Tag Archives: sunset

The Prairie at Twilight

“Observation is a great joy.” –Elizabeth Bishop

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Riiiiiiiinnnnnnggggg! It’s time for recess at the elementary school down the street from our house. The bell echoes in an empty playground, roped off with yellow hazard tape. No one sits at the desks inside. No games of hopscotch and tetherball. No lines of cars with parents, waiting to pick up little ones.

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Jeff and I are walking the neighborhood, something we’ve done more of in 2020 than in the 22 years previous. As the pandemic has gradually closed off everyone’s normal routines of work, school, play, shopping and eating out over the past two months, we’ve become a bit hardened to some of our losses. But the school bell, ringing endlessly over an empty playground, caught us off guard.

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Unexpectedly, my eyes fill with tears.

Time to go for a prairie hike.

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Evening has come to Belmont Prairie Preserve.

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This 10-acre remnant in Downer’s Grove, IL, is one of my favorite local prairies to hike, yet we’ve avoided it since early April because of the crowds of people on its narrow trails. I’ve found myself thinking about Belmont since our last hike there. A lot. I miss it. Why not go see if it’s less congested?  We can always turn around and go home. I argue with myself. It’s getting late. Why not, indeed?

We get in the car and go.

A crescent moon glimmers high over the prairie.

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The parking lot is empty. Cheers and fist bumps! We still have an hour before sunset, although the grasses are backlit with the lowering light.

And….we’re off.

Belmont Prairie Preserve at the end of April 2020 is a different prairie to the eye than when I’ve seen it in previous years. Without prescribed fire, to the casual observer the it  looks similar to the tallgrass in fall or winter. Until you walk the trails and look closely.

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There! Wild strawberries are in bloom.

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There’s the old husks of rattlesnake master…

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…juxtaposed with its new spring growth. I’m not sure I’ve seen this in such profusion before. Most of the prairies I hike in the spring have been fire-washed of their past year’s finery.

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It’s a new perspective.

Overhead, the crescent moon scythes its path through the darkening sky.  I notice Venus—a chipped crystal—barely visible in the deepening twilight, seemingly falling in synchronization with the moon toward the horizon.

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In the gathering dark, the prairie seems dreamlike.

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Along the path, shoots of tall coreopsis leaf out…

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…otherworldly in the dusk.

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It almost looks like it’s underwater; its graceful leaves lightly swaying in the wind currents. Or maybe it’s the illusion of this half-light.

Golden Alexanders is up; its leaves, even in the dimness, standing out against the ruined grasses.

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Everywhere, sprouts of new life mingle in random groups; to sort them out would be the delightful work of several hours…

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Some identifiable in the dusk, like the bastard toadflax…

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…or the meadow rue…

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…and, that prairie denizen, the familiar bee balm.

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Here and there are a few undesirables, like yellow rocket…

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..and the ubiquitous garlic mustard. I crush a leaf and sniff it.  I have known neighbors to carefully mow around patches of this in suburban yards, mistaking it for a wildflower.

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As I walk, I yank whatever garlic mustard I can see. It’s a ritual of spring on the prairies where I’m a steward—now closed for that activity.  Such deep satisfaction to make a small difference here in the health of a prairie that’s given me so much!

Not far from the garlic mustard is another plant. Look! Is it the prairie violet? Or the birdfoot violet? Difficult to tell in the fading light. Violets are so variable.

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Jeff holds the half-closed bloom open so I can examine the throat.

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Prairie violet, it appears as I puzzle over it, then pore over my field guides. The flower looks correct, but the leaves look…wrong. Finally, I take the photos and my question to the Illinois Botany Facebook page. Yes. It is.

Or what about this one, in the wetter areas?   A buttercup….”small-flowered buttercup”? The buttercups, like the violets, are difficult. I can barely make out the bloom.

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Small-flowered buttercup, I decide, with iNaturalist offering support for the ID. I double-check it with Illinois Wildflowers on my return home later. Looks good. Every spring, I’m aware of how much I need to re-learn and remember. Makes me grateful for good ID tools both in the field and at home.

I pause in my ID conundrums to look around me. A red-winged blackbird calls. Oka-leee! The stream is bright in last light.

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I walk alongside it for a bit, watching my step.

