“Perhaps it is because we have been so long without flowers that the earliest seem to be among the most beautiful.” — Jack Sanders
Gray skies. Tornados. Rainbows. Raw temperatures. Rain.
What a week it’s been! Not optimal for being outside. Nevertheless, I went out for a “short” hike on the Schulenberg Prairie Monday between rain showers. Two hours later, I didn’t want to go home.
There is so much to see on the prairie in May.
Common valerian—one of my favorite prairie plants—is in full bloom.
Such a strange, alien-esque sort of wildflower! It is sometimes called “tobacco root” or “edible valerian,” and despite reports of its toxicity, Native Americans knew how to prepare it as a food source. Early European explorers noted it had a “most peculiar taste.” The closer you look…
…the more unusual this plant seems. Bees, moths, and flies are often found around the blooms.
A white leaf edge causes the plant appear to glow. Later, the stems will turn bright pink. Gerould Wilhelm in his doorstopper book with Laura Rericha, Flora of the Chicago Region, gives this uncommon plant a C-value of “10.” It’s a stunning wildflower, although not conventionally pretty. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
The prairie violets are in bud and in bloom, with leaves that vary from deeply lobed…
… to fan-shaped.
Cream wild indigo, splattered with mud, spears its way toward the sky. Blooms are on their way.
Long-tongued bumblebees work the purple dead nettle for nectar. This non-native annual in the mint family is aggressive in garden beds and on the prairie’s edges, but we don’t have much of it in the prairie proper.
Leaves, as well as flowers, offer studies in contrast and color this month. Wood betony is on the brink of blooming.
Queen of the prairie, with her distinctive leaves, is almost as pretty at this stage as it will be in bloom.
Compass plants’ distinctive lacy leaves are May miniatures of their July selves.
In the nearby savanna, rue anemone trembles in the breeze.
Although they won’t fully open in the drizzle, yellow trout lilies splash light and color on a dreary day.
It’s a time of rapid change on the tallgrass prairie and savanna. Each day brings new blooms. Each week, the prairie grasses grow a little taller. It’s difficult to absorb it all.
But what a joy to try!
Why not go see?
The opening quote is from Jack Sanders’ (1944-) book, Hedgemaids and Fairy Candles: The Lives and Lore of North American Wildflowers. The book is jam-packed with fascinating lore about some of my favorite blooms. Thanks to Mary Vieregg for gifting me this book–it’s been a delight. A similar book from Sanders is The Secrets of Wildflowers. Happy reading!
Join Cindy for a Program or Class
May 3, 7-8:30 p.m.: Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Fliers, at the Winfield Area Gardening Club (Open to the public!), Winfield, IL. For more information, click here.
May 5, evening: 60 Years on the Schulenberg Prairie, Morton Arboretum Natural Resource Volunteer Event (closed to the public).
May 18, 12:30-2 p.m.: 100 Years Around the Arboretum (With Rita Hassert), Morton Arboretum Volunteer Zoom Event (Closed to the public).
June 5, 2-3:30 pm.: Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers, Downers Grove Public Library and Downers Grove Garden Club. Kick off National Garden Week with this in-person event! Open to the public. Click here for more information.
Time is running out for a precious Illinois prairie remnant. Save Bell Bowl Prairie! Find out what you can do to help at www.savebellbowlprairie.org
“Perhaps by learning more about the native plants that surround us and about their use and history, we can begin to develop our own conservation ethic, which will bring us into harmony with our environment.” — Dr. Kelly Kindscher
August exhales. Hot. Steamy. The prairie crackles.
All day Sunday, we waited for rain. As I worked in my backyard prairie patch that evening, dark clouds rumbled to the north and the east. Occasionally, thunder growled.
On the radar, you could see the clouds kiss the edges of my suburban town. Not a drop of rain fell.
