“There was nothing so real on the prairie as winter, nothing so memorable.” — Martha Ostenso
It’s that time of year on the prairie. You know. That time. Frigid temps. Icy trails that make it an effort to get from point “A” to point “Z.” Add a brutal wind, and it lessens any desire on my part to emerge from piles of blankets on the couch, or to leave my stack of library books and mug of hot chocolate.
There are reasons to go outside, however. Especially for those of us who love snow.
Or wonders in the sky. The lunar eclipse, or what was popularly called the “super wolf blood moon eclipse,” lured me out to my back porch after dark this week. In the western suburbs of Chicago, we had a savagely cold night for viewing, but oh! What a view! The moon seemed to chase Orion across the night sky as it progressed through its different darkened stages. Crisp stars sparkled as a backdrop for the eclipse. I returned inside long past my bedtime.
It was a good reminder: When you forgo being outside in January, the life of the natural world goes on as usual. It doesn’t miss your presence. But you are the poorer for missing the moment.
One particular afternoon this week, despite the breathtaking cold, Jeff and I hike the Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve, an 1,800 acre-plus natural area that is, one of three regionally significant grassland bird communities in the state.
Springbrook Prairie is home to short-eared owls, and is a confirmed site for nesting turkey vultures. Bobolinks and dickcissels can be heard singing in the spring. Springbrook also hosts the state-endangered northern harrier.
Today, however, nothing much moves in the wind except the brittle grasses and spent wildflowers.
A hawk flies up out of the tallgrass in the distance. Could it be the northern harrier? We hike faster, crossing our fingers.
It settles into a tree. We move in for a closer look.
Red-tailed hawk. Common? Sure. Still magnificent. Although not the northern harrier we’d hoped for.
The rest of the bird life of Springbrook is noticeably silent. The Arctic winds that cause us to wrap our scarves more tightly around our heads are most likely the reason. But there is life here besides the red-tailed hawk. A ball gall next to the trail reminds us. Somewhere inside the gall, a tiny insect larvae is waiting to emerge. Pretty smart, I think, to spend days like today encapsulated in a warm sphere.
The sharp wind seems to be in my face, no matter which way I hike.
It sculpts blue shadows in the snow, carves ripples into the white stuff; scoops out gullies.
Tiny prints necklace the prairie, made by a tiny mammal. Brave—or hungry—to be out in this bitter cold. I remind myself I need to re-learn mammal tracks.
There are cars in the parking lot of the preserve, but we don’t see a soul on the trails. Springbrook Prairie is so vast! Few prairies in Illinois today offer these sweeping vistas in every direction. As we hike up a rise, we see clouds piled up in the east, more than 20 miles away over Lake Michigan. Part of the lake effect.
Looking north, the preserve’s wetlands are partially frozen and and quiet.
In the west, the prairie could be a landscape painting. Or an old sepia photograph, perhaps.
A living painting or photograph, that is. The ball gall, the hawk, and the mammal tracks remind me of this. Under the ground, the deep roots of prairie plants wait. In only months, they’ll push green spears through the soil and completely change this icy world of the prairie I see today.
I realize I can no longer feel my fingers. Wind-burnt, frozen, we begin the hike back to the car and turn up the heater as high as it will go. Grateful for the warmth. But still…glad to have been a part of the life of the prairie for a moment. Content to have been present to our “landscape of home.”
And… ready for that hot chocolate and those library books.
Novelist and poet Martha Ostenso (1900-1963) immigrated with her family from Norway to Manitoba, then Minnesota. After living in New York City, she moved to Los Angeles and became a screenwriter. She died of complications from alcoholism. The Wild Geese (1924) is her best-known novel, and, as her publisher writes, “Set on the windswept prairies, it is…a poignant evocation of loneliness… .”
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby, and taken this week at Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve, Naperville, IL, except where noted (top to bottom): snowfall at the intersection of the collections and wetland prairie plantings on the West Side of The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL; super wolf blood moon eclipse over author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), trail through the tallgrass; red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis); red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis); ball gall on goldenrod (probably either Solidago canadensis or Solidago altisissima) made by the goldenrod gall fly (Eurosta solidaginis); bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) in the tallgrass; blue shadows and spent wildflowers and prairie grasses; possibly mouse or vole tracks in the snow; prairie wetlands; looking west on the prairie.
Thanks to Jennifer Crosby Buono, who explained the lake effect snow cloud formations to me that we saw to the east, and provided me with the link in the post.
For more information on galls, check out this interesting article from Entomology Today.