Tag Archives: switchgrass

Prairie Tricks and Treats

“You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.” — Annie Dillard

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Mother Nature pulled out her bag of tricks this weekend. First up: tropical storm Olga. She swept into the Chicago region Saturday, washing out roads and flooding creeks. Pools of water stand on the prairie. Wind decoupages the savanna trails with sifted leaves.

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Willoway Brook muscles over its banks, surging and submerging.

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Our resident great blue heron watches the weather unfold from a high bare branch.  Despite the bird’s great size, it weighs only five or six pounds. Why? Its bones are hollow.

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I watch the heron, and wonder. Male? Or female? Cornell, my favorite bird resource, tells me the female heron is smaller; otherwise, males and females look mostly similar.  Huh. Not much help, I’m afraid.

Olga, her temper tantrum spent, moves on and Sunday dawns to a scoured-blue sky. Jeff and I stroll the Belmont Prairie  to celebrate. The storm burnishes the Indian grass and big bluestem to bronze, copper, and golds; puffs of soaked seedheads soften the metallic stalks. The post-storm light so bright it almost hurts. It’s a treat after all that gloom and rain.

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Water-soaked rattlesnake master dries its seedheads in the sunshine.

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Its sharp-spined leaves are as striking as its seedheads, and makes it easy to spot in the tallgrass.

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Signs of recent restoration seed collection are everywhere. Clumps of Indian grass are lopped off. Some forbs show signs of positive pilfering. Belmont prairie volunteers have been busy! However, most thimbleweed seeds are still around, in all possible stages of seed production.

Tight and “green.”

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Q-tip topped.

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A few are full-blown. Ready for collection.

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All at once, or so it seems, the tall coreopsis leaves have turned the colors of a sunrise. A treat for the eyes.

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Tricks of the cold? Or of the shorter days? I’m not sure. I only know that autumn has come calling, and the prairie is transformed.

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Sunday’s sunshine gave way to fog on Monday. The Schulenberg Prairie is wreathed in mist.

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As I hike, the rising sun briefly lights the prairie.

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I watch it pull over the horizon, then sputter to a spark.

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It disappears behind the clouds. Poof! Gone.

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Even without much light, the prairie glows in the fog. Little bluestem and stiff goldenrod thread themselves into an impressionistic tapestry.

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The savanna offers its own colorful morning treats. Sumac. Boneset. Pale prairie plantain.

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Joe Pye weed and woodland sunflowers swirl seed-clouds under the changing leaves.

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Simple pleasures.

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Familiar seedheads, like these tall coreopsis, seem unfamiliar in the fog.

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Tricks of the light.

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The smell of sweet decay after the storm is oddly energizing. In less than a week, rain has soaked the prairie. Sun has baked it. Cold changed its colors. Now, the mist acts as a moisturizer. Fog dampens my skin. There’s a low hum of bird chatter low in the grasses; a nuthatch beeps its toy horn call from the savanna. My jeans are soaked.

I’m fully awake. Fully relaxed. Content.

The prairie at the end of October is a treat for the senses. It’s tough to see the month go.

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Goodbye, October.

We hardly knew ya.

*****

The quote that opens this post is from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. I reread this book every year, and learn something new each time I do so.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom):  leaves on the savanna trail, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook in flood, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; great blue heron (Ardea herodias), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Belmont Prairie at the end of October, Downer’s Grove, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccaolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccafolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; tall coreoposis (Coreopsis tripteris), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie in the morning fog, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  morning fog over bridge, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bridge to the sun, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunrise with tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; little bluestem (Schizochryum scoparium) and stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie Savanna at the end of October, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie Savanna at the end of October, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown sumac (Rhus spp.), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ritibida pinnata) with switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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Join Cindy! Upcoming Speaking and Events

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online wraps up this month! Watch for the next course in March. Registration opens on November 19 here.

