Tag Archives: sunset

Flights of (Prairie) Imagination

“…words are all we have of wings.” — Mark O’Connor

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There’s nothing like an air travel delay to offer hours of unplanned time to ponder the miracles of flight. This week, I traded Illinois’ tallgrass prairies for Gulf Coast beaches, with about a break-even in temperature (it’s 98 down south; 96 on the prairie as I type this).  It might be easy to get snarly about a three hour delay on the flight home and easily undo all the tranquility of a week’s vacation. Tranquility can be only surface deep sometimes; with tension lurking just under the surface.

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But instead,  I decide to think over the past week. One of the great aspects of displacement is exposure to unfamiliar flora and fauna.  It offers you a chance to see the world with new eyes. It reminds you what a diverse and delightful place the world can be.

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I miss the tallgrass prairie wildflowers, which I know are spectacular this week.

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I remind myself of this as I admire the neon hues of Florida hibiscus.

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In Florida, the familiar jostles against the unfamiliar. Across the beaches; over the ponds and mangrove pools, dragonflies and damselflies tirelessly patrol for mosquitoes.  A new place means new species of tropical dragonflies. This gives me an excuse to peruse Odonata websites, in search of names.  Such glorious colors! Like this scarlet skimmer.

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And funky patterns….

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… like the ones on this four-spotted pennant. (Could have guessed the name of this one, right?) . I feel a bit nostalgic for the dragonflies and damselflies that are patrolling the prairies back home—just a two-and-a-half hour jet flight away.

But it’s the birds that demand my full attention. Shorebirds. Herons of every possible description and hue.

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Yellow-crowned night herons in full breeding plumage.yellowcrownednightheronbreedingplumageDingDarlingWM618.jpg

Some are familiar visitors to the prairie during migration or in the summer. These white pelicans, for example. You’d think this photo was taken in Florida…

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… but in fact, these white pelicans were ones I saw at Nachusa Grasslands at the end of last month. Down south now, I wonder about their migration patterns.  What do they think of the change from beach to prairie and back again? Is it as jolting for them as it is for me?

Beach birds like the pelicans will find the company they keep in Illinois a little different.  Although the tallgrass prairie birds have some startling color combinations…

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…Florida’s roseate spoonbill’s bright pink screams for your attention.

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Hard for our little prairie Henslow’s sparrow to compete, isn’t it?

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Despite all the color and sizzle and “gee-whiz-look-at-me” that the Gulf Coast beaches and their birds and dragonflies have to offer…

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…there is truly (as Dorothy said in the Wizard of Oz) “no place like home.”

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I can’t wait to be back on the prairie.

***

Opening quote is from the poem, “The Mutton Birds,” by Australian Mark O’Connor (1945-), in “The Olive Tree: Collected Poems.”

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): alligator (Aligator mississippiensis) in lily pond, Sanibel Island, FL; yellow crowned night heron in breeding plumage (Nyctanassa violacea),  J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, FL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hibiscus (Hibiscus, unknown species), Sanibel Island, Florida; scarlet skimmer dragonfly (Crocothemis servilia), Captiva Island, Florida; four-spotted pennant dragonfly (Brachymesia gravida), Captiva Island, Florida; juvenile tri-colored heron (Egretta tricolor), J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, FL; yellow crowned night heron (Nyctanassa violacea) in breeding plumage, J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, FL; American white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bob-o-link (Dolichonyx oryzivorus), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; roseate spoonbill (Platalea ajaja), J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florida; Henslow’s sparrow (Ammodramus henslowii), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; sunset on Captiva Island, Florida; sunset on Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL.

Wonders on the Prairie’s Edge

“When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else.” — Georgia O’Keeffe

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If you want to get to know a flower, sit with it for an hour. Put down your camera and break out a sketchpad. I reminded myself of this truism as I marveled at the bloodroot in bloom this week. There is a large colony, right on the edges of the prairie proper. Before the prairie becomes a riot of wildflowers later in the spring, there is a chance to really focus on single species.

Little on the prairie is in flower right now, other than the pasque flowers beginning to fade, in their dreamy sort of way of saying goodbye…

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…and the wood betony crinkling into the promise of bloom—soon!