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…then turn back to the path. The dusk pixels everything; the air itself seems grainy. Then, the grasses light up…

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…the last glints of sundown sparking the dry, brittle leaves and stalks.

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Gradually, the prairie grasses lose the light and become silhouettes…

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…as the sun free-falls through the cloudless sky.

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Jeff has made his way to the car. I can’t help but linger. This opportunity to be here—so longed for—is difficult to bring to a close. This hour—this concentration on prairie, instead of the news—has been a consolation.

I notice a kite, stuck in the treetops.

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I imagine how that person must have felt to see it aloft, then, their dismay as they watched it plummet into the tree. The end of something free and wild.

My absence from Belmont Prairie these past weeks makes this visit so much the sweeter. With the dusk, however, comes melancholy. When will I find this prairie so uncrowded again? I think of the prairie where I am a steward, closed. Did the painted skimmer dragonfly return this spring? Are the killdeers nesting in their usual spots? In Illinois, our shelter-in-pace has extended to the end of May.  The weeks stretch ahead, uncertain.

I think of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “One Art:”

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
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I’m becoming more intimate with losses, big and small, as the weeks go on. In some ways, the pandemic has seemed like a dream. Surely, we’ll wake up and turn to our partner and say–wow–you won’t believe the nightmare I just had…

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… but we wake, and we remember. For now, there is no end in sight.

Darkness is falling fast. A great-horned owl calls in last light.

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The sunset tats the tree branches into lace.

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Good night, Belmont Prairie Preserve.

 

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Later that night, right before bed, I step onto my front porch. The darkness is absolute, except for a few lights in the windows along our street. And—that sky! Deep in the west, falling to the horizon, the crescent moon holds steady with bright Venus in alignment. Tuesday, Venus will be at its brightest for the year.

I watch for a while, until the cold drives me back inside.

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I made it through the past 24 hours. Tomorrow, I’ll get up and pay attention to whatever the day brings. There will be prairie walks, and work in my backyard prairie patch and garden, and plant ID’s to reacquaint myself with since last year and new ones to learn. I’ll pore over my field guides. Then, I’ll call my loved ones to see if they are well.

The peace and promise of the spring prairie has calmed and centered me today. Now, sleep beckons.

Sweet dreams.

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Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) was an award-winning poet who overcame a tragic childhood of losses to give us beautiful poems. Her father died when she was in infancy; her mother was committed to a mental institution when she was five and never recovered. Virtually orphaned, she was then shuttled between relatives, some abusive. She lost several loved ones—including her partner of many years—to suicide. Bishop’s poetry collection Poems: North & South/A Cold Spring (1955) won the Pulitzer Prize. Haven’t read her? Start with “The Fish” , or  “One Art.”

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve in Downer’s Grove, IL, unless marked otherwise (top to bottom): school, Glen Ellyn, IL; empty playground, Glen Ellyn, IL; path through Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve; crescent moon over the prairie;  path through the prairie; wild strawberry  (Fragaria virginiana); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium); crescent moon and Venus;  the prairie at sundown; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); possibly heart-leaved golden Alexanders (Zizia aptera); mixed prairie plants; bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata);  one of the meadow rues (uncertain which species); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); non-native yellow rocket (Barbarea vulgaris arcuata); garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata); prairie violet (Viola pedatifida); prairie violet (Viola pedatifida); small-flowered buttercup (Ranunculus abortivus); Belmont Prairie creek; Belmont Prairie creek; sunset and grasses; sunset and grasses; sunset and grasses; bench at Belmont Prairie; kite in a tree at sunset; grasses at Belmont Prairie; trees and sunset; trees and sunset;  trees and sunset; Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve sign; Venus and a young moon in alignment, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Thank you to Kathleen Marie Garness and the Illinois Botany Facebook page for help with variable violet ID’s! Check out her work for the Field Museum on the awesome violet family and guides to other common families of the Chicago region here.

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Join me for “Enchanting Spring Prairie Wildflowers,” an online webinar, Friday, May 8 1-2:30 p.m. CST, through The Morton Arboretum. Click here to register.

The next “Tallgrass Prairie Ecology” class online begins May 4 through The Morton Arboretum.  Take 60 days to complete the course! See more information and registration  here.

Several of Cindy’s classes have moved online! For updates on classes and events, please go to http://www.cindycrosby.com.

