Tag Archives: switchgrass

A Prairie Season on the Brink

“To everything, turn, turn, turn; there is a season, turn, turn, turn… .” —Pete Seeger

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Now the mercury in the thermometer slips below 30 degrees, although the sun may shine bright in a bright blue sky. Leaves from the savanna float along on Willoway Brook, which winds through the Schulenberg prairie. It’s a time of transition. A time of reflection.

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The first substantial snowfall arrived last night in the Chicago region. This morning, it turned the world blue and black in the dawn light.

Early morning, first snowfall, Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The projects we’ve put off outdoors seem more urgent now. No more procrastinating.

Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Winter is on the way. And this morning, we feel it’s already here.

Snow on prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), early morning, Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

In the garden, the garlic cloves are tucked into their bed of soil with leaves mounded over them as protection against the cold. Next July, as I harvest the sturdy garlic bulbs and scapes, I’ll look back and think, “Where did the time go?” It seems after you turn sixty, the weeks and months just slip away.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I notice the hard freeze Sunday night has marked “paid” to the celery…

Celery (Apium graveolens), Crosby’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…and also to the bok choy I’ve let stand in the garden, hoping to harvest it over Thanksgiving.

Bok choy (Brassica rapa subspecies chinensis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Both will take a light frost and flourish in cooler temperatures. But, they didn’t survive the the dip into the 20s very well on Monday morning. I should have covered them! Ah, well. Too late, now. Although I clean up my vegetable garden beds, I leave most of the prairie plants in my yard standing through winter; little Airbnb’s for the native insects that call them home over the winter. The prairie seeds provide lunch for goldfinches and other birds. I think of last winter, and how the goldfinches and redpolls clustered at the thistle feeders while snow fell all around.

Rare irruption of common redpolls (Acanthis flammea) in March, 2022, feeding with American goldfinches (Spinus tristis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL. Jeff and I counted hundreds of redpolls congregating at a time.

A few miles away on the Schulenberg Prairie, the tallgrass is full of seeds. The prairie tries to see how many variations on metallics it can conjure. Gold…

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…silver…

Common Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…bronze…

Cream gentian (Gentiana alba), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…dull aluminum and copper…

Cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…rust…

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…steel…

White wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), in Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…all here, in the bleached grasses and wildflowers.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

It’s a season on the brink. A turn away from those last surges of energy pumping out seeds to a long stretch of rest.

Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Look at those November skies! You can see change in the shift of weather. You can feel it in the cool nip of the wind.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

On the Schulenberg Prairie, Willoway Brook still runs fast and clear. But it won’t be long now until it is limned with ice.

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Transitions—even seasonal ones—bring with them a little tension. A need to reframe things.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

There’s a sense of letting go. Walking away from some of the old…

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…looking forward to something new.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Transitions wake us up. They force us to do things we’ve put off. They jolt us out of our complacency.

Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Transitions demand that we pay attention. Expend a little energy.

Sure, they can be rough.

Prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

But bring on the change.

Hello, snow. I’m ready for you.

****

The song “Turn, Turn, Turn!” was written by American folk singer Pete Seeger (1919-2014) and performed in the 1950s, then made popular by The Byrds in 1965. If you’re familiar with the Book of Ecclesiastes, in the old King James Version of the Bible, you’ll see the lyrics are almost verbatim from the third chapter, although in a different order. The Limeliters (1962), Pete Seeger (1962), Judy Collins (1966), Dolly Parton (1984), and others have also performed the song. According to Wikipedia, the Byrds version has the distinction in the United States of being the number one hit with the oldest lyrics, as the words are attributed to King Solomon from the 10th Century, BC.

*****

Join Cindy for her last program of 2022!

Wednesday, December 7, 2022 (6:30-8:30 p.m.) 100 Years Around the Arboretum. Join Cindy and Library Collections Manager Rita Hassert for a fun-filled evening and a celebratory cocktail as we toast the closing month of the Arboretum’s centennial year. In-person. Register here.

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Watch for the annual “Reading the Prairie” book review round-up next week! Just in time for the holidays.

Those Spellbinding Tallgrass Trails

“There was still a little green in the grasses, and the dry tops of the fall grasses genuflected in the wind.” —Paul Gruchow

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It’s the last Tuesday in October on the prairie. What an incredible week it’s been! No tricks. Lots of treats.

Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL. Note the squiggly marks left by a leaf miner (possibly Stigmella intermedia or Caloptillia rhoifoliella), which becomes a moth at maturity.

Let’s go for hike and see.

Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

I’m hiking close to a planted prairie kame, a mound of gravel and sand deposited by the glaciers.

Prairie kame (on the right), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Prairie kames seem to pop up lately, wherever I hike. Earlier this month, it was a kame in Kane County. (Try saying that three times fast). Today, it’s a kame here at the DuPage County Forest Preserve.

Prairie kame, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Two kames in one month? A welcome occurrence.

Prairie kame interpretive sign, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

The trails by the prairie are lined with tree color.

Sugar maple (Acer saccharum), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

It would be a shame to walk quickly, and not take time to admire the leaves. Look at that sumac! It’s a jeweled kaleidoscope. Change your point of view and watch the light play with the colors and patterns.

Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Beautiful? You bet. This sumac is native but a bit aggressive, so a mixed blessing on the prairie. Speaking of which…look at those tints and tones; shades and hues.

Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Smooth blue asters, a pop of color.

Smooth blue aster (Symphyotrichum laeve), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

So many asters here that I struggle to identify! My iNaturalist app says to choose between common blue wood aster, Drummond’s aster, and a few others on the aster in the photo below. I’m still unsure; there’s a little “taxonomic instability”—as Illinois Wildflowers notes—between some of the species.

Aster (Symphyotrichum sp.), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

New England asters pump purples. At least there is one aster species easily identifiable!

New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

More sumac glows, as beautiful as any flower.

Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

And the grasses! Let’s talk about the grasses. Look at the little bluestem…

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

…Indian grass…

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

…paired with “spook-tactular” switchgrass.

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) in foreground; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) in background, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Bewitching big bluestem.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Sideoats grama—the state grass of Texas and an Illinois native—are all at peak.

Sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

The seeds of rosinweed mimic the recent flowers, now spent.

Rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Everywhere, the prairie wildflowers have gone to seed. A sea of fluff.

Wildflowers, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

The winds and rain will put paid to the glorious autumn foliage this week.

Sugar maple (Acer saccharum), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

I’ll keep the images of hiking this prairie trail tucked away in my mind to delight in this winter. When the snow flies, I’ll close my eyes and remember the colors…

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

…and be haunted by the memories…

Sugar maple leaves (Acer saccharum) on the prairie kame trail, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

…of this glorious autumn day in the prairie.

*****

The quote that kicks off this blog post is by Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) from his essay “Autumn” from Journal of a Prairie Year. His prairie essays are among my favorites, especially “What the Prairie Teaches Us” from Grass Roots: The Universe of Home. Both books are published by Milkweed Editions.

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Upcoming Programs and Classes

Saturday, November 5, 2022 (10-11:30 am) —Winter Prairie Wonders, hosted by Wild Ones of Gibson Woods, Indiana, in-person and via Zoom. For more information on registering for the Zoom or for in-person registration, visit them here.

Saturday, November 12, 2022 (1-2:30 p.m.) Add a Little Prairie to Your Garden, hosted by the Antioch Garden Club, Antioch, IL. Free and open to the public, but you must register. For information and to inquire about registering for the event, visit the Wild Ones here.

Wednesday, December 7, 2022 (6:30-8:30 p.m.) 100 Years Around the Arboretum. Join Cindy and Library Collections Manager Rita Hassert for a fun-filled evening and a celebratory cocktail as we toast the closing month of the Arboretum’s centennial year. Register here.

March Arrives on the Prairie

“March came in that winter like the meekest and mildest of lambs, bringing days that were crisp and golden and tingling, each followed by a frosty pink twilight… .” ―L. M. Montgomery

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In like a lamb. The first day of March is mild and the forecast shows more of the same. Sunshine, a few clouds. Temperatures that will stretch and hit 50 degrees. The Farmer’s Almanac tells us if March comes in like a lion, it will go out like a lamb. Is the reverse true—will it go out like a lion, then? We’ll find out in a few weeks. Spring is a work in progress.

Crescent moon at sunrise, looking south over Crosby’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Wait, what? Spring? Today—March 1—is the first day of meteorological spring and this year, it’s also Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday. Astronomical spring is March 20, so go ahead — celebrate the first day of spring twice! In the Midwest, March is the month for snow and longer hours of sunlight, for the Northern Hemisphere’s vernal equinox, for tornadoes and the first woodland and prairie wildflowers, for St. Patrick’s Day and Lent, and in some years, Easter. Originally, it was the first month of the old Roman calendar. In my garden, March is the month of snowdrops and crocus blooms. Hyacinth and daffodil shoots peek through the prairie dropseed along the warmest side of the house.

Spring bulbs coming up through prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

This weekend, as Sunday drew to a close, Jeff and I went for a hike at Blackwell Forest Preserve. In winter, it’s a favorite spot for ice fishing and snow tubing. In the summer, kayaks and small motorboats ply the biggest lake as families fish and picnic along the shoreline.

Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Blackwell is also the site of the Urban Stream Research Center, where the federally-endangered Hine’s Emerald dragonfly is being reared in its nymph stage. When the dragonflies are ready to transform from nymph to adult, they are taken to selected locations and released. The Hine’s Emerald adult dragonfly is on my must-see list. I hope 2022 is the year. I’ve only seen the nymph.

Hine’s Emerald Dragonfly (Somatochlora hineana) nymph, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Difficult to believe this nymph will become a beautiful dragonfly, isn’t it? Take a look here to see it in its adult stage.

Tonight, a few archery enthusiasts are out and about the preserve, practicing their skills. A lone ice fisherman collects his gear and heads for his truck. The parking lot is still full of cars, despite the gathering dark. Where is everyone? Perhaps others are out on the trails like we are, enjoying the last half hour before closing time and heading home to start the work week.

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

As we begin our hike, I admire the prairie restoration signs. I don’t remember seeing them before, or that “prairie” was brought to the attention of visitors. Yay!

Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

I’m happy to spy many of my favorite prairie plants. Switchgrass, turning luminous in last light.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) , Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Thimbleweed.

Thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Indian grass limns the shoreline.

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

A small stand of evening primrose stands out against the grasses.

Evening primrose (Oenothera biennis), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Wild blackberry canes thread through the prairie plantings, adding a welcome bit of color. I admire the red, even though as a prairie steward, I know how aggressive this native can be.

WIld blackberry canes (Rubis xxx), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

An alien-looking finger of mullein, ringed with ragged leaves, points toward the sky.

Great mullein (Vervascum thapsus) Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Wild bergamot still holds its minty scent.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

The air smells like melting snow and mud.

Cold and exhilarating.

Sunset, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

It’s almost closing time, so we turn around and start back to the parking lot. But we can’t resist a detour to the bridge.

Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

There, we watch the sunset and scan the frozen water. The tracks on the lake are human, dark and slushy.

Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

I wonder how recent these footprints are? With the temperatures warming, the ice would have been tricky. Were they foolhardy kids? Or were the footprints made much earlier in the week, when the temperatures were bitter and the lake was frozen solid? Difficult to say.

Someone left a message.

Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Sweet! I don’t know if mom would have been happy they were out there, but I’m sure she would appreciate the sentiment.

Old nest, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

The sun drops behind the trees.

Sunset, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

On the opposite side of the lake, the sky becomes a lavender haze.

Sunset, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

We head back to the car. What a pleasant way to end the day! A hike at the forest preserve with prairie plants all around, and new preserve signs showing intentions for future prairie restoration.

Signs of hope.

Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

“A work in progress.” After a week of stunned disbelief watching world events, I needed the peace and solace of a sunset prairie hike and a reminder that everything is a “work in progress.” Tomorrow is another day. Another chance for change.

Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

It’s a good way to welcome a new week. I’m ready to usher in a brand new month, full of possibilities.

You, too?

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The opening quote is by Lucy Maud Montgomery (1874-19420, author of the fictional series Anne of Green Gables; her complete body of work includes 20 novels, 500 poems, more than 500 short stories and numerous essays. Most of her novels are set on Prince Edward Island in Canada.

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Upcoming Programs

See http://www.cindycrosby.com for details.

March 8, 7 pm-8:30pmDragonflies and Damselflies: Frequent Fliers in the Garden at Twig and Bloom Garden Club, Glen Ellyn, IL.

March 9, 1-2:30 pmIllinois Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers at Garden Club of Oak Park and River Forest, Oak Park, IL.

March 28, 7-8:30pmAdd a Little Prairie to Your Garden at Grayslake Greenery Garden Club, Grayslake, IL.

A Tallgrass Prairie Thaw

“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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We haven’t seen the last of winter. Snow is in the forecast this week in the Chicago region. But this weekend, spring seemed a little closer. Why? Thaw. Can you smell it in the air? Can you hear the trickle of snow melt, percolating through the frozen earth?

Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

Sunday, Jeff and I hiked Springbrook Prairie, an 1,829 acre nature preserve in Naperville, IL, drawn outside by the rising mercury in the thermometer, the sunshine, and—yes—the thaw.

Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

We’re getting closer to the vernal equinox on Sunday, March 20. Soon, the hours of light and dark will balance on the seasonal scale.

Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

We’re not quite there yet. In the bright sunlight, we can almost imagine it is late March. But February is still winter, by both meteorological and astronomical calendars.

Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

Despite the ice and snow that claim the tallgrass, the signs of spring on the horizon are evident. Red-winged blackbirds sing on the edges of the wetlands at Springbrook Prairie. Soon they will be dive-bombing us in defense of their nests.

Red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

From its perch, the red-wing has a prime view of the prairie. I’d love to have that vantage point! I’d watch the pond with its icy den. Who is home? Muskrats? Beavers? I’m not sure. I bet the red-wing knows.

Pond at Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

I wish I could sail high and spy on the ubiquitous white-tailed deer.

White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus borealis), Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

Or cruise the prairie, watching the bicycles and joggers thread their way through the tallgrass on the sloppy-wet trails. What I wouldn’t give for a birds-eye view from the sky today!

Instead, we’re deep in the thaw. A fine limestone slurry coats our boots.

Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

Dog walkers trot past, their pooches splattered and patched with gray. I wonder what clean-up will be done before the ride home.

Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

Thimbleweed lifts its seed puffs trailside.

Thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

The sun tracks low, illuminating the native grasses.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

Wildflowers turn bright against the backlight.

Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

Suddenly, two sundogs appear! It’s my first glimpse of this phenomenon this year. Sundogs are difficult to photograph. But how wonderful to stand on the trails and admire those two outrider prisms, equal distances from the sun in the sky. Can you spot them, just over the horizon line?

What a joy to experience sundogs and thaw; redwings and snowmelt. As we head for the parking lot, a hawk—maybe a juvenile redtail?—monitors our progress.

Possibly a juvenile red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

She–or he—flies off into the sunset at our approach, finished with the day’s business.

Possibly a juvenile red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

Jeff and I are finished with our hike. Ready for dinner. And home.

*****

By Monday, our backyard prairie is lank and wet, all soggy grasses with pools of snowmelt. The sun works diligently all morning to erase any traces of winter. As I soak up the light pouring through the kitchen window, thinking about spring burns (and how much my backyard needs one), there’s a flurry of wings. Redpolls!

Common Redpolls (Acanthis flammea), Crosby backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

So many common redpolls. Just in time to close out the Great Backyard Bird Count. This is the first winter we’ve seen these feisty birds in our backyard, thanks to a tutorial by our birding friends on what field marks to look for and what seeds redpolls love.

Common redpolls (Acanthis flammea), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Redpolls swarm the sock feeders, mob the seed tubes, line the tray feeder and gobble the nyjer thistle tossed on the porch. I call Jeff to the window. Together, we attempt to count them. Ten. Thirty. Fifty. Seventy—and so many others in the trees! A group of redpolls, I’ve learned, is called “a gallop of redpolls.” We certainly have a herd of them!

We estimate almost a hundred, perched in trees, loitering at the feeders, hopping around on the roof. Where did they come from? Are they on their way…where? Back to their Arctic habitat, perhaps? It’s difficult to know. I hope this isn’t goodbye for the season. But if it is goodbye, that’s okay. What a dramatic finale it would be.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

Nature has a way of surprising us with wonders.

Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

All we have to do is show up and pay attention.

******

The opening quote is one of my all-time favorites by the writer Annie Dillard (1945-). I read her Pulitzer Prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek every year. Wrote Eudora Welty in the New York Times Book Review, “The book is a form of meditation, written with headlong urgency, about seeing.” It’s a good one.

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Join Cindy for a class or program in February!

February 26 — Plant a Little Prairie in Your Yard for Citizens for Conservation. Barrington, IL. (10 am-11:30 am.) Open to the public with registration. Contact them here.

February 26 –Conservation: The Power of Story for the “2022 Community Habitat Symposium: Creating a Future for Native Ecosystems” at Joliet Junior College. Tickets available at (https://illinoisplants.org/). (Cindy’s afternoon program is part of the all-day events)

Grateful thanks to John Heneghan and Tricia Lowery, who gave us the redpolls tutorial and are always ready to help with bird ID.

Gold Medal Prairie Days

“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.” – John Steinbeck

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‘Tis the season for the winter Olympics; the perfect way to spend February’s frigid days. We cheer for the skiers and snowboarders, admire the elegance of the figure skaters, get rowdy with the hockey players, and puzzle over the curling competition. “Hog Line”? “Pebble”? Curling is a mystery. The Olympics remind me of our collective resilience. So much dedication! So much drive.

PrairieWalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Outside my back door, the squirrels practice Olympic moves at the bird feeders. Flocks of juncos and goldfinches bump each other from the thistle tubes. Woodpeckers (red-bellied, hairy, downy) fly in for the suet, while the chickadees, cardinals, and nuthatches peck at the sunflower and safflower seed. This week—at the recommendation of our birding friends—I add two finch “socks” to our smorgasbord. A day later, half a dozen common redpolls showed up. Our first!

Common redpoll (Acanthis flammea), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Despite their name, they are anything but common. We have an irruption in our area this winter. I’ve not paid much attention to redpolls in the past, so I take a few moments to read up on them at Cornell’s All About Birds. Redpolls may make tunnels in the snow—up to a foot long—to stay warm, I learn. While they will eat sunflower seeds, redpolls love thistle socks (like the ones pictured).

Common redpoll (Acanthis flammea), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

These Arctic tundra and boreal forest birds can survive cold spells of up to minus 65 degrees Fahrenheit, I discover. Yikes! And I thought it was cold in Illinois.

Prairie grasses and wildflowers, PrairiePond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Despite the lure of our backyard bird feeder Olympics and the 24/7 coverage of the ongoing competition in Beijing, Jeff and I left the house to hike PrairieWalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, a small park in Lisle, IL.

PrairieWalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

It feels good to be outside. The air is cold; much more frigid than the temperatures would suggest. But there is plenty to take our minds off the bitter weather. The looped path we hike is planted with prairie natives in various degrees of winter decomposition. Age has its own sort of loveliness.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), PrairieWalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Dragonflies patrol the pond in the warmer seasons. I know that under that frozen surface, the nymphs wait for spring. But on this day, it’s all about the snow.

PrairieWalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

February skies. Icy paths. I’m grateful for my Yaktrax that keep me from sliding around. The snow-covered pond provides a backdrop for the silhouettes of prairie natives.

Indian hemp.

Indian hemp, sometimes called dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum), PrairieWalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

The colors of the Indian hemp pods and stems remind me of the redpolls. Subtle—with a dash of scarlet.

Indian hemp, sometimes called dogbane, (Apocynum cannabinum), PrairieWalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Switchgrass, the color of caramel, gets me thinking about lunch. Or maybe just dessert. Or dessert instead of lunch.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), PrairieWalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

It’s a frozen landscape. Yet there is motion in the sway of a vine…

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) with an unknown vine, PrairieWalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

…the sprays of prairie cordgrass…

Prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), PrairieWalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

…and the peel of bark on a tree planted alongside the path.

Birch tree (Betula sp.), PrairieWalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

There is movement in the explosive form of a rosette gall…

Rosette gall, PrairieWalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

…and in the chorus of gray-headed coneflower seeds along the shoreline.

Grayheaded coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), PrairieWalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Every winter walk is full of surprises. Is it worth missing a few Olympic events for?

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), PrairieWalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

You be the judge.

*****

The opening quote is from Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck (1902-1968), the author of 33 books—many of which were required reading in my high school. His book, The Grapes of Wrath, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1939 and the National Book Award. Steinbeck also won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.

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Join Cindy for a class or program this winter!

February 26 — Plant a Little Prairie in Your Yard for Citizens for Conservation. Barrington, IL. (10 am-11am.) Open to the public with registration.

February 26 –Conservation: The Power of Story for the 2022 Community Habitat Symposium: Creating a Future for Native Ecosystems at Joliet Junior College. Tickets available at (https://illinoisplants.org/). (Afternoon program)

March 3Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online –enjoy this online class with assignments over 60 days and one live Zoom together. Digitally explore the intricacies of the tallgrass prairie landscape and learn how to restore these signature American ecosystems. Look at the history of this particular type of grassland from the descent of glaciers over the Midwest millions of years ago to the introduction of John Deere’s famous plow to where we are today. We will examine different types of prairie, explore the plant and animal communities of the prairie, and discuss strategies specific to restoring prairies in this engaging online course. Come away with a better understanding of prairies and key insights into how to restore their beauty. You will have 60 days to access the materials. Register here.

***Thank you John Heneghan and Tricia Lowery for the thistle sock recommendation for redpolls. It worked!

A Very Merry Prairie Christmas

“Life regularly persists through winter, the toughest, most demanding of seasons.” –Allen M. Young

******

It’s the Winter Solstice. Light-lovers, rejoice! Tomorrow, we begin the slow climb out of darkness.

Sunrise over Cindy’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

There is still no significant snowfall here in the Chicago region. Jeff and I joke that we know the reason why. We’ve shoveled our driveway by hand the past 23 years, but after three back-to-back heavy snow events last winter we said, “No more!” This summer, we bought a small snowblower. We figured our purchase should guarantee a snow-free winter. (You’re welcome).

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Glen Ellyn, IL.

But…I miss the snow. Despite December 21st being the first official astronomical day of winter, the prairies and natural areas around me seem to say “autumn.” The upside? Without that blanket of white thrown over the prairies, there are so many visible wonders. Plant tendrils…

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

…and their swerves and curves.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Ice crystals captured in a shady river eddy.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

The bridges we regularly hike across are geometry lessons in angles and lines.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Look closely.

Possibly blue-gray rosette lichen (Physcia caesia), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

There is life, even here. The lichens remind me of the tatted lace antimacassars so beloved by my great-grandmothers. It also reminds me I need to learn more lichen ID. Winter might be a good time to focus on that.

The soundtrack of the prairie in late December is the castanet rattle of White Wild Indigo pods…

White Wild Indigo (Baptisia leucantha), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

…and the wind’s sizzle-hiss through the grasses. This December in the Midwest, wind has been a significant force. Harsh. Destructive. Here in the Chicago region, we’ve escaped most wind damage. Yet wind makes its presence known. When I’m hiking into it, my face goes numb. My eyes water. Brrrr. But I love the way it strokes and tunes the dry tallgrass, coaxing out a winter prairie tune.

Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

I admire the seed-stripped sprays of crinkled switchgrass wands…

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

…the bright blue of a snow-less sky, feathered with clouds…

Skies over Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

…the joy of spent winter wildflowers.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

I spy the mallard and his mate.

Mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Feel delight in the murmur of an ice-free stream.

East Branch of the Dupage River, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

The way December puts her mark on grasses, leaves and trees leaves me in awe… and happy.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

All these wonders! All available for any hiker passing through the prairies or woodlands at this time of year—without a single snowflake in the repertoire.

Frost at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Sure, I still check the forecast. Hoping to see snow on the radar. But who needs the white stuff when there are so many other surprises? What a treasure trove of delights December has on offer!

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Why not go out and see them for yourself?

You’ll be glad you did.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Happy holidays and Merry Christmas!

******

The opening quote is from Allen M. Young’s Small Creatures and Ordinary Places: Essays on Nature (2000, University of Wisconsin Press). This lovely book includes dragonflies and damselflies; fireflies, silk moths, butterflies, and cicadas—just a few of the many insects he investigates. Several of his essays first appeared in the Sunday Magazine of the Chicago Tribune. Young is Curator Emeritus of Zoology at the Milwaukee Public Museum.

*****

Need a New Year’s Resolution? Help Bell Bowl Prairie, one of Illinois’ last remaining native prairie remnants, which is about to be destroyed by the Chicago Rockford International Airport. Please go to www.savebellbowlprairie.org to discover easy ways your actions can make a difference.

*****

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to my readers! Thank you for (virtually) hiking with me in 2021.

Little Prairie in the Industrial Park

“Don’t it always seem to go—That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone…”–Joni Mitchell

*******

What a beautiful week in the Chicago Region.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

An excellent excuse to hike the West Chicago Prairie.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

It’s been a while since I’ve walked here. The 358-acre tallgrass preserve is off the beaten path, nestled into an industrial complex. Overhead, planes from the nearby DuPage Airport roar…

Small plane over West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

…while a long, low, whistle sounds from a train going by. The Prairie Path, a 61-mile hiking and biking trail that spans three counties, runs along one side of the prairie.

I look to the horizon. Development everywhere.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

It’s a reminder that this prairie is a part of the suburbs. People and prairie co-exist together.

Fall color has arrived. At last.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

My shoulders brush the tallgrass and spent wildflowers as I hike the challenging narrow grass trails.

Wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

The spent seeds of goldenrod and other decaying plant flotsam and jetsam cling to my flannel shirt.

West Chicago Prairie hiking trail, West Chicago, IL.

I stop and pop a withered green mountain mint leaf into my mouth.

Common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

Mmmm. It still packs a little tang. Not as intense as the flavor was this summer, but still tangible and tasty.

Wild bergamot, another tasty plant, rims the trail. A close examination shows insects have commandeered the tiny tubed seed heads. At least, I think something—or “somethings” are in there? A few of the “tubes” seem to be sealed closed. A mystery.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

Maybe seeing these seed heads is a memo from Mother Nature to me to not be overly diligent in my garden clean-up this fall. Insects are overwintering in my native plants. As a gardener, I always struggle with how much plant material to keep and how much to compost or haul away. I’m always learning. Although I just cleaned up one brush pile, and still do some garden clean-up—especially in my vegetable garden—I now leave my prairie plants standing until early spring. One reward: I enjoy my backyard bergamot’s whimsical silhouette against the background of the snow through the winter.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Crosby backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I pinch a bit of the spent flowerhead and get a whiff of thymol. Bergamot is in the mint family. See that square stem? Thymol is its signature essential oil. I think bergamot smells like Earl Grey tea. Confusing, since the bergamot found in my Lipton’s isn’t the same. (Read about the bergamot used in Earl Grey tea here.) Some people say wild bergamot smells like oregano.

It’s cold, but the sun is hot on my shoulders. Even the chilly wind doesn’t bother me much. I’m glad I left my coat in the car.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

If I look in three directions, I can almost believe all the world is prairie. Yet, in one direction I see large buildings and towers; a reminder this prairie co-exists with many of the systems we depend on for shipping, agriculture, and transportation.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

After the mind-numbing battle to save Bell Bowl Prairie in October (see link here), a trip to West Chicago Prairie is an excellent reminder that industry, development, and prairies can co-exist. Kudos to the DuPage County Forest Preserve, the West Chicago Park District, and the West Chicago Prairie volunteers who keep the prairie thriving, even while it occupies what must certainly be costly land that could easily be developed.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

We need these prairie places.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

And, these prairie preserves need us to care for them. To manage them with fire. To clear brush. To collect and plant prairie seeds. Hiking this preserve today reaffirms that we can have prairie—and development—together.

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

I hope future generations will look back and see we did all we could to protect our last remaining prairies for them.

Mullein foxglove (Dasistoma macrophylla), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

Here in the “Prairie State,” let’s continue to make our prairie preserves a priority. Our need for infrastructure and development go hand in hand with our need for these last prairie places.

Foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

Our minds, bodies, and spirits benefit from hikes in the tallgrass. I feel more relaxed and less stressed after my prairie hike today.

Thanks, West Chicago Prairie.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

You’re a good reminder that prairies and people need each other.

*****

The opening lines of today’s blog are from the song “Big Yellow Taxi” by Canadian singer Joni Mitchell (1943-). Listen to her sing the full song here, then read more about her life and music here.

*****

Join Cindy for a class or program!

Winter Prairie Wonders: Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass! Dec. 3 (Friday) 10-11:30 am (CST): Make yourself a cup of hot tea, snuggle under a warm afghan, and join prairie steward and writer Cindy Crosby virtually for this interactive online immersion into the tallgrass prairie in winter. See the aesthetic beauty of the snow-covered grasses and wildflowers in cold weather through colorful images of winter on the prairies. Follow animal tracks to see what creatures are out and about, and see how many you can identify. Learn how birds, pollinators, and mammals use winter prairie plants;  the seeds for nourishment and the grasses and spent wildflowers for overwintering, protection, and cover. Then, listen as Cindy shares brief readings about the prairie in winter that will engage your creativity and nourish your soul.  This is scheduled as a Zoom event through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.

October Serenade

“Mornings were cooler and crisper than before. The ever-lengthening shapes of afternoon shadows seemed drawn more irresistibly into the night. Fields were rough and tweedy, as though an old brown woolen jacket had been thrown over them to ward off the chill.” — Vincent G. Dethier

*****

Oh, wow, October. The prairie is stunning. Although it’s not to everyone’s taste.

Cup plants (Silphium perfoliatum) and sumac (Rhus glabra), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

“No flowers,” say some of my friends. Yes, the blooming flowers now are few. Goldenrods. Asters.

Sky blue aster (Symphyotrichum oolentangiense), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

They melt into the grasses, slowly becoming invisible. Going. Going. Gone—to seed.

Mixed wildflowers and grasses, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Most prairie wildflowers have closed shop for the season.

Prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Finished. Finale.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

They surrender to the inevitable with elegance.

Late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Ravenous insects glean whatever is left for the taking.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) with milkweed bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus), Great Western Prairie, Elmhurst, IL.

So many insects.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) with unknown insect (possibly the four-humped stink bug Brochymena quadripustulata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

They make themselves at home in the prairie wildflower remains.

Ball gall on goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum) Great Western Trail, Elmhurst, IL.

Seeds ripen.

Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Days shorten.

Sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Autumn trickles through my fingers.

Schulenberg Prairie and savanna edge, Lisle, IL.

Each day seems over before I’ve fully woken up. I remind myself, “Pay attention!” But—the prairie is beginning to blur. I rub my eyes and try to focus. So many seeds. So much grass.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

It’s all about the grass.

Prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Loops and whoops and swoops of grass.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Even my old enemy, the invasive reed canary grass on the prairie, shimmers in the morning dew.

Reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

In her eloquent essay in The Tallgrass Prairie Reader, Louise Erdrich writes: “Tallgrass in motion is a world of legato.”

Prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

The wind sighs as it sifts the grasses. The coda is near.

Schulenberg Prairie in Lisle, IL.

What new wonders will unfold?

Natural hybrid between the compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) and prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum)–sometimes referred to as Silphium pinnatifidum, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

I only know this: The wonders will be more nuanced. Less easily available as immediate eye candy than when in the growing season. But no less remarkable.

White wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

We’ll have to pause. Think. Absorb. Take time to look. To really look.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Why not go for a hike and see? Now. Before the snow flies?

Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

The prairie is waiting.

****

Vincent G. Dethier (1915-1993) was an entomologist and physiologist, and the author of Crickets and Katydids, Concerts and Solos from which the opening blog post quote was taken. This is a delightful book and accessible to anyone who loves natural history, or who has found joy in the grasshoppers, crickets and katydids of the tallgrass prairie. It takes a little extra work to find the book at your library. Well worth the effort.

****

Thanks to Nature Revisited Podcast for their interview with Cindy about dragonflies and prairie! Click here to listen to it on Youtube.

Thanks to Benedictine University for airing: Conservation: The Power of Story with Cindy as part of their Jurica-Suchy Nature Museum “Science Speaker Series.” See it on Youtube here.

*****

Thank you to Mark and Jess Paulson for their tour of the Great Western Prairie this week. I was so grateful to see it through your eyes!

*****

Join Cindy for a Program or Class!

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology: Opens online Monday, Nov.1 –Are you a prairie steward or volunteer who wants to learn more about the tallgrass? Do you love hiking the prairie, but don’t know much about it? Enjoy a self-paced curriculum with suggested assignments and due dates as you interact with other like-minded prairie lovers on the discussion boards. Then, join Cindy for a live Zoom Friday, November 12, noon to 1 p.m. CST. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. See more details here.

Winter Prairie Wonders: Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass! Dec. 3 (Friday) 10-11:30 am (CST): Make yourself a cup of hot tea, snuggle under a warm afghan, and join prairie steward and writer Cindy Crosby virtually for this interactive online immersion into the tallgrass prairie in winter. See the aesthetic beauty of the snow-covered grasses and wildflowers in cold weather through colorful images of winter on the prairies. Follow animal tracks to see what creatures are out and about, and see how many you can identify. Learn how birds, pollinators, and mammals use winter prairie plants;  the seeds for nourishment and the grasses and spent wildflowers for overwintering, protection, and cover. Then, listen as Cindy shares brief readings about the prairie in winter that will engage your creativity and nourish your soul.  This is scheduled as a Zoom event through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.

*****

Save Bell Bowl Prairie!

Please visit www.savebellbowlprairie.org to learn about the planned destruction of a special gravel prairie remnant by the Chicago-Rockford Airport in Rockford, IL. Ask them to reroute their construction. Discover how you can help save this home of the federally-endangered Rusty Patched Bumble Bee. The remnant is slated for bulldozing on November 1. Every small action by those who love prairies will help!

Reading the Tallgrass Prairie

“It’s a story that continues to be written, on the page and in the earth.” — John T. Price

The polar vortex has clamped its icy claws on the Midwest.

Monarch Way Station, Cindy’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I find myself humming Christina Rossetti’s gorgeous Christmas poem/carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Snow on snow, snow on snow.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

My hikes have gotten shorter and shorter this week. Even a trip to fill up the backyard birdfeeders…

Hairy Woodpecker (Dryobates villosus) and House Sparrow (Passer domesticus), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

….is Brrrr!...enough to send me back inside to brew a mug of hot lapsang souchong tea, shrug on an afghan, and reach for a book about the gorgeous and—painfully cold this week—natural world.

Robin (Turdus migratorius) on Staghorn Sumac (Rhus hirta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

It’s prime reading weather. Time to investigate some prairie literature.

Let’s pull a few books off the shelf and spend some of this week “hiking” through the pages, immersed in prairie.

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Do you love a good story? A great place to begin a prairie literary exploration is with John Price’s edited volume, The Tallgrass Prairie Reader.