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Meanwhile, bloodroot is throwing a party on the prairie edges. In one sunny patch, I counted more than 500 blooms. I’ve always thought the best way to really get to know a plant is to sit with it for a while. So, I found a little bare patch in the colony and settled in for an hour with my sketchpad.

When you draw a plant –regardless of your artistic skill–you see it with new eyes.

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As I sketched, I thought about some reading I did about bloodroot recently in preparation for teaching my spring wildflower classes. I ran across a scholarly, yet charming, article for the Virginia Native Plant Society from W. John Hayden at University of Richmond. The bloodroot’s life strategy, Hayden says, is “Hurry, wait, and hedge against uncertain fate.”

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Because bloodroot blooms so early in the spring, Hayden tells us, it has some fascinating ways to ensure pollination. Flowering so early is risky. Bloodroot flowers close during cold, drizzly spring weather and also at night, making it tough for insects (mostly bees) to pollinate the plant.

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Pollinators were busier on this sunny day than jets over Chicago O’Hare International  Airport. Honey bees from our prairie hives regularly dropped in, probably disappointed to discover the bloodroot flower is devoid of nectar. Pollen, however, it has in spades.

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Bee flies—fuzzy flies that imitate bees—were frequent visitors as well.

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Plus a host of other insects that moved too fast for me to try and ID them.

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As I sketched different plants in various stages of emergence and bloom, I looked closely for the first time at the way they held their leaves.

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Jack Sanders, author of The Secrets of Wildflowers, compares emerging bloodroot to a mother protecting her baby with her cloak (the veiny scalloped leaf wrapped around flower stalk and bud). Apt description, isn’t it?

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As I sketched one bloodroot bud, I was astonished to see it begin to unfold! I grabbed my camera. In less than 60 seconds, it went from almost closed to completely open.

 

As the bloodroot seeds drop to the ground, ants pick them up and carry them back to their nests. The seeds hold a fleshy treat called elaiosome, which the ant will enjoy. Try saying that word out loud! It sounds like a secret password for something exciting, doesn’t it? (Elaiosome!)

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The discarded seed is dispersed away from the mother flower, and has fertile ground—the ant nest—to sprout from. The second vocabulary word for me of the day was myrmecochory, a tongue-twister which means simply means “seed dispersal by ants.”

In My First Summer in the Sierra, John Muir wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

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The complexity and relationships of just one species of wildflower are a good reminder of Muir’s observation.

I put away my sketchpad and marvel.

How can we not?

****

Artist Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-)  grew up in Wisconsin, one of seven children. She studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, and also in New York. She married Alfred Stieglitz, a photographer and art dealer. Known for her renderings of flowers, O’Keeffe died in 1986, almost completely blind at 98, but still finding ways to paint.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) with honeybee (Apis sp.), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) with bee fly (Bombyliidae family) Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) with unknown flying pollinator, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; video of bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) opening, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Our Inland Prairie Sea

“The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea.”—Isak Dinesen

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To refer to the tallgrass prairie as a “sea of grass” is almost cliché.

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And yet, when you juxtapose sea and prairie, you understand why the image comes so readily.

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Like many suburban Chicago prairie lovers, in the mud season of the year—late February to mid-March—I do my best to migrate south for a few days. Sunshine, salt water, and sandy beaches are restorative.

The sky over the Gulf of Mexico reminds me of the sky of the tallgrass prairie; open, limitless.

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The flattened waves of prairie grasses and wildflowers, weathered by wind and rain…

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…with blue-shadowed pockets of snow…

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…are in my mind as I watch waves slap the shore.

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Funny, isn’t it? Even when we leave the landscape we call home, it haunts us.

It’s not that everything is similar—far from it! The birds are different from those of the prairie in so many ways. The food they eat.

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The way they move.

 

 

Even their attitude.

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Many of the Gulf Coast birds I see are readying themselves for a long flight north. Soon, migration will bring them and others through the flyways of the Chicago region.

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No matter where I look in Florida, I find unexpected reminders of my life as a prairie steward.