My head tells me that prairies are built for this. The long roots of some prairie plants reach down to 15 feet or more into the recesses of the soil. It’s an insurance policy they pay into, year after year, that keeps them alive through severe shifts of weather. Yet, as I watch my queen of the prairie plants crisp and fade away…
…and the obedient plant flowers wilt and fade to the color of pale burnt sienna.
…I can’t resist turning the sprinkler on and watering the prairie for a good hour. We put a lot of money and love into those prairie plants, and it breaks my heart to see them crumple like brown paper bags.
I console myself with these words from Minnesota author Paul Gruchow about the deep prairie roots: “The work that matters doesn’t always show.” Next year, I’ll know if the plants’ hard work tunneling roots into the soil was enough to keep them alive. I’ll be watching. And waiting.
At Nachusa Grasslands this week, dust billowed around our Subaru as we bounced along an overgrown two-track road to my dragonfly routes. On the prairie, the small pools had long vanished. Cavernous fissures gaped in bare areas. Because of the lack of spring fire, combined with the need for rain, perhaps, some waterways were down to a trickle, choked with growth.
A few dragonflies went about their business; 12-spotted skimmers, blue dashers, common whitetails. Green darners patrolled the ponds.
In Chicago region this week, common green darners gather, preparing for migration. Friends text me with news of their backyard darner swarms. Social media boards light up with numbers. I get texts from my friends who love and observe dragonflies. Thirty in the backyard. Fifty this evening, a few miles east. Soon, the green darners and other migrating species in Illinois—black saddlebags, variegated meadowhawks, wandering gliders—will mass in the hundreds and begin the long journey south.
It’s a poignant time of year, especially, perhaps, this particular year. The dragonflies have been a passionate distraction from so much that is distressing in the world. Don’t go! Stay longer. Please. Of course, they will go… drawn by an evolutionary survival mechanism that tells them to ensure their progeny continue on. The prairie will seem empty without them.
Thinking of this, I look around the prairie. It’s quiet. The bison at Nachusa Grasslands, so rambunctious only a week ago, are hiding, likely somewhere shady and cool. I miss their snorts and sparring today.
And yet, there are signs of life everywhere. The common eastern-tailed blue butterfly teases me, fanning its wings open for few seconds—oh wow, that blue!—then snapping them shut.
A common moth—with such a complex design. Truly we are surrounded by wonders.
I watch the eastern tiger swallowtails nectar on thistle for a while. They’ve been all over my backyard and the prairies I frequent this week, but they never fail to give me pause. And delight. About the time I take them for granted, they’ll be gone for the year.
Even the ubiquitous pearl crescent butterfly stops me for a second look.
In contrast, ghostly cabbage butterflies puddle in the salts and minerals along the stream. In the afternoon sun, they look almost pale green.
All around me—despite the need for rain—the prairie pushes out color. Black-eyed susans.
Great blue lobelia.
As I hike toward the car, I pinch off a leaf of mountain mint; hot and cool and refreshing—all at the same time. I chew it for a bit, then spit it out. My mouth tingles.
August is drawing to a close.
Why wait? Now is the time to go and see.
The prairie is waiting.
Dr. Kelly Kindscher, whose quote opens this post, is a senior scientist with the Kansas biological survey and a professor of environmental studies at the University of Kansas. Kindscher authored two of my favorite books on prairie ethnobotany: Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie and Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie (both from University Press of Kansas). In 1984, Kindscher supplemented his diet with prairie plants as he walked almost 700 miles from Kansas City to Denver.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Nachusa Grasslands, unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): August at Nachusa Grasslands; cumulonimbus cloud over author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra) and ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; obedient plant (Physostegiavirginiana), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; overgrowth in the sand boil stream, sedge meadow fen; common green darner dragonfly male (Ajax junius); black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata) (2018); Nachusa Grasslands in August; wildflowers and sky at Nachusa Grasslands; eastern-tailed blue butterfly (Cupido comyntas); chickweed geometer moth (Haematopis grataria); eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilioglaucus) with unknown thistles (possibly Cirsiumdiscolor); pearl crescent butterfly (Phyciodes tharos); cabbage white butterflies (Pieris rapae) puddling; black-eyed susans (probably Rudbeckia subomentosa); great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica); common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum); sedge meadow fen; Franklin Creek Prairie, Franklin Grove, IL.
