we have will help us make better decisions on how to care for the site.

This is a high-quality planted 100-acre prairie, wetland, and savanna, which is almost in its sixth decade. Some call it the fourth oldest planted prairie in North America! So we feel the heavy weight of responsibility to get our numbers right.

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Its a prairie with some beautiful blooms—and some quirky ones as well. This week, our “oohs” and “ahhs” are for common valerian (Valeriana edulis var. ciliata), a high-quality—and despite its name—uncommon prairie plant. Flora of the Chicago Region gives it the highest possible plant score — a perfect “C” value of “10.”

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We’ve been hot on the trail of three more common but elusive plants that we’d missed in the spring of 2017: skunk cabbage, marsh marigold, and rue anemone.  Some adventurous members of the team discovered the skunk cabbage in April, poking through the muck in a deep gully. Now, two weeks later, it is much easier to see.

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The marsh marigold listed on our 2005 inventory, a beautiful spring native wildflower…

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…turned out to be a single plant, hiding among some fig buttercup (Ficaria verna) a pernicious, non-native invasive wetland species. We’ll remove the fig buttercup so it doesn’t spread across the waterway.

The missing rue anemone went from invisible to visible last week after storms moved through the area and greened up the savanna. Such a delicate wildflower!  Easy to miss unless you find a large colony.

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Looking for specific plants as we’re doing now results in some serendipity. Our plant inventory team found harbinger of spring for the first time in our site’s history while looking for the marsh marigold. A new species for our site —and so tiny! Who knows how long we’ve overlooked it here.

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In addition to the inventory, most of us are weeding garlic mustard, a persistent invasive plant that infests disturbed areas around the prairie. One of the perks of weeding is we make other discoveries, such as wild ginger blooms. You might flip hundreds of wild ginger plant leaves over before you find the first flower. Pretty good occupation for a warm and windy afternoon, isn’t it?

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The rains also prompted large-flowered trillium to open. These won’t last long.

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Look closely below behind the trillium and you’ll see the white trout lily gone to seed. All around, blooms are throwing themselves into bud, bloom, and seed production. Sometimes, seemingly overnight.

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Updating a plant inventory plus a little judicious garlic mustard weeding will teach you how little you know about what is happening in your little corner of the plant world. I see plants that look familiar, but their name eludes me. It takes numerous trips through my favorite plant ID guides to get reacquainted. I also look in vain for old favorites which seem to have disappeared. (Where, oh where, is our birdfoot violet?)

Spring keeps you on your toes. It reminds you to be amazed. It constantly astonishes you with its sleight of hand; prolifically giving new species and flagrantly taking them away. And as always, there are a few surprises.

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Ah. The “elusive, rare” red tulip! Where did that come from? Huh.

Just when you think you know a flower, it turns up a a little different color, or gives you a new perspective on its life cycle. To see the wood betony at this stage always throws those new to the prairie for a loop. Almost ferny, isn’t it?

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Barely a hint now of what it will be when it grows up. Same for the prairie dock, tiny fuzzy leaves lifting above the ashes of the burn.

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Or the hepatica, most of its petal-like sepals gone, but the green bracts now visible. Looks like a different plant than when it was in full bloom.

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Pasque flower is now past bloom. As stewards, we turn our thoughts toward the first seed collection of the season and propagation for the next year. If a species is gone, or seems to be dwindling, we’ll consider replanting to maintain the diversity of the prairie.

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We tally up the numbers, check off plant species. Update scientific names which have changed. But no matter how the spreadsheets read, we know one thing for certain.

What a glorious time of year it is! Spring on the prairie is worth the wait.

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The opening quote is from Journal of a Prairie Year by Minnesota writer Paul Gruchow (1947-2004). Worth re-reading every spring.

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Unless noted, all photos copyright Cindy Crosby, taken at the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (top to bottom): thunderhead moving in over the author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL;  red admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) sunning itself on the prairie; Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria); gravel two-track greening up in the rain; common valerian (Valeriana edulis var. ciliata); skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus); marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides); harbinger of spring (Erigenia bulbosa); wild ginger (Asarum canadense reflexum); large-flowered white trillium (Trillium grandiflora); prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum recurvatum); red tulip (Tulipa unknown species); wood betony (Pendicularis canadensus); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) emerging; hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba); pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens) fading.