Nature Writing continues at The Morton Arboretum, on-line and in-person through November 20. Next session begins March 3, 2020. Watch for registration soon!

Saturday, December 7, 1:30-3 p.m.: Join Cindy and The Morton Arboretum’s library collections manager Rita Hassert for Sterling Stories from the Arboretum Stacks, at the Sterling Morton Library, Lisle, IL.  Register here. A lovely afternoon enjoying little known Arboretum’s stories, and a quiet respite from the holiday hustle and bustle.

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

See more at www.cindycrosby.com   

The Art of Prairie Attention

“Paying attention: This is our endless and proper work.” — Mary Oliver

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The sun rises through the fog on the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna.

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Everywhere, spiders hang misted veils. The spiders are present every day on the prairie—no doubt—but usually, spider webs are invisible. Until, as the writer Richard Powers writes in The Overstorythey are “dew-betrayed.”

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The spiders’ silk draperies, paired with the prairie’s autumn seed heads and dying leaves, coerced my attention for far longer on Monday morning than planned. My hike–which was supposed to be a doctor-mandated 30 minutes—was extended as I lingered. (Just five more minutes!) But how can you tear yourself away from a morning full of magic? One crystal web chandelier led to another….then another… .

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After the hike, as I enjoyed my morning cup of Joe, I stumbled on a wonderful article from BrainPickings about the art of paying attention. It’s framed around Marla Popova’s review of “On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes” by Alexandra Horowitz. The gist of the book’s message is this: we can re-frame the ordinary by using different lenses to see what we usually miss. In the review, Popova recounts how Horowitz accomplishes “seeing” with new eyes by strolling through her city neighborhood with a visually impaired person,  a geologist, and her dog (to name just three lenses). Intrigued? Me too. Papova calls the book “breathlessly wonderful.” (It’s now on hold for me at the library.)

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I’ve been thinking more these days about the art of paying attention, and what it means to see with new eyes. One lens I use is books. Others writers  prod me to understand and view my familiar places through different lenses. I learn from their words. Then, I “see” more completely. tallcoreopsiswestsideprairieplantingMA93019WM.jpg

After surgery seven weeks ago, the simple act of walking my favorite prairie paths is no longer something I take for granted. What follows are a few images from a morning walk in the fog this week. They are paired with  favorite quotes I think about often, and a few new quotes I gleaned from Popova’s review.

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Read the quotes slowly. Reflect on what they say. Then, tuck these thoughts into your days ahead. I hope they speak to you as they have to me.

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“Attention without feeling is only a report.”–Mary Oliver

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“Choice of attention—to pay attention to this and ignore that—is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer.” –W.H. Auden
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“These days cry out, as never before, for us to pay attention.” — Anne Lamott

 

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“How we spend our days, is of course, how we spend our lives.” — Annie Dillard

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“…we humans generally do not bother paying attention to much other than the visual.” –Alexandra Horowitz

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“For observing nature, the best pace is a snail’s pace.” — Edwin Way Teale

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“To learn something new, take the path that you took yesterday.” — John Burroughs

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“The art of seeing has to be learned.” — Marguerite Duras

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“Half of tracking is knowing where to look; the other half is looking.” — Susan Morse

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“Joys come from simple and natural things; mist over meadows, sunlight on leaves, the path of the moon over water. Even rain and wind and stormy clouds bring joy.” — Sigurd F. Olson

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“As we work to heal the land, the land heals us.”–Robin Wall Kimmerer

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“The art of seeing might have to be learned, but it can never be unlearned, just as the seen itself can never be unseen—a realization at once immensely demanding in its immutability and endlessly liberating in the possibilities it invites.”– Maria Popova

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“Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” — Annie Dillard

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“Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” –Simone Weil

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“Only those items I notice shape my mind.” — William James

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“The  thing you are doing now affects the thing you do next.” — Alexandra Horowitz

 

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“For the mind disturbed, the still beauty of dawn is nature’s greatest balm.” — Edwin Way Teale

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It’s an imperfect world.