Join Cindy for an Online Class this Autumn! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for details. “Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” Begin a new session September 2 through The Morton Arboretum! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional Zoom session. Classes are limited to 50. Register here.
“Nature Writing Online” Begins Monday, October 5, through The Morton Arboretum. Want to commit to improving and fine-tuning your writing for six weeks? This is a great opportunity to jump start your blog, your book, or your journal writing while working online from home, supplemented with three evenings of live evening Zoom classes on alternate weeks. Watch for registration information coming soon.
Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.
“It was, at last, the time of the flowers.” — Paul Gruchow
Oh, what a difference a little rain makes!
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…
…garter snakes sashaying out in the bright light to sun themselves…
…and of course the wildflowers, in all their amazing complexity.
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.
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.”
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.
The marsh marigold listed on our 2005 inventory, a beautiful spring native wildflower…
…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.
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.
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?
The rains also prompted large-flowered trillium to open. These won’t last long.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
“No matter how chaotic it is, wildflowers will still spring up in the middle of nowhere.” — Sheryl Crow
There’s a plethora of prairie purple right now. (Say it three times, very fast.) The pinky purple of wild geraniums color the prairie edges.
Here and there–but much more rare–the bird’s foot violet.
And its close kin, prairie violet.
Go plum crazy over fragile blue toadflax.
Do some whoopin’ over purple prairie lupine…
Seek out the violet wood sorrel, dabbed here and there across the prairie.
Look up! May skies are often the purple-blue of a storm.
After the rain, amethyst-colored long-leaved bluets are splattered with grit.
The rain encourages wild hyacinth’s lavender blues to open. Inhale their fragrance. Wow!
Sunset prairie purples close many May days on the prairie. Not fiery. Not spectacular. But in true purple form…peaceful.
No matter how chaotic the world seems at any given time, an hour on the May prairie–with its purple moments–puts things into perspective again.
An hour that is always well-spent.
Sheryl Crow (1962-), whose quote opens this blogpost, is an American recording artist perhaps best known for her hits, “Every Day is a Winding Road,” and “All I Wanna Do.” She has won nine Grammy Awards, and been nominated for a Grammy 32 times. Her album, Wildflower, has sold almost a million copies.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): wild geraniums (Geranium maculatum) East Woods area, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bird’s foot violet (Viola pedata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie violet (Viola pedatifida), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;blue toadflax (Nuttallanthus canadensis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; lupine (Lupinus perennis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; violet wood sorrel (Oxalis violacea), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; storm over Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; long-leaved bluets after the storm (Houstonia longifolia var.longifolia), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; wild hyacinths (Camassia scilloides), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset over Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.
Special thanks to Bernie Buchholz for his restoration work, and for introducing me to several new wildflowers at Nachusa Grasslands.
“I like to think of landscape not as a fixed placed but as a path that is unwinding before my eyes, under my feet.” –Gretel Ehrlich
Spring comes to the tallgrass prairie with rains that soak and flood the newly-burned earth, urging wildflowers to bloom. Illinois’ state flower, the blue violet, is one of the first to color the prairies and woodlands.
Pussytoes on the prairie are not far behind.
On the wet prairies, marsh marigolds butter the streams and ponds.
Water is the key to this lush profusion of prairie color. Illinois receives almost 40 inches of rain in a good year, nourishing the wildflowers and giving the grasses and wetlands a boost.
But the story of prairies and rain begins almost a thousand miles west of Illinois, high in the Rocky Mountains. April here is full of precipitation of a different sort.
Mule deer forage in the snow-glazed grasses for something green and nourishing.
Birds scan their surroundings for insects and seeds.
As the storms move over the Rockies, snow and rain water the western slopes.