The (Prairie) Pause that Refreshes

“Now is the winter of our discontent.”–William Shakespeare
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Pause: a “temporary stop” according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary. The Oxford Dictionary defines “pause” as an interruption.  Pause seems like a good word to describe spring on the prairie this past week. Stopped. Interrupted. Although we know this spring pause is temporary in the Chicago region, some of us are feeling cranky about it.

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Spring, with all its flirtatious promises, has seemingly gone AWOL.  The surge and bloom of wildflowers screeched to a halt. And just when spring was beginning to look like it was underway, right? All those tiny green wildflower leaves!

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The sandhill cranes migrating north. The chorus frogs calling. Just days ago. Such a big push spring made; such clamor and green and even some blooms!  And now, sunshine and blue skies have regressed to the soft patter of snowflakes and grayest gloom. 

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The signature song from the Disney movie “Frozen” plays relentlessly in my head (“Let the storm rage on! The cold never bothered me anyway!”) But it’s difficult to let go of my impatience for the new season to arrive.

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You can spend your life wanting whatever is just out of reach, or wish for things over which you have no control. Or you can appreciate the joy of what is right in front of you and already yours. Contentment can be hard-won at this time of year. But I know what I need to do.

I quit grumbling and go for hike on the prairie.

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Flakes sift into my hair; melt on my face. As I hike, the snowflakes turn into tiny icy balls. Graupel.  Small white pellets of supercooled raindrops. We’ve had a lot of it this past month. The perfect transitional precipitation—not quite rain, hail,or snow.  Graupel is water that just can’t make up its mind. Sort of like spring. 

Under snow and ice, the familiar prairie, still unburned, takes on a transitional look of its own.

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The grasses and forbs wear their winter colors, stripped to the architecture of stems and seeds. But the snow caught in their scaffolding seems a foreshadowing of the flowers to come.

The red-winged blackbirds remind me that it’s April, and not winter.

 

The air smells of mud, snow, and decay. Sharp. Cold and invigorating.

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My head clears as I breathe in the icy air. During this past week,  I’ve sampled some of the pleasures of winter again: hot drinks, a warm afghan, and a big stack of library books. Mulled over seed catalogs, but not felt any urgency to get the garden ready.  There’s a sense that everything can wait. 

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It’s been restful, this breath of winter.  This pause.

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For another day or two, I’ll try and savor the stillness that a “pause” brings. Leave my garden tools in the shed.  Put some whipped cream on my hot chocolate. Enjoy these last days of snow and cold.

You heard that right. Enjoy. 

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The weather forecast calls for temperatures in the seventies later this week. 

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I’m looking forward to the warmer days of spring. You too?

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I’ll believe it when it happens.

Until then, I’ll try to appreciate the pause. 

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William Shakespeare (1564-1616), whose quote opens this blog post, was a British playwright, actor, and poet. He’s considered the world’s greatest dramatist. Few of us will make it through life without having read a play or watched a performance written by Shakespeare. Many of his phrases have fallen into common use such as “green with envy,” or “pure as the driven snow.” Check out this fun article from Mental Floss for more:  21 Phrases You Use Without Realizing You’re Quoting Shakespeare.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): west side prairie planting and the northern Europe Collection, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; toothwort (Dentaria laciniata or Cardamine concatenataseedling, West Side woodland, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bridge to upper prairie, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild bergamot or bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bridge over Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  pale Indian plantain (Cacalia atriplicifolia or Arnoglossum atriplicifolium) with snow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; video of Schulenberg Prairie in the snow with red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) singing, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tangled vines and brambles, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie and savanna, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) with snow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and snow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) with snow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. And thanks to Karen Burkwall Johnson for her observation about “snow flowers” — love that! 

Spring’s Contrasts on the Prairie

“April golden, April cloudy, Gracious, cruel, tender, rowdy...”–Ogden Nash.

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Spring on the prairie is a showcase of contrasts at the end of April.

Jacob’s ladder.

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Sand phlox. So small! Like a paper snowflake carefully cut out with scissors.

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Tiny blooms. Balanced by rough-and-tumble bison, the heavyweight champs of the prairie.

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Delicate spreadwing damselflies emerge from ponds to tremble in the sun.

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Furry beavers coast by, on their way to ongoing construction projects.