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As much as I enjoy getting away from the Midwest in early March, my mind keeps wandering from the beach back to what’s going on in the tallgrass up north. Am I missing out on a prescribed burn? Has the skunk cabbage leafed out yet? What new birds are singing along Willoway Brook?

After five days in Florida, I’m ready to dive back into my prairie work.

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One great thing about traveling: At the end of the day…

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…sometimes a little displacement makes you appreciate the place you call home.

*****

Isak Dinesen (Baroness Karen Blixen) (1885-1962) authored Out of Africa and Babette’s Feast. Both were adapted as movies, and won Academy Awards.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Captiva Island sunset, Florida; Captiva Island beach, Florida; Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie at the end of February, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  blue-shadowed pockets of snow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; waves on the beach, Captiva Island, Florida; willet (Tringa semipalmataeating a crab (species unknown), Sanibel Island, Florida; video of sanderlings (Calidris albaand other shorebirds, Sanibel Island, Florida; great black-backed gull (Larus marinus), Sanibel Island, Florida; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Buckthorn Lane street sign, Sanibel Island, Florida; brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalisdiving for fish, Sanibel-Captiva causeway, Florida; sunset with birds, J. N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Sanibel Island, Florida. 

Prairie Maintenance

“Ain’t no use jiving. Ain’t no use joking. Everything is broken…” — Bob Dylan

***

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a prairie steward in possession of a car she believes is reliable will soon be disillusioned.

My 2004 Honda CR-V just turned over 208,000 miles. The mileage doesn’t trouble me much. Until something conks out. This week, it was the driver’s side window that no longer powered down.

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I didn’t really notice that window function until I didn’t have it anymore. Suddenly, driving through the java shop for my morning coffee, picking up a prescription at the drugstore drive-through window, or going by the gatehouse at the arboretum where I’m a prairie steward became awkward. Opening the door to offer money or information or an admission pass back and forth, especially when temperatures are zero-ish, can herd your thoughts into a bad mood for the day.

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Of course, car repair problems are never solo. They swirl in like sandhill cranes, one following the other…ever multiplying before your eyes.

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The gas cap swing door now refuses to flip out, and I find myself manually prying it open whenever my tank registers “E.” A brake light gave up the ghost. And—what’s this? The bright “check engine” light stares back at me from the dash. Bob Dylan’s song “Everything is Broken,” plays continually on my mental soundtrack.

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It’s time to trade it in. This, from my husband, who has been patient with the repairs we’ve done over the past 14 years. I’ve always prided myself on not getting attached to “stuff.” But I admit it—I’m sentimental about my car. It’s the first new vehicle I ever bought especially for myself. I haggled over the price with the dealer, customized it with a roof rack for my kayak, and waited until it was available in my favorite color, blue. It regularly  hauls a dozen seed collection buckets, weeders, dragonfly nets, loppers, large thermoses of coffee, a giant orange cooler of water,  tarps, and other accouterments of a prairie steward for countless volunteer work mornings.

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Of course, as a prairie steward hauling tools around,  I’m responsible for a different set of repairs. The tallgrass site I help supervise is always, it seems, in need of some sort of maintenance.

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This season, we’ll tackle the usual problems: cutting buckthorn and honeysuckle creeping around the prairie edges; pulling Queen Anne’s lace, garlic mustard, and yellow rocket where it pops up in our high-quality plantings. It doesn’t take long for sweet clover and crown vetch to creep in and plot their take-over strategies. Birds-foot trefoil? Always ready to slip in under the radar.  Fixing the trouble spots calls for a series of small, necessary “repairs” that require vigilance and continual maintenance.

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Occasionally, the warning light trips on. Check the engine. Last season, it was an infiltration of reed canary grass that stormed a high quality area and suddenly seemed everywhere. Ditto for some rogue brambles that shaded out a previously diverse section of wildflowers while going mostly unnoticed. These started as small problems, but neglected, got steadily worse. Now, both are major repair jobs.

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Some of the repairs I can tackle on my own. Others require a team of volunteers or staff. We all work together, keeping the tallgrass prairie engine humming.

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The prairie, like my old CR-V, is always going to be in need of management. It will always need a certain amount of routine maintenance, like prescribed fire, even when there are no obvious “repairs” to be done. It’s a work in progress.