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Life can be complicated.

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But often, when I hike the prairie, I feel the magic happening. A sense of wonder. The world feels like a beautiful place again. A place where hope is—perhaps—not out of the question. A place where life is always in process.

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Worth paying attention to.

***

Mary Oliver (1939-2019) was, as the poet Maxine Kumin wrote, “an indefatigable guide to the natural world.” Among her numerous awards were the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.  Thanks to my wonderful husband Jeff, I was fortunate to hear her read and speak at Sanibel Island, Florida, for the Rachel Carson Lecture in 2014. Oliver died early this year at the age of 83.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby, taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL unless noted otherwise: (Top to bottom)  fog over Willoway Brook; spiderwebs on asters (Symphyotrichum spp.), West Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris) with spiderwebs, West Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris) with spiderwebs, West Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) with spiderwebs; Willoway Brook in the fog; bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae); switchgrass (Panicum virgatum); unknown spider’s web; braided ladies tresses (Spiranthes cerneua); unknown spider building its web over Willoway Brook; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum);  big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); spiderwebs on tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); Hidden Lake Forest Preserve as fog is lifting, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County; Downer’s Grove, IL; unknown spider’s web; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); Schulenberg Prairie covered with dew; dawn over West Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; broken spiderweb; spiderwebs on bur marigolds (Biden spp.), West Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown spider’s webs.

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Cindy’s forthcoming book is Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History with Northwestern University Press (Summer, 2020), illustrated by Peggy Macnamara, artist-in-residence at The Field Museum in Chicago.

Join Cindy for “Nature Writing”, a blended online and in-person class, beginning online Wednesday, October 15! Details here.

Visit www.cindycrosby.com for more information on Cindy’s upcoming speaking and classes.

6 Reasons to Hike the September Prairie

“The days dwindle down; to a precious few; September… .” — sung by Willie Nelson

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Change. Possibilities. Fresh starts.

These are a few of the reasons I welcome the opening week of September on the prairie.  Warm days, cool nights. The mental swap of summer to autumn.

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There are subtle shifts of color as the brights of summer become autumn’s metallic hues.  I sit on the back porch overlooking my prairie planting, listening to the insects sing static. Buzz. Chatter. Hum. The buttered popcorn-cilantro smell of prairie dropseed planted around the yard tickles my nose.

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The first ripe gray-headed coneflower seeds in my prairie patch are ready for collecting. I crumble the seedheads between my fingers. Inhale. Mmmm.  They smell lemony.

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September is a treat for the senses.

Need more motivation to get outside? Here are six compelling reasons to hike the September prairie, whether for a short stroll through your backyard tallgrass patch or a longer walk at your local forest preserve’s tallgrass restoration.

1.  Wind

The grasses  hit their stride in September, and this year’s prairie is particularly lush from early spring rains. Grasses tower over our heads.  Tall wildflowers (called forbs) and some of the rangier grasses flop over in spots; too lanky to stand alone. When the wind ripples through the grasses against a backdrop of cumulus clouds, floating in a cerulean blue sky, you feel the immensity of time and space. A feeling that is often in short supply in the Chicago suburbs.

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In her book, My Antonia, Willa Cather wrote this about the prairie: “As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the color of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.” 

When I can’t fall asleep at night, I close my eyes and imagine the wind moving through the grasses, with the bright blue sky overhead.

2. Gold rush

From the goldfinches to the goldenrod; the tall coreopsis and the last sunflowers…

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… yellow is the primary color of  the early September prairie. American goldfinches bounce like yo-yo’s across the grasses, giving their trademark flight call, “Po-ta-to-chip!” “Po-tat-to-chip!”  Black walnut trees shake their gold leaves loose; pocket change sprinkled across the prairie trails.

In my backyard prairie patch, I watch the paper wasps work the goldenrod blooms for nectar.