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There’s evidence of egrets. Their pale feathers a contrast to…

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…the bright buttery sunshine of marsh marigolds, with a lipstick red beetle.

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The beetle seems minuscule until a spider wanders into the scene. The line it throws is deceptively fragile looking. Yet, it’s strong enough to capture supper.

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There is life high above, in the flight of a blue heron scared up from the fen.

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While below, tossed carelessly in the grasses, are souvenirs of death.

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Life cut short.

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Beauty and terror co-exist, side-by-side.

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But the stars still come out –shooting stars! Make a wish.

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Life, death, rebirth. It’s all here…

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…at the end of April on the prairie.

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The opening quote is from the poet (Frederic) Ogden Nash (1902-71) and his poem, “Always Marry an April Girl.” Nash is known for his humorous rhyming verse, and his nonsensical words. An example: “If called by a panther/don’t anther.”

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL (top to bottom): Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans), sand phlox (Phlox bifida bifida); bison (Bison bison); possibly sweetflag spreadwing (Lestes forcipatus) (ID uncertain); beaver (Castor canadensis); egret feather (Ardea alba); marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) with an unknown beetle;  unknown spider; blue heron (Ardea herodias); bones in the grasses;  possibly red-winged blackbird egg (Agelaius phoeniceus) in nest; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) with nest; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia); violet sorrel (Oxalis violacea) with an unknown pollinator. Thanks to Bernie Buchholz for showing me the sand phlox, and John Heneghan, for help with the nest ID.

The Prairie Whispers “Spring”

“Every morning I wakened with a fresh consciousness that winter was over.  There was only—spring itself; the throb of it, the light restlessness, the vital essence of it everywhere: in the sky, in the swift clouds, in the pale sunshine, and in the warm, high wind—rising suddenly, sinking suddenly, impulsive and playful like a big puppy that pawed you and then lay down to be petted. If I had been tossed down blindfold on that red prairie, I should have known that it was spring.” –Willa Cather
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Clouds scud across the February skies. The prairie wind howls. The gray days seem endless.

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But wait! Listen closely. There’s a whisper of spring.

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Do you hear the crackle of ice melt?

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Do you see the skunk cabbage, bruised by the cold? It burns through the leaves and unfurls its rubbery leaves.

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Most of the prairie wildflower seeds have vanished. Emptied, the polished shells of milkweed pods grow brittle and loose.

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A few of the less delectable wildflower seeds –like carrion flower–hang on, withered and waiting.

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Indian grass and other prairie grasses are weather bleached to colorless ghosts.

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Still, if you look closely, big bluestem leaves are etched with reds, pinks, chocolates, and yellows.

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Sumac holds its flaming scarlet candles aloft…

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…while switchgrass throws a party, complete with confetti and streamers.glenbard-south-prairie-switchgrass-ribbons-217

 

Near my backyard prairie patch, black-capped chickadees and a cardinal cautiously crunch seeds at the feeder. Startled by a sound, they fly up as one into the maple. There, they tentatively practice their spring mating songs.

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Warmer weather is just around the corner.

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Can you catch a whisper of spring? Do you see the signs? Look. Listen. We’re almost there.

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Willa Cather (1873-1947), whose quote from My Antonia opens this essay, was a Pulitzer Prize winning writer whose books about the Great Plains immortalized prairie for her readers. She hated her birth name, which was Wilella, and she called herself Willie or William. A graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Cather spent most of her adult life in New York City, where she drew on her childhood memories of Nebraska to write stories of the prairie. She was elected a Fellow of the American Arts and Sciences in 1943, although critics dismissed much of her later writing as nostalgic and out of touch with the times. Cather’s best know trilogy of novels, Oh Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Antonia (1918), are classics on the prairie landscape and the immigrants who lived there.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): power lines over the prairie, Timber Ridge Forest Preserve, West Chicago, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Glenbard South High School Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL;  ice on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), Lake Marmo, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Glenbard South High School Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; smooth carrion flower (Smilax herbacea), Timber Ridge Forest Preserve on the Great Western Trail, West Chicago, IL;  Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Timber Ridge Forest Preserve, West Chicago, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Glenbard South High School Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), Timber Ridge Forest Preserve, West Chicago, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Glenbard South High School Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) and black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus), author’s backyard feeders by her prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; hiking the Schulenberg Prairie with a butterfly net in February, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, 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

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“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?

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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.