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Which brings me back to my Honda. At some point, the repairs will become too much. We’ll trade in my old CR-V for a vehicle with less mileage on it. Cars, no matter how many times you repair and carefully maintain them—and no matter the nostalgia you feel for the roads you’ve traveled together—eventually give out.

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Which is, perhaps, where the comparison of prairie and beloved Honda ends.

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My vehicle will eventually tick off its last odometer mile.  But the more mileage the prairie has on it, the more promise it holds. The older the prairie, the richer its history.  The deeper, more tenacious, the roots. The stronger the ties to the land.

The maintenance and care we give it each year helps it become more beautiful with age. It encourages me to know this. As I keep making the repairs.

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Bob Dylan (1941-), whose words kick off this post, is an award-winning songwriter and musician. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. “Everything is broken” is a good song for every car owner—or any prairie steward struggling with a restoration—to give a listen to. It makes me smile—and I hope it makes you smile, too. If you’re a Jane Austen fan, you probably also noticed the “wink wink” reference to the opening lines of Pride and Prejudice.  One of the most famous lines in literature! I’m sure Austen never envisioned her words referring to a car.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) Honda at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison) at Nachusa Grasslands, the Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area, Department of Natural Resources, Medaryville, Indiana;  broken compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum) blooms, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove Park District, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum) leaf, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove Park District, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove, IL;  late summer at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; volunteers hauling brush and grasses, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Belmont Prairie in January, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove Park District, The Nature’s Conservancy, Downer’s Grove, IL; Honda at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; sunset, Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Tallgrass Ice Magic

“Everything is always becoming something else.” — Gretel Ehrlich

***

January’s vivid prairie sunsets remind me of the black light posters I had in the early ’70s. Pow! Unbelievable colors. You wouldn’t expect this in a landscape you thought had gone all taupe grasses and gray skies.

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What amazements winter keeps pulling out of her bag of tricks! The whims and vagaries of weather brought about both ice and thaw this week. My backyard prairie pond glassed in plants and leaves.

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Down in the still-frozen shallows of Willoway Brook on the Schulenberg Prairie, the broken stalks of white wild indigo lay tangled up in blue snow shadows.

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Along the shoreline, milkweed pods stand ready to serve as makeshift boats. Spilled of their floss, they could float downstream in a thaw; sailing a million miles away. My mind seems to drift off that far in January sometimes as well. Anything seems possible.

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Along the brook where the current runs deep, there’s thaw. So much tension! The muscle of ice against water, the push and pull of solid to liquid.

Transitions.

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I always find transitions difficult. But they often signal some sort of breakthrough. January is a good moment to pause and reflect on this. Be encouraged, instead of discouraged by these passages, these changes.

Meanwhile, Willoway Brook wrestles with its own transitions. Ice splinters and fractures. Shards tumble downstream. The water sings of spring on the way. Soon. Soon.

The ice, cold and slick, is a foil for the other sensory pleasures of the prairie this month. Today, it’s bright sun.  Tomorrow, it might be a shroud of fog across the grasses. Breathe in, and you inhale the taste of evaporating snow in the air.

Lean down, and touch a rasp of sandpapery compass plant leaf…

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…or listen to the castanet rattle of milkvetch pods, holed by insects, each with its cache of dry seeds beating time in the breeze. In the clear air of January, sound seems to travel a little farther than other months.

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The brittle and the rough stand in sharp contrast to the last soft brushes of little bluestem, still holding rich color in the otherwise bleached-out grasses.

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All of these pleasures add their joy to these January days. The ever-present geese honk their lane changes, flying across the jet contrails which criss-cross the sky.

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And each day—as the sun burns its way up through the east and then falls in flames to the west—you know the January cycle of freeze-thaw, freeze-thaw, is bringing spring a little bit closer.

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But for now…

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…enjoy every moment of the magic of ice and snow.

*****

Gretel Ehrlich’s quote, which opens this essay, is from her book, The Future of Ice, written about her love for winter and the perils of climate change. My favorite of her books is The Solace of Open Spaces. If you haven’t read her writing, it’s good company for a cold January evening.