 

Wasps are important pollinators. Sure, you don’t want them at your cook-out, but seeing them methodically rummage through the flowers reminds me they have an important role to play on the prairie and in my backyard.

3. Migration Marvels

The migrating monarch butterflies appreciate goldenrod, especially Solidago rigida—the stiff goldenrod—to nectar up for the long journey to Mexico.

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Dragonflies swarm through the tallgrass, zipping just above the big bluestem. This past week, my dragonfly monitors at two different tallgrass prairie sites noted hundreds of green darners— with a few black saddlebags and wandering gliders thrown in —massing and on the move. The Chicago lakefront is another traditional hot spot to see large groups of Odonates headed south.

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This is also the time of year I see the red saddlebags dragonfly in my backyard. Each evening I check the edges of the pond, the garden, and my backyard prairie patch. Will the red saddlebags show up this season? Not yet.

Much of dragonfly migration is still shrouded in mystery, although new discoveries are happening all the time. Read more about how you can help scientists learn more about dragonfly migration here.

4. Grass, Grass, Grass

Each spring, I think the miracle of a burned prairie becoming green shoots and blooms makes it the best possible time of year. In the summer, I reconsider—all that color and motion! In the early days of September, I’m convinced autumn is the best time of year on the prairie.

I turn the names of the grasses over and over in my my mind. A litany of grass. Cordgrass. Switchgrass.

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Indian grass. Side-oats grama.  Little bluestem.

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Grasses dominate. Especially our iconic big bluestem— Illinois’ state grass.

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In her essay, Big Grass,” Louis Erdrich writes: “Grass sings, grass whispers.” Why not go listen?

5. Butterfly Extravaganza

September marks the passing of the season of butterflies. Sure, there are some stragglers in October, but right now is their big finale.

So many butterflies! The buckeyes.

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Painted ladies and monarchs. Silver-spotted skippers.

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A tiny eastern-tailed blue or two; this one resting on chicory.

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Before we know it, they’ll be gone for the season. Take time to stop and watch the butterflies as they nectar on flowers, float above the switchgrass, or swirl in a mating dance as old as time.

6. Filling Station

If you’re wrestling with a problem, or need space to get away from people for a while, the tallgrass prairie is a good destination. I always find transitions in my life and the changes from season to season are an opportunity to stop. Reflect. Revisit some of my preconceptions about my priorities. It’s a chance to slow down. Think. A walk through the tallgrass—or even a stroll around my backyard prairie patch—gives me space to sort through whatever I’m wrestling with. Hiking the prairie fills up my inner well, which fuels creative tasks and the life of the spirit. That well becomes empty without time outdoors.

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You, too?

Happy hiking.

*****

This week’s post opens with Willie Nelson (1933-) singing Kurt Weill’s (composition) and Maxwell Anderson’s (lyrics)  September Song. I’m not particularly a country western aficionado, but a few of  Nelson’s songs always end up on my playlist. Another is Nelson’s cover of Georgia on my Mind from the album, Stardust; my favorite of his collections. Blue Skies is another favorite. There’s a tinge of melancholy in these songs which seem perfect for ushering in autumn.

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All photographs copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) and great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL:  September at Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; possibly narrow-leaved sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius), along Willoway Brook on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Glenbard South High School prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; possibly a dark paper wasp (Polistes fuscates ) on Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; eastern tailed-blue (Cupido comyntas), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, IL; September at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Note that some of these images in today’s blog are from previous September hikes.

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Cindy’s classes and speaking events will resume October 5. See more at www.cindycrosby.com.

A Prairie Ice Age

“Love life first, then march through the gates of each season; go inside nature and develop the discipline to stop destructive behavior; learn tenderness…; listen to the truth the land will tell you; act accordingly.”–Gretel Ehrlich

*****

This week, it was anyone’s bet what the day would bring. Ice storm. Snow storm. Rain. Sleet.

Did I mention a day of almost 50-degree temps? When you live in the prairie states, there is never a lack for conversational topics. Nod, smile, comment on the weather. It’s one of the superficial daily trivialities I missed when I lived briefly in the South. The lack of weather chat there—that prattle I’d taken for granted as a Midwesterner—made me long for my roots and brought me back home.

This week, an ice storm shellacked prairies with a half inch of crystal coating. Everything glittered for  two days. Magical. Even under gray skies.

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When the sun came out, things really sparkled, suspended in time and place.

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The snow was mirrored in the sky. Clouds trailed white scarves across the blue.

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Switchgrass, shorn of much of its beauty since autumn, suddenly attained new glamour.

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Plants turned alien under the ice.

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Grasses glinted gold-foil metallic. Bent and broken under their arches of ice, they wait  for the coming fires of the prescribed burns, less than a month away.

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Squirrels, suspended in space, paused in their wild scrambles on impossibly-thin branches to consider the mercurial goings on of February.

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Trails glowed.

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Bur oaks? The stuff of fantasy.

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Each prairie plant, dipped in ice, bowed under the drippy weight.

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As I hiked the prairie, my mind kicked into glassy overdrive.  Glisten. Crystalline. Shimmer. The words kept coming—tumbling over and over in my head. None of them seemed adequate to describe what I saw. So much extravagance!

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Even the praying mantis egg case in its frozen luster merited a second look.

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Abrupt changes of weather offer fresh shots of paying attention. A reminder of how quickly things change. A memo of how beautiful the world can be. You think that was amazing? Look at this! Each freeze/thaw brings new delights. Each snowstorm causes me to catch my breath, and not just from shoveling.

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Each change of weather causes me to reconsider the familiar.

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I live, slightly on the edge of expectation, wondering what Mother Nature will throw at us next.

You too?

*****

The opening quote is from nature essayist and poet Gretel Ehrlich’s (1946-) The Future of Ice: A Journey into the Cold. Her 1985 debut (and my favorite of her works) is The Solace of Open Spaces, in which she chronicles her time spent working on a Wyoming ranch.

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Preorder Now! Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit by Cindy Crosby and Thomas Dean releases on April 22. $25.95, hardcover, full color photography.  Pre-order at The Morton Arboretum Store or through Ice Cube Press.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): ice storm video, Glen Ellyn, IL; bridge at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, close to prairie plantings, Downer’s Grove, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Schulenberg Prairie and savanna at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown ice-covered vine, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; trail through prairie plantings at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL;  bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bridge over Willoway Brook tributary seen through savanna at Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Chinese praying mantis (Tenodera sinensis) egg case, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; icy grasses at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ice storm at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL.

Join Cindy at Upcoming Events and Classes This Week:

Wednesday, Feb.20, 1:30-3:30 p.m.: Wisconsin Wetlands Association Science Conference, Middleton, WI: Don’t Talk Like a Scientist! Registration here.

Thursday, Feb. 21 &28, 6:30-9 p.m. A History of Wilderness in America, at The Morton Arboretum. We’ll be discussing Wilderness and the American Mind and how our ideas about wilderness have changed through history. Still time to register here.

Saturday, Feb. 23, 11-11:45 a.m.: Wild Things  Conference: The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Shop: Donald Stephen’s Convention Center, Rosemont, IL. Register here.

Extreme Prairie Weather

“Adapt or perish, now as is ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.”–H. G. Wells

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How do you cope with wild swings of weather? How do you make it through a tempestuous, fickle Midwestern winter?

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Here in the Midwest this week, we’ve seen swings of temperature from -25 degrees  below zero to 50 degrees or more. When I hiked the Schulenberg Prairie on Saturday, February 2, this was the view from the prairie bench:

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Compare it to this same view when I hiked the prairie two days later, on Monday, February 4:

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Oh, the difference two days makes in February!

I’ve coped with all this weather change armed with my arsenal of hot drinks, a stack of library books, and a pile of afghans. You too? But I’m not sure I can say I’ve fully “adapted.”

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We worry about our non-native plants—and sometimes, with good reason—because they aren’t adapted to our harsh conditions. These garden plants come from far-flung places, where their beauty and exotic good looks brighten up our yards here. I’m a sucker for some of these plants (Moonflowers! Zinnias! Gallardia!), although I garden mostly for natives.

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There is something wonderfully comforting about the Illinois prairie and its suite of plants. Sure, some of them disappear from season to season, obliterated by unusual weather conditions.  But most of our native prairie plants are made for a rollercoaster climate.

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How do prairie plants navigate extreme weather? What makes them different than the orchid flowering on my kitchen counter, or the scarlet runner beans in my summer garden? Let’s take a hike on the February prairie together and think about some of the  ways native plants cope.

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Deep Roots

The February prairie may look desolate, in its transitions between freeze and thaw; frigid and mild.

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But underneath the surface, there is a lot going on. Many of the barely-there, brittle grasses and wildflower fragments you see around you in February have deep roots. Roots that plunge 15 feet or more deep. These roots hold the promise of spring. The promise of renewal.

Can you imagine? Like a time bomb of the best kind, ready to go off at the right moment.

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The growing points under the ground and deep roots help ensure survival from year to year. When fires sweep across the prairie—once caused by lightning strikes and Native Americans, and now set intentionally to mimic the historical ones —its no problem.

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These adaptations are mostly about what’s invisible to us, under the ground. But what about the visible?

Narrow Leaves 

This article from the Illinois State Museum helps us understand why so many of the prairie plants  have narrow leaves. Yes, it’s no accident! Skinny leaves, because of their slim profile, lose less water to evaporation than our more broad-leaved plants. Cool!

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But wait! What about those broad-leaved prairie plants? How do they cope? Which brings us to…

Orientation

Compass plant is famous for it. Prairie dock does it as well. Turning north and south—orienting your leaves to lose the least amount of moisture—is a great adaptation by certain prairie plants to avoid losing moisture to a brutal prairie sun. Sure, it’s tough to notice this in the depths of February, when compass plant leaves are barely hanging on…

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…or the prairie dock leaves are battered and torn.

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Easier, perhaps, in the heat of a July afternoon. In the 1800s, some naturalists thought this positioning was because  the plants had taken up enough iron in the soil to become magnetic. Now we know this leaf position is another way for plants to brave the harsh elements of a Midwestern summer. Read more about the prairie dock and its leaf orientation in this excellent article by plant guru Christopher Benda,   His article also includes information about long taproots, another prairie plant adaptation.

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As someone who often struggles to adapt to change, I admire the strategies of these plant survivalists. They live in one of the most vulnerable places on Earth—the tallgrass prairie. Yet, they know how to cope. I’ve only touched on a few of their adaptations. There are many, many more to explore.

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This week, as the temperatures have see-sawed back and forth through extremes, I have a new appreciation for prairie plants. You too? Why not go for a hike and admire these prairie plants in person?

Maybe they will inspire you, as they have me. That adaptation to difficult conditions is possible. And—you can learn to accept change.

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The opening quote is by Herbert George “H.G.” Wells (1866-1946), a prolific writer often referred to as “The Father of Science Fiction.” Wells is best known for his books, The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, and The Invisible Man. A trained biologist, he brought his knowledge to bear in The Island of Dr. Moreau, in which he writes of a doctor who tampers with evolution in animals.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bridge at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie bench on Saturday, February 2, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie bench on Monday, February 4, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; author’s backyard prairie during the Polar Vortex (temperature -25 degrees), Glen Ellyn, IL; silhouettes of prairie plants on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray day on the Schulenberg Prairie (looking through the savanna), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; reflections on the Schulenberg Prairie trail, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) leaves, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Schulenberg Prairie savanna on February 4, 2019, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Rumors of Spring

“Wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up…” –Woody Guthrie

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There’s a rumor in northern Illinois that it’s spring. But not a lot of anecdotal evidence to support it. Talk to anyone and you’ll hear the usual early April grouching about gray days, unexpected snow, and temps barely nudging 30 degrees.

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Natural areas managers scramble to get in their last prescribed burns before spring commences in earnest.

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On most prairies,  fire has kissed the tallgrass and gone, leaving the earth stripped and covered with ash. If you don’t look closely, it can all seem a bit melancholy.

But look again.

The prairies are awakening. You can see it in the juxtaposition of what was lost, and what is green and new.

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Listen as April releases her icy grip on the tallgrass and wakes up the streams and springs.

The prairie knows it’s time to get moving.

Wake up, wood betony!

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Just one glimpse of your crinkly maroon leaves reminds me that your lemon-colored blooms are not far behind.

Come on, April wind and rain! Topple the old compass plant stalks that escaped the fires; let them meld with the earth, covered by new growth.

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Wake up, Virginia bluebells!

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I can’t wait until you color the woodlands around the prairies with your impossible blue.

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Pincushion the burned ground with green, prairie dropseed.

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Let’s get this season underway!

I want a front row seat…

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…as the prairie swings into a slow crescendo…

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… as the spring frogs chorus their approval…

…as from the ashes, the prairie is renewed.

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It’s time. Wake up!

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“Wake Up,” the lyrics of which open this post,  was written in 1954 by folk musician Woodrow “Woody” Wilson Guthrie (1912-1967). During his Oklahoma childhood, Guthrie’s older sister died in an accident, his family became bankrupt, and his mother was institutionalized. These tragedies—and later, the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl—gave him empathy with people who suffered, and heavily influenced his music. Guthrie, who died of Huntington’s Disease, wrote everything from children’s tunes to political protest songs. Read more about him here.

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All photos and videos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): gray skies on the prairie, Fermilab Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL; prescribed burn, East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; video–the prairie greens up, Fermilab Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL; snail shell and unknown green sprout on the prairie, Fermilab Prairie Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL; video–water running through the prairie, Fermilab Prairie Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL; wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis) leafing out, Fermilab Prairie Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Fermilab Prairie Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL; Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) leafing out, West Side Woodland, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) in bloom, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bench on Fermilab Prairie Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; frog calls at Crowley Marsh, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands at the end of March, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Prairie Transformations

“The world of dew is the world of dew. And yet, and yet…” — Kobayashi Issa

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It’s cold. I’m tired. But I push myself out the door.

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The sun is just beginning to flood the world with light.

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The burned prairie is flocked with white. An intersection between fire and ice.

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As the cold earth warms under the rising sun, fog settles…

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…casting prairie plants, covered with ice crystals, in sharp relief.

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Once familiar to us…

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…the grasses and wildflowers become something alien, exotic.

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The Japanese poet, Kobayashi Issa, wrote: “Dew evaporates…

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…and all our world is dew…

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…so dear, so fresh, so fleeting.”

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This moment will quickly vanish. And no other morning will be quite like this one.

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A good reason to keep showing up.

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Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828), whose haiku opens this post, was a Japanese poet who is regarded as one of the great Japanese haiku masters. His life was marked by various tragedies: the loss of his first wife and children, a later, unhappy marriage; a house that burned to the ground. Another one of my favorite poems of his: “Reflected in the dragonfly’s eye—mountains.” And, “Don’t worry spiders, I keep house casually.”

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby at Prairiewoods tallgrass prairie and savanna, Hiawatha, Iowa: common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum) unknown prairie plant covered with ice crystals;  burned prairie covered with ice; fog over burned prairie; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) covered with ice in the fog; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) covered with ice, big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)  covered with ice, switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) with fog droplets; unknown oak leaf on burned prairie with ice crystals; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) with fog droplets; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) on frosted prairie.