Want more prairie while you are sheltering in place? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.

The Peace of Prairie

“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” — Frederick Buechner

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Take a deep breath.

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Let’s go to the prairie.

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Look around.

The natural world goes on. The sandhill cranes scrawl their way north, their annual aerial ballet and vocalizations announcing spring.

In the tallgrass this week, some of the prescribed burns may be delayed, but the warmth and light invite the first shoots out of the soil.

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The last seeds cling to their pods…

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…then drop to the ground, pummeled by March’s rain and snow-sleet.

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I walk the paths, pausing to check for new growth of the pasque flowers. None up yet. Or are they camouflaged? Pasque flowers are notoriously difficult to find at any stage of growth. But I enjoy the blush of little bluestem that lends its color to the sandier areas of the March prairie;…

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…and the tubed bee balm flowerheads waving in the wind.

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I remember walking this same prairie on 9/11. Quiet. So quiet! Later that frightening week, no contrails crisscrossed the sky as jet travel ground to a halt.

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Today, as I hike, I wonder. What will happen tomorrow? The next week?

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There’s no way to know what direction events will take.

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Nothing to do, really, but look out for each other. Keep walking. Move forward.

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Everywhere, the flattened prairie seems defeated.

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And yet.

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Underneath the dry grasses and battered wildflowers…

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…new life is waiting. Mostly invisible. But there.

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In a time when much of our normal routine is closed off to many of us—our work, the coffee shop, the banality of “normal”—we have the sky…

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…the beauty of clouds…

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…the sound of a stream running…

…and the return of birds.

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I feel a renewed sense of gratitude for what we have. Our families.

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Our friends, even when we don’t see them face to face. The joys of a sunrise. Longer daylight hours. The delights of the natural world, coming to life. Greening up.

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Each day is a gift. The days have never seemed more precious than now.

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The opening blog quote is from American writer and theologian Frederick Buechner (1926-). His books include Whistling in the Dark, and Telling Secrets. Thank you to my sister, Sherry, who shares this quote frequently. (Love you, sis.)

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All photos and videos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom):  Sunset after the burn, College of DuPage Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Elllyn, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; new plant shoots on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; skies over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hiking the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis); Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; evening primrose (Oenothera clelandii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale prairie plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook and prairie skies, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook in March, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: empty bird’s nest, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hiking the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: sunset on the College of DuPage Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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For current updates on Cindy’s speaking and classes, visit http://www.cindycrosby.com

A Prairie Thanksgiving

“Keenly observed, the world is transformed.”–Gretel Ehrlich

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A sunrise and sunset in glorious technicolor bookended Monday this week. Pink lemonade. Orange sherbet. Smudges of charcoal and lavender. It’s not winter yet, but these sky-works feel very much of that season to me. One of the bonuses of the shortening days is they enter and exit with such pizzazz.

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The bigger part of a November day’s sky is often more subtle in its allure. Less color. Less drama. Nuanced.

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On the prairie, the palette is all rich metallics.

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Where we relied on sight and of smell and sound during the warmer months to experience the tallgrass, November is a time of texture. The sense of touch comes into greater play.

The woolly seedhead of the thimbleweed stubbornly holds on to its treasures. Touch it. It’s soft, but not silky. More like cotton.

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There’s a new appreciation for shapes, like the curve of a goldenrod gall ball against the backdrop of an angled Indian grass stem. Run your finger across the surface of the sphere. It’s lightweight and surprisingly smooth.

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As the carrion flower fruits fall apart, we become more aware of the vine’s lines and spirals.

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There is the sparse loveliness of the blazing star, when all evidence of life has fled.

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Even the regimented grasses with their tops hacked off are a testimonial that someone cares about this prairie remnant; cares enough to have cut and gathered the seedheads. Were they out here working on a gray, bone-chilling morning? Perhaps these seeds will be used to strengthen the prairie here, or help begin a future prairie restoration planting.

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November’s range of colors may be less dazzling at this time of year, but what it has lost in color, it has gained in contrasts.

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Forbidding and rough; the seeds long gone inside.

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Other prairie plant seeds remain, so delicate a breath would seemingly cause them to float away. And yet, they hang on.