All photos/video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sunset on the Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  authors backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; Willoway brook thaw video, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada milkvetch (Astragalus canadensis) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada geese (Branta canadensis) and contrails, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset, edge of the Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; ice on the author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL. 

Practicing Prairie Patience

The prairie is patient. When drought sets in, as it inevitably does, prairie grasses bide their time. They do not flower without the nourishment to make good seed. Instead, they save their resources for another year when the rains have fallen, the seeds promise to be fat, and the earth is moist and ready to receive them. The prairie teaches us to save our energies for the opportune moment.” –Paul Gruchow

***

I love to read. But I just put down Thomas Friedman’s new book, Thank You for Being Late about the too-rapid, frenzied acceleration of climate change, technology, and globalization in the world because—I confess—I felt  it was too slow-paced.  I was impatient.

The irony of this is not lost on me.

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If I slow down and pay attention to my life closely enough, I see particular patterns emerge. If I listen to my life, certain messages are repeated. Lately, the messages and patterns are all about my need to relearn patience. Take things slowly. Sit with decisions. Wait.

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Two years ago, I blew out my knee while hiking in the snow and ice on the 606, Chicago’s terrific new urban trail. Since then, I’ve become much more aware of my own limitations. Because I have to physically slow down, it’s forced me to slow down in other ways. To become more attentive. More patient with myself. More patient—hopefully—with others.

But I can’t say it’s been easy.

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Until I was forced to slow down, I thought I was a pretty patient person. But there’s nothing like congratulating yourself on a virtue you think you have to discover how pitiful your abilities really are. Patience? Let’s see what she’s got. You quickly realize your illusions about yourself.

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In the last few months,  I’ve been invited to practice patience. Sitting in hospital waiting rooms. Long hours of car travel. Trains that didn’t run as scheduled. Cancelled flights. Jets that sat on the tarmac without taking off. Listening to endless loops of “on hold” music on the phone while watching time tick away. Anxious hours waiting for our new granddaughter to be born. Waiting for a response from someone I e-mailed weeks ago about a project.  Waiting for the temperature to warm up past zero so I can hike longer than 20 minutes at a stretch. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.

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Those of us who love the tallgrass and work with prairie restoration are well acquainted with patience.  We know the power of waiting. Nothing worthwhile happens on the prairie without it.

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And yet. Our world values speed. It values brevity. It promotes instant gratification. One click! Is “next day” not soon enough? How about the same day, then? Faster! Faster! 

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The prairie reminds me that many good things take patience. The pale purple coneflower seedhead below is an echo of numerous cycles of  freeze and fire; sprout and leaf; bud and bloom.

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In only weeks, the prairie will be touched by flames again. Floods of flowers will follow.

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None of this can be rushed. That’s part of the beauty of the whole. What makes it so meaningful.

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Think about it. Slow might be the way to go. Take a minute and look.  Don’t be in such a hurry.

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With the prairie as my model, I’ll keep trying to practice patience.

Difficult. But worth it.

***

Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) was a Minnesota writer who wrote such beautiful books as Travels in Canoe Country; The Boundary Waters: Grace of the Wild; Journal of a Prairie Year; The Necessity of Empty Places; and Grass Roots: The Universe of Home from which this opening quote was taken.

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All photographs copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Belmont Prairie Preserve at sunset, six degrees, Belmont Prairie Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Belmont Prairie Preserve Association, Downer’s Grove, IL; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Belmont Prairie Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Belmont Prairie Preserve Association, Downer’s Grove, IL; old apple tree (Malus unknown species), Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; shadows in the snow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock leaf (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; probably Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Belmont Prairie Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Belmont Prairie Preserve Association, Downer’s Grove, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Belmont Prairie Preserve Association, Downer’s Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) seedhead, Belmont Prairie Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Belmont Prairie Preserve Association, Downer’s Grove, IL; pale purple coneflowers (Echinacea pallida) (foreground), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) seedhead, Belmont Prairie Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Belmont Prairie Preserve Association, Downer’s Grove, IL;sunset on the Belmont Prairie Preserve, six degrees, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Belmont Prairie Preserve Association, Downer’s Grove, IL.