It’s an intentionally accessible nonfiction anthology with, as Price says in his introduction, “a variety of forms, voices, and approaches—including adventure narratives, spiritual reflections, literary ethnobotany, animal portraits, ‘personal’ natural history, childhood memoir, travel writing, humor, and reportage.” These are stories, rather than how-to restoration essays. Price groups the readings in three sections—19th, 20th, and 21st Centuries. You can skip around and dip into different readings, or, as he suggests, start at the earliest reading (Black Dog’s “Sun and Moon” creation story) and read it straight through to get a sense of how people at different points in history experienced the tallgrass prairie. Absorbing reading.

If you’re looking for more of a comprehensive natural history (from glaciers to present), one of the classic narratives of the tallgrass prairie is John Madson’s Where the Sky Began.

Madson’s dry wit, his encyclopedic facts narrated in lovely prose, and his passion for prairie make the 340 pages of this book fly by. Where the Sky Began was published in 1982; Madson passed away in 1995. When my new prairie volunteers ask me what book to read to understand what a prairie is and how it came to be, Madson’s book is the first one I recommend. A classic.

Memoir and prairie make good companions, and one of my favorites remains Nature’s Second Chance by Steven Apfelbaum.

After moving to Juda, Wisconsin, where he purchased an old 2.7 acre agricultural homestead, Apfelbaum began restoring it to health. Apfelbaum is founder and chairman at Applied Ecological Services, and has an expert knowledge of what it takes to create tallgrass prairie where it has been obliterated. His story tells how he gained an education in what it means to do so in a community where ecological restoration isn’t well understood. Chapter 10 is my favorite: “Getting to Know the Neighbors.” It will make you smile! This book is a great companion for frigid February evenings when you want a non-fiction prairie book that’s personal, and reads with the flowing narrative of a good novel.

For the same reasons, I love Paul Gruchow’s Journal of a Prairie Year ….

…and Gruchow’s Grass Roots: The Universe of Home.

Both books are collections of thoughtful essays on prairie, rural living, and the natural world. Grass Roots won the 1996 Minnesota Book Award, and contains an essay, “What the Prairie Teaches Us,” that I use in my tallgrass prairie ecology classes. Journal of a Prairie Year is arranged seasonally, and as Milkweed Editions (Gruchow’s publisher) notes, it is “both equal parts phenology and philosophy.” I read portions of Gruchow’s books all year round to remind myself to pay attention to what’s unfolding all around me.

Most prairie wildflowers and grasses are battered or buried under a foot of snow this week. Some are almost unrecognizable at this time of year. I’ve found that a great way to deepen my relationship with plants is to browse some of my ethnobotany books—discovering how people have used these native plants throughout history. Learning the plants’ stories, and how their stories are part of the human story, is an engaging way to pass the winter hours indoors.

Wildflowers of the Tallgrass Prairie: The Upper Midwest by Sylvan Runkel and Dean Roosa is now in its second edition with a new cover and much better photographs than my first edition shown above. The authors include fun snippets of information about the scientific names of more than 100 plants, and stories of how Native Americans and newcomers to the Midwest used native prairie plants medicinally, as groceries, and even for veterinary purposes. It’s easy to pick the book up for a few minutes and renew my acquaintance with a prairie grass or wildflower’s stories—then put it down. This suits my short attention span this month (which I blame on the pandemic). Read about a plant or two each day, and by the time warm weather and prescribed fire have readied the prairie for another growing year, you’ll be all set to greet the first spring wildflowers.

Bumblebee (Bombus sp.) on Wood Betony (Pedicularis canadensis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Kelly Kindscher’s two seminal works on Kansas prairie plants, Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie and Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie include many stories of grasses and wildflowers native to my area of Illinois as well as further west. Drawings like these below are included, rather than photographs.

Illustration from Kelly Kindscher’s Edible Wild Plants of the Tallgrass Prairie.

Kindscher’s writing is lucid and enjoyable, and a deep dive into a plants ethnobotanical story. And, if these three books on prairie plants whet your appetite for more, immerse yourself in the doorstopper encyclopedic Native American Ethnobotany by Daniel Moerman (shown above with the other three books), a fairly exhaustive compilation of native plant use by specific Native American tribes in North America. It’s an amazing reference book no serious prairie enthusiast should be without.

Now that you know more about the prairie plants’ stories, wouldn’t it be nice to go see a few? Winter is a good time for planning visits to all the prairies I hoped to visit during warmer weather—but didn’t get around to. These three books below stimulate a lot of dreaming about road trips. The Prairie Directory of North America by Charlotte Adelman and Bernard Schwartz is an out-of-print oldie, but goodie. My first edition, published in 2001, has valuable lists of small, off the beaten track types of prairies in the United States and Canada. See if you can find a used copy of either the first or second edition. The directory has been the springboard for many of my prairie hikes.

Exploring Nature in Illinois by Susan Post and Michael Jeffords, while not focused solely on prairies, has some excellent destinations including Goose Lake Prairie State Park, Nachusa Grasslands, Kankakee Sands, and more. Hiking Illinois by Susan Post includes great prairie trips such as Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, McHenry County Conservation District’s 26-mile “The Prairie Trail,” and Winnebago County’s sand prairies.

So many books! So little time. As a former independent bookseller, I’d love to pull each of my prairie books off the shelf and tell you why it’s earned a place there.

Then, you could share your favorites with me (and please do so below in the comments). There are more books than I can name, or show in the photo above, or describe here. Books on prairie restoration, plant ID, bison, birds, blooms; coffee-table photography tomes and books of prairie spiritual reflections. And I have many more prairie books on my wish list. You, too?

Of course, reading about the prairie is no substitute for the prairie itself.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

But when the wind chill drops to minus 20 degrees, and winter storms close many of the roads to the tallgrass preserves, “hiking” through the pages of these prairie books is the next best thing to being there.

Happy reading!

*****

John T. Price (1966-) earned his M.F.A. in Nonfiction Writing and Ph.D. in English from University of Iowa. He is the author of Daddy Long Legs: The Natural Education of a Father (2013) and Man Killed by Pheasant and Other Kinships (2008) and Not Just Any Land: A Personal and Literary Journey into the American Grasslands (2004). Price is Professor of English at the University of Nebraska.

*******

Join Cindy in 2021 for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a complete list of virtual offerings. Need a speaker? Email me through my website. All classes and programs with Cindy this winter and spring are offered online only. Join me from your computer anywhere in the world.

February 24, 7-8:30 p.m. CST: The Prairie in Art and Literature– Online. The tallgrass prairie is usually thought of for its diverse community of plants, animals, and insects. Yet, it is also an inspiration for a creative community! In this interactive online talk, natural history author and prairie steward Cindy Crosby will explore historical and contemporary writers and artists, musicians, and other creatives working in the prairie genre: from Neil Young to Willa Cather to graphic comic artists, quilters, and jewelers expressing the prairie through their work. See the prairie in a new light! Come away inspired to appreciate and express your love of the tallgrass as you enjoy learning about this prairie “community.” Offered by The Morton Arboretum: Register here.

Readers, I hope you’ll “hunker down” this winter with my book, The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction and my book with awesome co-author Thomas Dean, Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit during this cold spell! Don’t forget your independent bookstores when you order Thanks for reading about and supporting prairie.

Prairie Snow Messages

“…How swiftly time passes in the out-of-doors where there is never a moment without something new.”– Sigurd Olson

******

It starts with graupel. Icy pellets of rimed snow. Soft hail. The graupel rattles the windows. Pelts the patio. Bounces like tiny ping-pong balls across my backyard and into the prairie patch. The winter storm is here.

Graupel, Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Four mourning doves swoop onto the porch. They peck-peck-peck the scattered millet seed around the bird feeders, then shelter under the eaves. Darkness falls. The wind rattles the windows. And at last, it begins to snow.

A light snow cover has blanketed the prairies this week. Critters leave clues to their identities.

Eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) or fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) tracks, Lambert Lake, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The prairie grasses, overshadowed by wildflowers most of the year, find snow is the perfect backdrop to showcase their charms.

Prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), Prairie Walk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Snow is a stage for tallgrass shadows and silhouettes to play upon.

Cordgrass (Spartina pectinata) and gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Turkey tail fungi sift snow, letting it powder each arc of nuanced color.

Turkey tail fungi (Trametes versicolor), Lambert Lake, Glen Ellyn, IL.

In shrubs and thickets, black-capped chickadees shelter from the storm. They know how to endure.

Black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

From a distance, Indian hemp seems stripped of all but pod and stem.

Dogbane or Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Come closer. A few seeds still cling to the scoured pods, ready to set sail in the high winds.

Dogbane or Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), Prairie Walk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Everywhere is something to spark wonder. “Even an adult can grow in perception if he refuses to close the doors to learning,” wrote Sigurd Olson in Reflections from the North Country. There are stories to be listened to…

Ash tree (Fraxinus sp.) with emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis) gallery, Lambert Lake, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…messages to be read in the midst of the snow, if only we can decipher them. If we keep the doors to learning open.

Emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis) gallery, Lambert Lake, Glen Ellyn, IL.

When the doors to learning stand open, what is there to discover?

Perhaps, diversity is beautiful.

Mixed prairie grasses and forbs, Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Or, Think of future generations, not just of the needs or desires of the moment.

Lambert Lake, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Remember the past, but don’t get stuck there.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Prairie Walk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Embrace change, even when it’s difficult. It usually is.

Lambert Lake, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Appreciate what you have today…

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

…it may not be here tomorrow.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

The choices we make aren’t always clear or easy.

Mixed forbs, Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

There are a lot of gray areas.

Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

But it’s never too late to reflect. To listen. To learn.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

And then, to move forward.

Lambert Lake hiking trail, Glen Ellyn, IL.

There is so much to see and think about on the prairie.

Common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

So much to pay attention to.

Coyote (Canis latrans) tracks, Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

So much to consider, on a prairie hike in the snow.

*****

Sigurd Olson (1899-1982), whose quote opens this post, was born in Chicago and grew up in northern Wisconsin. He is considered one of the most important environmental advocates of the 20th Century. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area—over one million acres in size—owes its preservation to the work of Olson and many others. Olson worked as a wilderness guide in the Quetico-Superior area of Minnesota and Canada, and his nine books explore the meaning of wilderness and the outdoors. He is a recipient of the John Burroughs Medal, the highest honor in nature writing, for Wilderness Days. If you haven’t read Olson, I’d suggest beginning with The Singing Wilderness. A very good read.

*****

Join Cindy in 2021 for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a complete list of virtual offerings. All classes and programs with Cindy this winter and spring are offered online only. Join me from your computer anywhere in the world.

Begins Monday, February 6 OR just added —February 15 (Two options): Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online--Digitally explore the intricacies of the tallgrass prairie landscape and learn how to restore these signature American ecosystems as you work through online curriculum. Look at the history of this unique type of grassland from the descent of glaciers over the Midwest millions of years ago, to the introduction of John Deere’s famous plow, to where we are today. We will examine different types of prairie, explore the plant and animal communities of the prairie and discuss strategies specific to restoring prairies in this engaging online course. Come away with a better understanding of the tallgrass prairies, and key insights into how to restore their beauty. All curriculum is online, with an hour-long in-person group Zoom during the course. You have 60 days to complete the curriculum! Join me–Registration information here.

February 24, 7-8:30 p.m. CST: The Prairie in Art and Literature Online. The tallgrass prairie is usually thought of for its diverse community of plants, animals, and insects. Yet, it is also an inspiration for a creative community! In this interactive online talk, natural history author and prairie steward Cindy Crosby will explore historical and contemporary writers and artists, musicians, and other creatives working in the prairie genre: from Neil Young to Willa Cather to graphic comic artists , quilters, and jewelers expressing the prairie through their work. See the prairie in a new light! Come away inspired to appreciate and express your love of the tallgrass as you enjoy learning about this prairie “community.” Offered by The Morton Arboretum: Register here.