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The November prairie reminds me to be grateful for seeds and seedheads in all their forms. They promise to take the prairie forward, into the future. A walk through the prairie this month reminds me to thank the stewards and volunteers who pour hours of their lives into keeping prairies vibrant and healthy. Without them, the prairie would fail to thrive, and eventually, disappear. It’s a month to appreciate the tallgrass’s underlying structure; that suite of wildflowers and grasses with deep roots. To offer thanksgiving that prairie remnants and restorations continue to exist—and continue to shape the hearts and minds of those who call it home.

In a time when we may feel jaded, cynical, or even in despair over the state of the world, a walk on the November prairie is an act of thanksgiving. An act of hope.

I finish each hike, feeling grateful.

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Gretel Ehrlich‘s (1946-) The Solace of Open Spaces, from which the opening quote is taken, is one of my all-time favorite reads. “Everything in nature invites us constantly to be what we are,” she writes. Her book is set in Wyoming.

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All photos this week copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve in Downer’s Grove, IL unless noted otherwise: sunrise, author’s neighborhood, Glen Ellyn, IL; gray skies over Belmont Prairie in November; mixed prairie plants, thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica) in seed; goldenrod ball gall; carrion vine (probably Smilax ecirrahta); rough blazing star (Liatris aspera); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida); pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Please join Cindy for one of these upcoming classes or talks before 2019 ends:

Saturday, December 7, 1:30-3 p.m.—Sterling Stories from the Arboretum Stacks: Grab a friend and spend a lively hour together sipping hot beverages while you enjoy little-known stories about the Morton Arboretum. What’s that old fountain doing in the library? Why was there a white pine planted in the May Watts Reading Garden? Who is REALLY buried in the Morton Cemetery—or not? What book in the Sterling Morton Library stacks has a direct relationship to a beheading? Why does the library have glass shelves? How has salt been a blessing —and a curse—to the Arboretum over its almost 100 years? Listen as 33-year Arboretum veteran library collections manager Rita Hassert and  Cindy Crosby spin entertaining tales of a place you thought you knew….until now.    A lovely afternoon enjoying little known Arboretum’s stories, and a quiet respite from the holiday hustle and bustle. Register here.

Sunday, December 8, 2-3:30 p.m.: Tallgrass Conversations at Prairieview Education Center, 2112 Behan Road, Crystal Lake, IL. Information: 815-479-5779.  Book signing after the talk. Free and open to the public.

Happy Thanksgiving, and thank you for reading!

Summer Magic on the Tallgrass Prairie

“May I not be permitted…to introduce a few reflections on the magical influence of the prairies? Their sight never wearies…a profusion of variously colored flowers; the azure of the sky above. In the summer season, especially, everything upon the prairies is cheerful, graceful, and animated…I pity the man whose soul could remain unmoved under such a scene of excitement.” ——Joseph Nicollet, 1838

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I followed Chance the Snapper—Chicago’s renegade alligator—south to Florida this week.

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The tallgrass has often been compared to the ocean, and it’s easy to see why. As I sit on the sand under the hot sun, the ripples on the Gulf remind me of the wind-waves that pass through the spiking grasses and wildflowers.

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It’s difficult to be away from the prairie, even for a few days in July. So much is happening! It’s a magical time. The gray-headed coneflowers pirouette into lemon confetti.

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Purple and white prairie clover spin their tutu skirts across the tallgrass; bee magnets, every one.

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Rosinweed’s rough and tumble blooms pinwheel open. Rosinweed is part of the Silphium genus, and perhaps the most overlooked of its more charismatic siblings.

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Cup plant, another Silphium sibling, is also in bloom. as are the first iconic compass plant flowers. Prairie dock, the last of the Silphiums to open here in Illinois, won’t be far behind.

The last St. John’s wort blooms seem to cup sunshine.

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The smaller pale blooms, like llinois bundleflower…

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…and oddball wildflowers, like Indian plantain, add complexity to the richness of the July prairie.

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Wild bergamot, or “bee-balm,” buzzes with its namesake activity. I’m always astonished each year at how prolific it is, but this season, it floods the prairie with lavender. Wow.

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The scientific name for bee balm is Monarda fistulosa; the specific epithet, fistulosa, means “hollow” or “pipe-like.” If you pay attention to a single flower in all its growing stages…

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….its intricacy will take your breath away. Look closer. Like fireworks!