A Prairie Pause

“Every day I see or hear something that more or less kills me with delight…it is what I was born for—to look, to listen… .” — Mary Oliver

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First-timers to the prairie in December may be underwhelmed. The grass colors are draining away; plants are nibbled and ragged. Shopworn.

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But, as the opening lines of the Mary Oliver poem above suggest, for those who hike and look during these gray days, December has its rewards.  Kaleidoscope skies delight us in the afternoons, straight out of a Van Gogh painting.

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Slow-burning sunsets, trailing scarves of fire, deliver quiet satisfaction. They end  some of the shortest days of the year.

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As a prairie steward at two different sites, I find December is a good time to reflect on the coming season. At home, I scribble in my notebook. RCG? means, “What will I do about the reed canary grass we can’t get rid of that’s infesting a high-quality area of the prairie?”  That caricature of a flower next to it is purple loosestrife, which consistently mounts a stealth operation into the west end of the stream from a subdivision across the road. A reminder that constant vigilance is the price of an invasive-free waterway.

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All of these invasive plants will be put on an “alert” list and dealt with in 2018. But for now, they are just words on paper. Something to think about in the abstract.

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And then, there is my prairie “wish list.” Oh, such possibilities! Maybe, adding a little cardinal flower in the wetter areas.

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Along the streambank, where the native Illinois bundleflower has become an aggressive bully,…

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…I can proactively place great blue lobelia. These “blues” may take root, and chase some of my problem plants away. Or, so I hope.

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I digitally page through online native plant nursery catalog offerings, make notes, calculate costs. Wonder what the possibilities might be. I pore over my prairie plant inventory list, made this season. What plants have gone missing this year? Who is new that showed up to the party, uninvited? Which species is getting a little aggressive, a little too territory-hungry? A little less monarda—a little more pasqueflower? 

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In my faith tradition, December is a time of waiting. A time of anticipation. Preparation. On the prairie, as a steward, I find the month of December to be much the same.

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A rest from herbicide management, writing workday summaries, or thinking about dragonfly populations in the creeks and ponds of the prairie wetlands.

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I like this rhythm of the seasons. I need a pause, one in which I’m not pulling weeds; collecting seeds. Sure, there are tasks that can be done—I’m still trying to wrap up some spreadsheets, finish some year-end reports—but let’s be clear. Nothing is screaming “spray me now!” No seeds I need are being eaten by birds, or explosively shooting off into the grasses before they can be collected.

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There is time to catch up on unread piles of articles; to thumb leisurely through a book or two on prairies that I’ve been meaning to read. Find journal essays online about dragonflies. Set workshop dates to train new monitors. Compare notes with other stewards. There is time—precious time—to untangle my thoughts.

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With gray skies wrapped around our days like a smothering cloak, the impulse to be indoors, instead of out, is strong.  No warm breezes beckon. I don’t wonder if I’m missing a new dragonfly species when I curl up on the couch with a mug of hot tea.  I don’t worry that the sweet clover has, seemingly overnight, overrun a new portion of the tallgrass. I can take a break, guilt-free. December is a simpler month; a welcome interlude in the busyness of the life of the prairie.

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I don’t know what the new year holds. I prepare as best I can. Scribble lists. Reflect. Dream a little. Prepare. Anticipate. Scribble some more.

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When I’m out hiking the trails, I imagine the prairies as they will be, vibrant and blooming in the spring. I look at them now, clear-eyed. Yes, they are brittle, a little shaggy. Ragged under their sprinkle of new snow. Different. But no less beautiful. Then I retreat back home to make a few more lists.

And I savor the pause.

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The opening verse is from Mary Oliver’s poem, “Mindful.” If you haven’t read the whole poem, and you love volunteering or caring for the tallgrass prairie in some way throughout the year, this poem is for you. Read it here.  It’s beautiful. Oliver (1935-) won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984. Her newest poetry collection is Devotions.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): prairie dock leaf (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cloudy December skies over the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Gensburg-Markham Prairie Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, and Northeastern Illinois University, Markham, IL:  vigilant bullfrogs (Lithobates catesbeianus)  Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; ice in Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Nomia Meadows Farm prairie and wetlands, Franklin Grove, IL; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, Il; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; path through Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), female, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ball gall at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL.