Tag Archives: tallgrass prairie

Bringing Prairie Home

“Your garden will reveal yourself.” — Henry Mitchell

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I’m humming Neil Young’s rowdy “Are You Ready for the Country” under my breath, and occasionally breaking out in song with the few lyrics I remember. Happy music, for a happy morning.  Why? I’m ready to plant some pasque flower seedlings into their new home on the prairie. We collected the seeds last spring, and after a long winter indoors, they’re ready.

As a steward, I look at the tiny wildflowers, so vulnerable in their seed tray, and imagine them  repopulating the prairie.

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I try to imagine them in bloom after a few seasons…

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…and then going to seed, completing the cycle.

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Hope for the future.

The seedlings we’re planting into the larger prairie inspire me each spring to try and improve the little prairie patch in my backyard. The first native plant sales have been in full swing this month. My checkbook has taken a hit!  On the porch are the results: plastic pots of small prairie plants.

The tiny white wild indigo…

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…soon to be as large as a bushel basket. Its white spikes will brighten my backyard, just as it inspires delight on the prairies where I’m a steward.

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A wisp of Indian grass looks like nothing much now….

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…but I have a vision of what it might be, waving over my head in a slant of autumn light.

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I compare my flat of plants against my order list. White prairie clover. Check. Purple prairie clover. Check.

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Then, I close my eyes and think about the future.

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Queen of the prairie, with its signature green leaves…

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…holding the promise of cotton candy color in my backyard prairie patch.

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Rattlesnake master, diminutive in its plastic pot…

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…will someday throw its summer globes of greenish white into my backyard prairie.

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In the biggest pot is my prize prairie shrub; New Jersey tea. Sure, it doesn’t look like much now, sitting in a sheltered spot on my front porch…

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…but I can already see its foamy flowers frothing like a cappuccino, planted next to the patio where I’ll sip my first cup of coffee each morning and admire it.

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The prairies I steward are works in progress. So is my backyard.  Right now, there is standing water. Mud. A whole lot of emerald green growth; some of it not the welcome kind.

But mixed among the weeds in my backyard—and on the prairies where I hike and volunteer—are a kaleidoscope of prairie plant leaf shapes and blooms. The shell-like leaves of alum root. Fuzzy prairie dock leaf paddles. Heart-leaved golden Alexanders.

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In my imagination, I see these prairies as they could be: five, ten, fifteen years from now. So much of the joy is in the planning and the dreaming.  Sure, rabbits and deer will munch on some seedlings. Weather may not cooperate. Voles may demolish this wildflower, or an errant step in the wrong place may flatten one of the grass seedlings. With a bit of luck, and some coddling, I know many of them will make it.

Seeing these vulnerable plants succeed against the odds always offers hope for my own year ahead, with all of its unknown challenges and potential delights. Watching these plants complete the seasonal cycle never fails to comfort me in some small way. The prairie, vulnerable as it is, always moves forward. It’s always growing. Always changing. Always beautiful in new and different ways.

So much is represented in these flats. So many possibilities in small plastic pots.

Little prairie plants. Big dreams.

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Now that’s something to sing about.

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The opening quote is from the charmingly cynical writing of the late garden columnist Henry Mitchell (1924-1993). You can read more about Mitchell here. If you haven’t read Mitchell before, I’d begin with The Essential Earthman, a collection of his columns for the Washington Post.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens) seedlings, DuPage County, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens) in bloom, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens) in seed, DuPage County, IL;  white wild indigo (Baptisia alba), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba) and other wildflowers, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), author’s porch, Glen Ellyn, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Schulenberg Prairie, the Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra) seedling, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) seedling, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) ready for planting, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; heart-leaved golden Alexanders (Zizia apta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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Cindy’s Upcoming Classes and Speaking Events:

Thursday, May 16 & Thursday, May 23: A Cultural History of the Tallgrass Prairie, two evenings on the Schulenberg Prairie and in the classroom. The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: register by clicking here.

Tuesday, May 21–7-8 p.m.Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Flyers, Bloomingdale Garden Club, St. Paul Evangelical Church, 118 First Street, Bloomingdale, IL. Free and Open to the Public

Saturday, June 1: The Tallgrass Prairie: A Conversation, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. Bison tour with book purchase; lecture is free! You must preregister here by May 25 as seating is limited.

See more on http://www.cindycrosby.com

Naming the Prairie Community

“That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.” —Aldo Leopold

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Spring is here, and with it the smell of toasted prairie.

prescribedburntwoweekslaterSPMA33119-spring.jpg A night or two of rain, some sunshine and rising temperatures, and the burned landscape greens up. Add a dollop of chlorophyll; the scent of wet earth. It’s the scent of spring in my little corner of the world.

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With the obliteration of last season’s desiccated foliage after the prescribed fire, signs of the prairie community are open for investigation. It’s worth taking a hike to go look at the hidden, now made visible for a moment in time.  The fire reveals the tunnels across the prairie. But who uses them? Meadow voles? Prairie voles? Or something more wriggly, perhaps?

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With the tallgrass cover stripped away, a giant ant hill comes into focus. Hmmm. Didn’t know that was there. Did you know a group of ants is called a “colony?” Good name for them.

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This particular mound is a big one. Soon, it will be smothered in lush grasses and wildflowers and for all purposes, invisible until next spring.

The prairie bursts with new growth on this cold, sunny day.  As I hike, Willoway brook, freed of its burden of ice, murmurs in the background.  I feel myself relax.

Almost under my hiking boot, I see a native thistle, lime green against the blackened prairie. Pasture thistle? I think so.  But I’m not completely sure.

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A bird calls from the nearby savanna. I listen, but can’t remember which species goes with the song.  Hmmm… .   I’ll be re-learning bird songs and plant ID from now until fall; saying goodbye the tattered remains of the last year’s prairie….

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… reacquainting myself with plants and birds as they make their appearance.

As I’m looking for the unknown bird calling from the prairie’s edge, I notice a maple’s bark-chewed branch. Squirrels know maple sap flows in early spring, and that they’ll get a tasty treat if they gnaw the bark. Occasionally, when the sap runs from one of the chewed places, then freezes, I break off and lick a “maple sap-sicle” —sweet and a bit earthy tasting. But it’s too warm for maple sap-sicles this evening.

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Squirrels. The collective name for a group of squirrels, I discover, is called a “scurry,” depending on what source you consult. The maple tree has its scurry of squirrels as well as birds. And that mysterious bird is singing again. I take out my phone and record it. I’ll do more research  back home.

Birds are pouring into Chicago. Every day brings arrivals from the south. A group of birds is a flock, I remind myself. Easy, right? But I recently learned that when a mixed group of birds bands together to look for the same type of food, they are called a “foraging guild.” Cool!

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Nuthatches, both the white-breasted nuthatch and the red-breasted nuthatch show up at my backyard feeders by the prairie patch each afternoon, scuffling with the downy woodpeckers for peanuts. On the edge of the prairie, I watch them peck their way around the trees. A group of nuthatches, I discover, is called a “jar.” Not sure what this nuthatch thinks about that.

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The prairie real estate market is booming. In early April, just outside of Fermilab Natural Areas’ prairies and Nachusa Grasslands, you can see large numbers of herons flying with grasses and twigs in their bills, building their nests.

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You may know that herons nesting together form a “rookery” or “heronry.” But did you know a group of these birds is called a “siege” of herons? That’s a new one for me!

Smaller, but just as interesting, are the field sparrows looking for seeds and insects on the blackened ground. I’ve seen the collective name as “host of sparrows,” “knot of sparrows,” and “quarrel of sparrows.” Which one do you prefer?

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On the two-weeks-burned Schulenberg Prairie, the male mallards are paddling along Willoway Brook, looking for mates.  Spring is the beginning of the mating season for many birds in the prairie community.  The ubiquitous Canada geese, which mate for life, are already scouting out nest sites. (Groups of geese are called “a gaggle” or a “skein.”).

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Even the mallard ducks have special names. I’ve seen the word “sord” or “sword” used; also the more expected “flight”or “flock”. Even “daggle” of ducks and “doppling” of ducks.

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Which brings us full circle to where this “group-of-living-things” tangent began, doesn’t it? It’s fun to learn the collective names of members of the tallgrass community.

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What are some of your favorites? Leave a comment and let me know. I enjoy puzzling over bird songs and plant seedlings; thinking about collective names, feeling the sun on my face and the nip of the still-sharp spring air on my nose.

But its not all delight at this time of year on the prairie. There is loss, as well. On my hikes after the burn I find the charred bones of small mice and voles, who couldn’t out-scramble the prairie flames. A raccoon with a luxurious pelt, which looks asleep, but has been felled into eternal slumber by distemper. Feathers blowing across the trail, doubtless from an arriving spring migrant that became a fox or coyote’s snack.

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It’s all part of the deep joy I feel on the prairie. Not some superficial feeling. But rather, the feeling that comes with the reality of the tallgrass. Beautiful? Yes. But it’s no Hallmark  greeting card. There is life here, with all its glorious growth and bad luck; successes and failures.

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The contrast of life and death; the familiar and the strange; cold nights and warm days; loss and renewal; all mingle together in a mish-mash of community on the just-burned prairie. So much to observe. So much to learn.

So much to love.

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So much to pay attention to.

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Aldo Leopold is best known for his book, A Sand County Almanac (1949); and also, as the father of wildlife ecology, wilderness systems in the United States, and conservation ethics. Read more about him and his work here.

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All photos and video clips copyright Cindy Crosby—today’s posts are from the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL unless otherwise noted: Schulenberg Prairie about two weeks after the prescribed burn; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) sprouting; unknown tunnel after the burn; ant mound or hill on burned prairie; Willoway Brook video clip; probably native pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor); old prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) leaf; sugar maple (Acer saccharum) branch gnawed by squirrels; white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis); white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis); great blue heron (Ardea herodias) rookery, North Aurora, IL; field sparrow (Spizella pusilla) ; Canada geese (Branta canadensis) in flight; male mallard duck (Anas platyrhynchos) (notice the band on his leg); male mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) on Willoway Brook; sunset in the Schulenberg Prairie savanna; Schulenberg Prairie after the prescribed burn;  black walnut (Juglans nigra) and new growth.

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For more on group names for living things, check out the book A Charm of Goldfinches by Matt Sewell, and these lists of collective names from the Baltimore Bird Club and MNN.com. The names used here came from these and other sources. Have fun!

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Cindy’s classes and speaking this week:

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online continues through The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Nature writing online and in-person concludes tonight at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Just released! Order from your favorite independent bookseller or Ice Cube Press here.

With grateful thanks to our sponsors: The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Friends of Neal Smith Wildlife Preserve, Grinnell College Center for Prairie Studies; and The Tallgrass Prairie Center at the University of Northern Iowa. Great places, great folks.

Tallgrass Conversations cover Cindy Pick9a

Prairie Burn Paradox

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

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I’ve been re-reading Annie Dillard’s books this week and mulling over her words, like the ones that open today’s blog post. Thinking about how to spend my time wisely. It’s a challenge, isn’t it?

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Walking the prairie after the burn, I’m reminded of time, and seasons of time, and our perception of it. As I hike, I’m surprised at the volume of sound. You’d think there would be silence on a charred landscape.

 

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But the prairie is bustling and noisy. A killdeer cries its name as it sweeps across the ruins, looking for a place to build its nest. A just-burned prairie is exactly right. I hunt for the killdeer’s nests each spring, but they are such expert camouflage artists I’ve never found one. Maybe this will be my year.

Robins chatter, hopping along the banks of Willoway Brook, sifting the ashes for something good to eat. Overhead, waves and waves of sandhill cranes move high in the air, migrating north. So many! Thousands and thousands.  This weekend was host to the largest movement of cranes I’ve ever seen at one time in the Chicago region. Pelicans were migrating, too! Check them out.

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Elation! Then I look around me. Such desolation. I always have mixed feelings after the burn. A prescribed fire on the prairie  leaves you with a sense of loss. Everything you knew written on that particular prairie slate is wiped clean. Close the book. Open a blank journal and begin a new season.SPMA32019WMburnWM.jpg

There is also a sense of relief. All my mistakes of the last year as a steward, writ large in reed canary grass growing vigorously by the brook, or the sneezeweed missing in action in the swale, are swept away.  This season, I can start fresh. Daunting? Yes. And challenging.

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The fire leaves me with a sense of hope. That thicket of brambles? This will be the year we finally knock it back. We can seed in missing milkweeds; repair a deteriorating trail, add an interpretive sign or two.

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Day by day—week by week—stewards, staff, and volunteers will write a new seasonal story together. Every pulled garlic mustard plant makes room for a new shooting star wildflower to bloom. Remove invasive buckthorn and open space and light for bee balm wildflowers to flourish.

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Rain, sunshine, snow—-they’ll all help write the new seasonal prairie story. Deer, coyotes, dragonflies, the mink who swims the creek—-they’ll each have a paragraph or two.

The just-burned landscape is prelude to the most exciting time of the year on the tallgrass prairie. New growth. The first blooms.

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The red-winged blackbirds sing me along the trail as the sun sets.  In the old, fire-damaged hawthorn tree, they mingle with brown-headed cowbirds whose lispy “clink! clink! clink!”  calls are percussion to the blackbirds’ brassy song. I try to count the birds—how many do you see?

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Annie Dillard once wrote about a “Tree of Lights” —a tree full of blackbirds. I think about her story as I watch the birds settle in for the night.

Then, another sound. Coyotes! A pack. The coyotes are invisible. but their calls are close by. Their wails and yips are both mournful and excited.

 

 

 

Exactly how I feel as I walk the burned prairie tonight.

The visible and the invisible. The old and the new. The past and the present. The coyotes announce the passing of one chapter in the prairie’s story; the beginning of a new one.

Time to turn the page.

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Annie Dillard , whose quote opens this blog, won the Pulitzer Prize for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974).  Read the full passage the quote was taken from here. One of my favorite sentences on her view of the way the world works: “It’s a hell of a way to run a railroad.” On writing: “Spend it all…do not hoard what seems good for (later).” Read the whole quote here. Wise woman. Wise words.

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All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom):  bench on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie after the burn, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American white pelicans ( Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) migrating, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; Schulenberg Prairie after the burn, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown species of moss on a burned-out log along the Schulenberg Prairie trail, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bramble (Rubus species unknown) and bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) singed by fire, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; trail through the burned Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; 19 red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus)and brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater)  in a hawthorn tree (probably Crataegus mollis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; coyotes (Canus latrans) calling on the Schulenberg Prairie at sunset, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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More from Cindy:

Just released last week! Available at your favorite bookstore or online.

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New Podcast!

Thanks to Shannon at Take A Hike Podcast in Los Angeles! Click  here for the interview. Caution! Explicit dragonfly reproduction content in this podcast. 🙂

Cindy’s classes and speaking this week:

Nature Writing (online and in-person) continues this week at The Morton Arboretum. April 1–Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden and Prairie’s Frequent Flyers: LaGrange Garden Club, LaGrange, IL. (closed event). See more classes and events at http://www.cindycrosby.com.

Spring Prairie Thaw

“Keep busy with survival…remember nothing stays the same for long, not even pain. Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go.”  ― May Sarton
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Mid-March in the Chicago region feels like emergence from a long dream.  The world is waking up. Slowly.
We blink in the sunshine. Rub our eyes. Stretch.
Listen!
What’s that sound?
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It’s the sounds of water. The prairie creek thaws. At last!
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Melted snow runs into cracks and crevices. Water tunes up; provides a musical soundtrack for the tallgrass once again.
Sure, it’s not officially astronomical spring until March 20, another week away, when winter officially ends.
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 But you can see the transitions in play.
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Not quite spring yet? Tell that to the birds. They know better. Soon, migrants will pour through the skies, piping their songs to us Midwesterners. We’ll ask each other, “Was that a white-throated sparrow singing?” They are common migrants and occasional winter residents here in Illinois. Every spring, I hear them calling on their way north, headed for the upper Midwest and Canada. It’s just a matter of days, now. I’m listening.
Speaking of birds…In the tallgrass, one has pecked through the Chinese mantis egg case  I’ve been watching all winter. The case is in tatters. Goodbye, little future insects! Praying mantises are pretty merciless predators themselves, so perhaps it’s justice.
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It’s a savage world out there, especially at the end of winter when survival is still bitterly won. Hunger gnaws. Reserves are low. Hang on. Don’t quit. Sit it out. You can make it!
Soon, the March mud season will give way to color and song. For now, I welcome the sunshine, the melt and the thaw.
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Cardinal songs in the morning. The “oke-a-leeeeee” conversations of red-winged blackbirds as I hike the prairie trails by the brook.
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The first green shoots. The last old stands of dried grasses and wildflowers, fuel for the coming prescribed burn. You can feel spring trying to punch through the cold; break out of the gray and the gloom.
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The old order is passing. Something new is on the way.
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Breathe in. Can you detect spring in the air? It’s in the scent of water. The smell of earth. That subtle scent of green. Feel the mud cling to your boots. Hear spring’s tentative first notes as the prairie community warms under the March sun.
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Later, we’ll demand more than these small pleasures from the tallgrass.
But for now, they are enough.
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The poet May Sarton (1912-1995), whose quote begins this post, was also the author of numerous fiction and nonfiction books, including “Recovery.” She was particularly interested in aging, illness and depression (and our responses to both); solitude; personal, emotional, and artistic growth; our need for community and dependency on others; and the close observation of the natural world. Read “Mud Season” about her spring garden here. “Fluent, fluid…” said one reviewer of Sarton’s work; another wrote that her words are, “…direct and deeply given.”  Her writing, however, has been largely snubbed by major critics. She died of breast cancer at the age of 83. Read more in her obituary from The New York Times.
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All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bubbles under the ice, Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ice waterfall, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; water running into crevices at Fermilab Prairie’s Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL;  ice on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Chinese mantis ((Tenodera sinensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook ice, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) singing on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.
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Pre-order Cindy’s New Prairie Book By Clicking Here Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit (Cindy Crosby and Thomas Dean), Ice Cube Press. Releases in April, 2019, full-color hardcover, $24.95. Also available at The Arboretum Store: https://www.mortonarb.org/visit-explore/arboretum-store
Cindy’s Classes in March
Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online March 27 (The Morton Arboretum—work at your own pace from home and hone your knowledge of prairie)

Rethinking Wilderness: Of Prairies and Deserts

“Wilderness is not a luxury, but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. ” — — Edward Abbey

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Displacement is good for the soul; or so I tell myself as I hike the beautiful red-rock trails of Sedona with Jeff under a blazing sun.

Shade? Forget about it. Unless it’s the shade you cast as you hike.

Jeff Hikes Sedona

As a prairie lover, the plants and grasses of the desert are a study in contrasts to what I know back home. I’m used to lush foliage. Vibrant wildflowers. In the Chicago region this season, the tallgrass prairie lived up to its name. Rain ensured this. Big bluestem towers over my head whenever I go for a hike; bends over trails with the weight of its tallness.

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Sunflowers form jungle-like vegetation along the prairie streams. In places, vegetation is so impenetrable, I’ve had to abandon some of my dragonfly monitoring routes for the season.

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But when you look closely—think out of the box a little bit—there are similarities between the prairie I know and the desert I’m hiking today that I don’t know. Here in Sedona, it’s obvious most of the grasses and plants are primed for weather extremes; small amounts of  rainfall and harsh heat. There are empty creek beds everywhere that must flash flood from time to time.  But today, everything is dusty and parched in the glare of the sun.

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You can almost hear the plants whisper advice to each other. Conserve water. Adapt. Adapt.

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The tallgrass prairies of home, while receiving around 40 inches of rainfall in a good year, are also primed for weather swings between drought and flood. As I look closely at the yucca on my hike, its foliage reminds me of the tallgrass prairie’s rattlesnake master, whose scientific name, Eryngium yuccifolium pays homage to its prickly, fleshy, yucca-like leaves.  What do you think?

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Both the desert and the tallgrass have fire in common. There’s a wildfire burning in a wilderness area just a few miles away. Everywhere, there is a sense of caution.

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A sign on the highway notes: “Brushfire Danger High: Use Your Ashtray.”  Are there still ashtrays in cars? Who knew? Burnout operations — creating small fires to stop wildfires —are underway at night. Evidently, smoke creates less of a breathing hazard for residents at night than in the daytime. Fascinating stuff.  I hadn’t thought of the desert, with its cactus and forests and mountains, as a place of fire. But so it is.

A species of prickly pear cactus pops up everywhere in the desert; a relative to a prickly pear cactus we have  (oddly enough) in our Midwest tallgrass prairies. Hello, friend. Nice to see a familiar face.

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However, I keep a respectful distance. Those sharp bristles are nothing to trifle with.

I try to decipher the hieroglyphics of the trail as I hike. What is the desert trying to tell me?

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Maybe the words of Ed Abbey again: “We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may not ever need to go there.”

Being in the desert prompts me to think about wilderness in new ways. Mostly, I’ve thought of wilderness as the North Woods, or maybe the Bob Marshall in Montana, or large swathes of Arctic habitat. And yet, there are ten federally designated wilderness areas in or close to Arizona’s Coconino National Forest, including where I’m hiking on the outskirts of the Munds Mountain Wilderness. Desert has its own version of a wilderness refuge, a place apart. Just as prairies are.

Another similarity between deserts and prairie is that both can be overlooked, misunderstood, and taken for granted. “Once you’ve seen the red rocks a few times, they can be pretty boring,” said the maintenance man who came to fix my hotel door lock in Sedona.

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Ditto for a shopkeeper downtown. “It’s so beautiful here,” I said to her (gushingly, I’m afraid.) She shook her head. “It’s ugly!”  I’ve heard much the same back home about the tallgrass prairie. “Weeds!”  a friend once told me. Perhaps familiarity breeds contempt? But, as the venerable garden writer Henry Mitchell rather caustically once said, these remarks tend to come from folks who “don’t see much when they look.” And we’ve all been guilty of that, haven’t we?

So, I remind myself, Look. Look again. Don’t dismiss what you don’t understand. Find connections. Appreciate the differences. Let the desert soak in.

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“What draws us into the desert is the search for something intimate in the remote.” Ed Abbey again. As an outsider here, I feel the draw. There’s so much here I don’t understand. I see a lot of other people hiking the trails, climbing the rocks, searching for something…more. 

Like the base jumper, defying laws of both gravity and the legal system. As we hiked the trails one morning, we heard a yell of delight. We looked up— just as he leapt from thousands of feet high off of one of the towering red rocks and floated to the ground.

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What was he looking for? Did he find it? I wonder.

I want to listen to the wisdom the desert has to offer, even when I don’t always know what I’m looking at. Or, what I’m looking for. Pay attention. Be grateful these places exist, even if this is may be the only time in my life I’ll get to see them.

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I want to cherish these diverse places in my memory. Act to protect them for future generations. After all, who knows what these places may have to teach us? We need to tuck them into our hearts. We need them to be there…when we go looking.

***

Edward Abbey (1927-1989) was a writer, environmental activist, and park ranger. Although personal happiness seemed elusive (he was married five times) and he held controversial views on immigration, women, and environmental sabotage, his writings on American deserts—-leaning toward mysticism—-helped inspire a public appreciation for the desert landscape that continues today. If you haven’t read Abbey, try Desert Solitaire.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Bell Rock hiking trail, Oak Creek, AZ; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; Maxmillian sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown desert grasses and plants, Bell Rock hiking trail, Oak Creek, AZ; yucca (Yucca, unknown species), Oak Creek, AZ; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) fire hazard sign, State Highway 169, AZ; prickly pear cactus (probably Opuntia cactaceae or Opuntia phaeacantha) and unknown grasses, Bell Rock hiking trail, Oak Creek, AZ; sand track graffiti on the Bell Rock hiking trail, Oak Creek, AZ; red rocks, Red Rock Scenic Parkway, Sedona, AZ; Bell Rock, Red Rock Scenic Parkway, Sedona, AZ;  base jumper off of Courthouse Rock, Oak Creek, AZ; moonrise over Sedona on the Autumn equinox, Sedona, AZ. Any plant ID’s from my desert friends are welcome! Grateful to all of you who work to care for these amazing desert places, including Neil Chapman at TNC’s Hart Prairie in northern Arizona. Thank you. 