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I love to chew its minty leaves; a natural breath freshener. Bee balm’s essential oil, thymol, is a primary ingredient in natural mouthwashes. Tea made from the plant has also been used as a  remedy for throat infections; its antiseptic properties made it historically useful for treating wounds.beebalm719SPMAWM

The hummingbirds and hummingbird moths, as well as the bees and butterflies, find it irresistible.

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Not only a useful plant, but beautiful.

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The air reverberates with sound on the July prairie: buzzing, chirping; the sizzling, hissing chords of grass blowing in the wind. Overhead, ubiquitous honking Canada geese add their familiar notes.

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In Florida, ospreys wake me each morning with their piercing cries. I see them soaring over the tallgrass prairie occasionally at home and at Fermilab’s prairies down the road in Batavia, IL, where they’re a rare treat. Here in Florida, they’re just another common note in the island’s soundtrack.

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It’s bittersweet to leave the tallgrass prairie in July for a week and miss some of its seasonal magic. The wildflowers are in full crescendo. The grasses unfold their seedheads and head skyward. The slow turn of the season toward autumn begins. You see it in the change in dragonfly species on the prairie, the sudden appearance of bottlebrush grass and Joe Pye weed flowers. To leave the Midwest for even a few days is to miss a twist or turn in the prairie’s ongoing story. Miss some of the magic.

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But displacement gives me perspective. A renewed appreciation for what I’ve left behind.

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The magic will be waiting.

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Joseph Nicollet (1786-1843), whose quote begins this post, was a French mathematician, philosopher, and astronomer who led explorations in what now is the Dakotas and Minnesota. His whose accurate maps were some of the first to show elevation and use regional Native American names for places. Nicollet’s tombstone reads: “He will triumph who understands how to conciliate and combine with the greatest skill the benefits of the past with the demands of the future.” Read more about him here.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sunset, Captiva Island in July, Florida; Schulenberg Prairie in July, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; St. John’s wort ( likely shrubby —Hypericum prolificum); Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), West side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Indian plantain (Arnoglossum plantagineum), Kent Fuller Air Force Prairie, Glenview, IL; wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) and a silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  sunflowers (probably Helianthus divaricatus) and wild bergamont (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada geese (Branta canadensis), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; osprey (Pandion haliaetus), Captiva Island, Florida; obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; sunset, Captiva Island in July, Florida.

Cindy’s Upcoming Speaking and Classes:

August 12, 7-8:30 p.m., Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Flyers, Fox Valley Garden Club, Aurora, IL. Free and open to the Public. Details here.

August 19-22, 8-5 p.m. daily, National Association for Interpretation Certified Interpretive Guide Training, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Register here.

August 29, 7-8:30 p.m., Summer Literary Series: Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit. Hope aboard the Morton Arboretum’s tram and enjoy a cool beverage, then listen to Cindy talk about the “prairie spirit” on the beautiful Schulenberg Prairie, the fourth oldest prairie restoration in the world. Register here.

Find more at http://www.cindycrosby.com

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 Moon

“Barn’s burnt down. Now, I can see the moon.” — Mazuta Masahide

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Sunset. A pearl button moon rises due east as the sun flames into the western horizon. Not quite the “Supermoon”  or full “Worm Moon” we’ll have on March 20, in conjunction this year with the vernal equinox.  This evening, we get an almost-there version over the prairie. A sneak preview.

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The prairie is partly burnt. The crew came out today and torched the first sections, leaving a yin and yang of startling contrast.

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Robins flitter and hop over the white ash, scrounging for worms on the scorched surface. March is a critical month for prescribed burns on the prairie. Each morning, natural areas managers check the signs. Wind speed? Check. Wind direction? Check. Humidity? Check.

Most of the prairies Jeff and I hiked this week were still untouched by fire.

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Look deep into the grasses, and you’ll see snowmelt is still pooled around the remains of  Indian grass and big bluestem. Tough to burn.

Tonight, the prairie stream reflects a still-bare tree and sunset glow of cumulus clouds above.

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My old touchstone, the praying mantis egg case I’ve watched through the winter, faces the dying light. It is unmarked by the flames, but empty of life.

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On one side of the trail, ashes.

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On the other, brittle grass stalks and old wildflower stems are prime kindling. Waiting for the burning to resume. The flattened tallgrass glimmers gold. Will the fire be tomorrow? A week from now?

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On most prairies, the answer will be this: Soon.

Our old apple tree on the prairie has weathered many fires. We keep it, as it tells the story of its ancestor, an apple tree planted by the early settlers who first turned the tallgrass under the sharp knife of the plow. Trees like these once provided apples for making  “Apple Jack,” an alcoholic beverage. The drink offered temporary solace and medicine for those pioneers’ hardscrabble days.

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In the receding light, I wonder. Could this be the battered tree’s last spring? Every year, it surprises me by putting out green leaves and flowers.Who knows? It’s resilient. It may be here long after I’m gone.

Tonight, walking this half-burned, ghost of last year’s tallgrass, I feel a rush of joy. Out with the old. I’m ready for something new. Let’s get it finished. Bring on the burn.

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The air smells like a campfire. The memory of the taste of s’mores comes unbidden to my mouth and I realize it is long past dinnertime. Cooling temperatures and the dwindling light are clues the prairie and savanna are settling in for the night. Time to go home.

The red-winged blackbirds keep up their calling contest as I hike back to the car.

 

American robins flutter in and out of the trees, scouting for their bedtime snacks.

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It’s almost dark. A blue bird appears. His vivid sapphire is bright in last light. He bounces for a few seconds on a burned -over bit of scrub that barely holds his weight. At about an ounce, I could mail him with a postage stamp.

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I watch him sway a little longer over the ashes, then fly away. I feel a little bounce in my step as well.

Happiness! Spring.

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Mazuta Masahide (1657-1723) was a Japanese poet and samurai who was mentored by poetry master Matsuo Basho in the 17th Century in the art of haiku. Read more on haiku here.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): almost full moon over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bridge to Schulenberg Prairie at sunset, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; March on Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; reflections of sunset in Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Chinese praying mantis egg case ((Tenodera sinensis) ravaged by a bird, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ashes from prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; flattened tallgrass at sunset, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; old apple tree (Malus pumila), Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station, Lisle, IL; clouds over Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; video clip of dusk on the prairie and prairie savanna, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;

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Cindy’s March classes, announcements, and events this week:Tallgrass Conversations cover Cindy Pick9a.jpg

Now Available! Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit (with co-author Thomas Dean) is shipping from Ice Cube Press. $24.95, hardcover, full-color. Find it at fine places like The Arboretum Store in Lisle, IL: 630-719-2454; and Books on First in Dixon, IL: (815)285-2665 or at other bookstores across the Midwest.

Nature Writing: Blended Online and In-Person: Tuesday, March 18– continues at The Morton Arboretum through April 2.

March 22: Frequent Flyers of the Garden and Prairie: Dragonflies and Damselflies, Lombard Garden Club, Lombard, IL (Closed Event).

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 27 through The Morton Arboretum. All classwork done remotely. Register here.

A Prairie Valentine

How important it is to walk along, not in haste but slowly, looking at everything and calling out Yes!”– Mary Oliver

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Ask for their top 10 list of February destinations, and most of my friends would tell you “anywhere warm.” I agree. Toward the end of a Chicago region winter, I’m  ready to shed the shivery cold for a few days and escape to some far-flung beach down south.

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But the beach in February is not my number one destination. I include walking trails through prairie remnants in winter a little higher on my list.

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Tonight, Jeff and I are walking the Belmont Prairie in Downer’s Grove, Illinois. It’s small, as prairies go, but as a remnant—part of the original Illinois tallgrass prairie which escaped development and the plow—it’s special.  Writer John Madson wrote in Where the Sky Began that his “feeling for tallgrass prairie is like that of a modern man who has fallen in love with the face in a faded tintype. Only the frame is still real; the rest is illusion and dream.” Remnants remind me of those “faded tintypes.” Ghosts.

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Very little of our original prairies have survived; about 2,300 high quality acres are left in Illinois. Another reason to be grateful for Belmont Prairie’s 10-acre remnant.

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The grasses are weather-bleached and flattened now. You can imagine how references to the prairie as a sea came to be. Walking the trails here, amid the waves of winter tallgrass, can leave you unsteady on your feet, a little like wading through the surf and sand.belmontprairiegrasseswaves2919WM.jpg

A creek glistens. Puddles of snowmelt glow.  I’ve been re-reading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series this winter, and the creek puts me in mind of Galadriel’s silver elvish rope that helped Frodo and Sam continue their quest to darkest Mordor. Magical. A tiny sliver of creek is also iced in on the right—can you see it in the grasses? Barely visible, but the setting sun sets it alight.