As storms move west to east over the mountain range, the eastern or leeward side is in the “rain shadow.” Simply put, a “rain shadow” means less precipitation falls here. The prairie grasses on this side of the mountains adapted to drier conditions.
As the weather systems move further east…
…more precipitation falls across the Great Plains, eventually with help from the moist Gulf of Mexico air.
Mixed grass prairies grow where there is increased rain, taller and more robust than the shortgrass prairies in the rain shadow. As rains become more abundant, they help nurture the rich tallgrass prairies of the Midwest.
These tallgrass prairies seem a long way from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.
So different. So separate.
Yet, they’re connected. Mountains and tallgrass. For it is here, in the snow-capped Rockies, that we begin to understand what shapes our prairies.
The opening quote is from “Landscape,” introduction to Legacy of Light by Gretel Ehrlich (1946-). Her book, “Solace of Open Spaces,” movingly chronicles her life on the rural Wyoming prairie.
All photos and video clips copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) blue violet (Viola sororia) plantain-leaved pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; April snowstorm video clip, Divide, CO; mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) in spring snowstorm, Divide, Colorado; mountain bluebird (Sialia currucoides) Divide, Colorado; storm coming in over Divide, Colorado; rescue grass (Bromus catharticus), Divide, Colorado; spring snowstorm in Divide, Colorado; spring snowstorm in Divide, Colorado; blazing star (Liatris aspera) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Wyoming ground squirrel (Urocitellus elegans), Divide, Colorado; Pike’s Peak, Divide, Colorado.
“So much of our life passes in a comfortable blur… Most people are lazy about life. Life is something that happens to them while they wait for death.”--Diane Ackerman
As a former independent bookseller, I love words, particularly words that come from books. Why? The best books broaden our thinking, jolt us out of our complacency, and remind us of the marvels of the natural world. They give us hope for the future. Words also prod us to reflect on our lives. To make changes.
Native American writer N. Scott Momaday penned the following words:
“Once in his life man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth, I believe…
He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience…
To look at it from as many angles as he can…
To wonder upon it…
To dwell upon it.
He ought to imagine that he touches it with his hands at every season…
…and listens to the sounds that are made upon it.
He ought to imagine the creatures there…
…and all the faintest motions of the wind.
He ought to recollect the glare of the moon…
…and the colors of the dawn…
…and the dusk.”
I read Momaday’s words and ask myself: How do I “give myself up” to a particular landscape? When was the last sunrise I noticed? The last sunset? How many creatures and plants can I identify in the place where I live? Do I know the current phase of the moon? Will I be there to touch the sticky sap of a compass plant in summer, or to follow coyote tracks through snow, even when it is inconvenient or uncomfortable to do so? What will I do to share what I discover with others?
How will I live my life this year? In “a comfortable blur?”
Or with intention?
Poet, naturalist, and essayist Diane Ackerman (1948-), whose words open this post, is the author of numerous books including A Natural History of the Senses from which this quote is taken. Her book, One Hundred Names for Love, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The Zookeeper’s Wife, was made into a movie, which opens in theaters in spring of 2017.
Poet and writer N. Scott Momaday (1934-) won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his novel, House Made of Dawn (1969).The words quoted here are from The Way to Rainy Mountain, a blend of history, memoir, and folklore. Momaday is widely credited with bringing about a renaissance in Native American literature. His thoughtful words are a call to paying attention in whatever place you find yourself… including the land of the tallgrass prairie.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom) shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Newton County, IN; restoration volunteers, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; storm over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern prairie fringed orchid(Platanthera leucophaea), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; naming the prairie plants, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie trail, Curtis Prairie, University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum, Madison, WI; discovering the tallgrass, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet wood sorrel(Oxalis violacea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; summer on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; fall comes to the Meadow Lake prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; snow on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) and western chorus frogs (Pseudacris triseriata), unnamed West Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; female eastern amberwing (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; kaleidoscope of clouded sulphur butterflies (Colias philodice), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), Meadow Lake prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; moon over Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; sunrise, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve prairie planting, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County; Downer’s Grove, IL; sunset, Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.
It reminds us that resurrection from the darkest night of the soul is possible.
We learn from the prairie about reliance. The grasses and flowers depend on prescribed burns each season to keep the tallgrass open. The frequent fires make make the prairie the best it can be: over the long haul.
The prairie tells us stories of resilience.
The prairie grasses and wildflowers plunge their roots deep into the black soil. Anchored and nourished through drought, wind, fire, and flood, they survive–and thrive.
The prairie tells us about the value of diversity. That nothing is too small, ignored, or overlooked to be important.
We need every grass and flower. Each shaggy mammal.
Every tiny insect.
There is violence and suffering on the prairie…
but we see the bigger picture. Redemption.
Listen to the prairie. Draw from it strength and the courage to keep moving forward.
Discover what stories the prairie has for you.
And in the listening, find comfort and peace.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bridge with Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; meadow anemone (Anemone canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn, Glen Ellyn, IL; after the burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; after the burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild white indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie willow (Salix humilis humilis), Schulenberg Prairie right before the burn, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie plantain, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; regal fritillary, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; bison, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; , Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; 12-spotted skimmer, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; storm over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cloud break over the author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; boardwalk over prairie fen, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; path through the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.
Forget the scraps of snow still visible in the shadier corners of the prairie.
Overlook the still-cold temperatures.
The first signs of spring are everywhere. Sunrises are earlier.
Sunsets are later.
In our gardens and yards, daffodils, crocus, and hyacinths knife up their bundles of leaves.
Temperatures tease us by briefly climbing into the upper 50s. Snowdrops heed the signal; offer their first blooms. Who will break the news to them that a winter storm is in the forecast, only days away?
All our glimpses of early spring are not sweetness and light. This week, warm winds howled up to 60 mph across the prairie. A spring tantrum, more than a winter storm.
No longer frozen, the prairie paths shout “mud season!” Go for a hike, and your boots slurp, slurp, slurp with every step.
The ice that limned the creeks and streams has disappeared … temporarily, anyway. Water runs fast with snowmelt; cold and clear.
Faintly familiar, but long-gone birds reappear and begin adding notes to the tallgrass soundtrack. Killdeer. The first tentative notes of red-winged blackbirds. Winter’s juncos still hang around, not getting the spring memo. But give them a few weeks and they’ll pack their bags and head north. Soon the dickcissels and bob-o-links will be back on their regular tallgrass perches.
In the last days of February, I study the prairie sky for migrating snow geese. I see them thick as storm clouds on weather radar reports. Yet, the sky remains empty, except for a few ubiquitous Canada geese.
Nonetheless, I like knowing the snowies are flying somewhere above me. A sign of spring. On the move north.
On the move, like the life of the prairie. The end of one season;
… the beginning of something new.
Yes, there will be more snow and ice. February’s full moon is named by Native American’s as the “Full Snows Moon.” I watched it rise last night; a harbinger of more snow and cold on the way.
But we’ve gotten our first whiff of spring. And it is good.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Rice-Lake Danada prairie planting, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Wheaton, IL; trail, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunrise looking east from author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; sunset, Nachusa Grassland, Franklin Grove, IL; crocus shoots, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; snowdrops, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; storm over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; muddy trail, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; dickcissel, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; Canada geese over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; snow geese and Ross’s geese, Bosque del Apache, San Antonio, New Mexico; sunset, Russell Kirt Prairie East, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL (looking west); full moon, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.
Cindy Crosby is the author, compiler, or contributor to more than 20 books. Her most recent is "Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History" (Northwestern University Press, 2020). She teaches prairie ecology, nature writing, and natural history classes, and is a prairie steward who has volunteered countless hours in prairie restoration. See Cindy's upcoming online speaking events and classes at www.cindycrosby.com.