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As we hike, Canada geese begin to settle in, pulling their V-string necklaces across the twilight overhead.

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Geese have a bad rap here in the Chicago suburbs, but I admire their sense of direction, their seamless ability to work as an aerial team, their perfectly spaced flight pattern. Their confidence in knowing the way home.

Honk-honk! The soundtrack of dusk.

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A crescent moon scythes its way across the burgeoning gloom.

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Still enough light to see. The reflections of ice spark the last light.

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Poke around. In the mud and snow pockets, trapped in north-facing crevices, there are signs of spring to come. A few spears of green. Water running under the ice.

BelmontPrairiesnowmelt21019WM.jpgLook closely, and you may find a few tracks. Mammals are out and about in the cold. Birds.  In my backyard, close to the prairie patch, we’ve been feeding the birds extra food during the bitter temperatures, and they, in turn, have graced us with color, motion, and beauty.  As I scrubbed potatoes before having some friends over for dinner this weekend, my mundane task was made enjoyable by watching the interplay at the feeders outside my kitchen window. Scrubbing potatoes became meditation of sorts. Outside were squabbling sparrows.  The occasional red-bellied woodpecker. Juncos–one of my favorites–nun-like in their black and white feathered habits. The occasional burst of cardinal color.  Darting chickadees. Nuthatches, hanging upside down, zipping in for a peanut or two. Downy woodpeckers, like this one.

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The seeds on the ground attract  more than birds. There are gangs of squirrels, well-fed and prosperous. If I wake early, I might spot a large eastern cottontail scavenging seeds, or even a red fox, whose antics with her kits have delighted us in the neighborhood over the years (and kept the resident chipmunk herds in check). Once in a while, over the years, we’ll surprise her on our back porch.

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Another backyard visitor through the year is the opossum, who finds the seeds under the bird feeders a nice change of diet.

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The opossum’s face looks a bit like a heart, doesn’t it? It reminded me that Valentine’s Day is Thursday. Time to find or make a card, and perhaps shop for a book or two for my best hiking partner. Speaking of him….

As Jeff and I head for the parking lot at Belmont Prairie, the great-horned owl calls from the treeline that hems the tallgrass. I hear the soft murmur. Who-Who- Hoooo.

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Jeff and I once found a great horned owl here—perhaps this very one— in daylight, high in a tree on the edge of the grasses. I owl-prowl sometimes through the woods, hunting for bone and fur-filled scat pellets under trees. Find a pellet under a tree, look up, and you’ll occasionally get lucky and see an owl.

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I think about Mary Oliver’s poem, “Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard,” which begins….”His beak could open a bottle… .” As someone who teaches  nature writing in the Chicago region, I love to read this poem to my students. The sounds of Oliver’s word choices  (“black, smocked crickets”), her contrasts of terror and sweet, and her descriptions  (“when I see his wings open, like two black ferns”) remind me of the joy of words, images, and our experiences outdoors.

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Oliver’s poem about the owl ends; “The hooked head stares from its house of dark, feathery lace. It could be a valentine.”

The owl calls again. I think of the people and prairie I love. And, the joy that sharing a love of wild things with others can bring.

It’s a happiness not quite like any other. Try it yourself. And see.

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Mary Oliver (1936-2019), whose words from Owls and Other Fantasies opens this blogpost, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet (1984, American Primitive) and winner of the National Book Award (1992, New and Selected Poems). Her admonition, “Pay attention. Be astonished! Tell about it.,” is some of the best advice I know. She died in January.

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All photographs copyright Cindy Crosby, from Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL, unless noted (top to bottom): beach umbrellas, Sanibel Island, Florida; sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus); Canada rye (Elymus canadensis); parking lot at sunset;  grasses on the prairie;  creek through the prairie; Canada geese (Branta canadensis) heading home; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) at sunset; crescent moon over the tallgrass; ice in the grasses; creek ice with new growth; downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; red fox (Vulpes vulpes), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; sunset over the prairie; Belmont Prairie treeline;  treeline at the edges of the prairie; Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) with common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pappus.

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