Honk if You Love Prairie

“The petty entanglements of life are brushed aside (on the trail) like cobwebs”–Grandma Gatewood

*****

It’s August. Big bluestem is tassling out, waving its turkey-footed seedheads against the sky. You understand why we call our Midwestern grasslands  the “tallgrass prairies” after a summer like this one, filled with heat and rain. Everything on the prairie is lush.

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The butterflies are putting on a show this summer. Yellow swallowtails and  black swallowtails…

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…flock to the Joe Pye weed, now blooming cloud-like with pale Indian plantain under the oaks in the savanna.

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It’s hot on the prairie. Tempers are hot, too, in the suburbs where I live.  Earlier in the week, as I waited at an intersection for a light to change, the driver behind me laid on her horn. Honk! Honk! Honk! She wanted to turn right. My car, going straight ahead, blocked her way.  I made the mistake of looking in the rear view mirror and saw her red face. She was shouting. I quickly looked away and prayed for the light to change. Turned up my Paco de Lucia CD (yes, I still have a CD player in my old Honda) and hoped the chords of Paco’s guitar would drown out her honking.

Honk! Honk! Honk! Finally, an eternity later, the light turned green. My car moved through the intersection, and with a squeal of rubber, she turned right, still laying on her horn.

Honnnnnnnkkkkkkk!

I knew I needed a “prairie therapy” hike.

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Not that I need a reason to go to the prairie. But for 20 years now, I’ve found that an hour of walking a prairie trail or two siphons off built-up stress and alleviates a looming tension headache.  The song of the common yellowthroat that hangs out in a tree by the prairie savanna trail, singing his “wichety, wichety, wichety,” is enough to erase some of that miserable “Honk! Honk! Honk!” from the soundtrack playing in my mind.

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And, oh, that August sky on the prairie! I’m reminded that, just a few days ago, one of my six little grandkids asked me if I’d cloud-watch with him. We lay back on the grass and watched the sky change from moment to moment,  comparing clouds to other objects—a ship, a turtle—in the same way people have cloud-watched from time beyond memory. I think of this as I hike the prairie now, watching the cumulus clouds floating lazily overhead, casting shadows on the tallgrass.

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I stop on the bridge over Willoway Brook and look into the stream. The dragonflies and damselflies are in a frenzy of reproduction. Do they sense the downward seasonal slide toward autumn? Maybe. The American rubyspot damselflies hang low over Willoway Brook on blades of grass, waiting for potential mates. Such anticipation! Like speed dating.

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The grasses are slipping into their late summer colors. Switchgrass, big bluestem, and Indian grass ripple in the wind, with a sound like rustling silk. The flowering spurge mists the grasses with its delicate white blooms.

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High-pitched sounds overhead cause me to look up.

Honk! Honk! Honk!

 

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It’s the  Canada geese, flying to a 18-hole course nearby to terrorize the golfers. These are kind of “honks” that don’t raise my blood pressure.

As I pass the bench that overlooks the prairie trail, I see a pile of coins, mostly quarters. Doubtless, someone has paused to rest, and their change has spilled from a back pocket.  I leave the coins. Maybe they’ll realize their loss, and backtrack, looking for their cash.  Or perhaps some other hiker having a bad day will pocket the change, and feel a bit more cheerful.

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I don’t need a cash windfall to improve my mood. The prairie hike has already worked its magic . My day is transformed. My blood pressure is lowered, my perspective is more positive.

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All it took was a little prairie therapy.

*******

Emma “Grandma” Gatewood (1887-1973) lived a difficult life. After brutal abuse by her husband—and raising eleven children under tough circumstances—she decided to go for a walk at age 66 on the Appalachian Trail. She became the first woman to hike it solo in one season. By age 77, she had hiked the 2,000-miles-plus AT three times through, plus the Oregon Trail. She wore tennis shoes for most of her hikes. Gatewood was the quintessential ultralight backpacker, with a simple bag she sewed herself holding very few supplies. Gatewood often relied on the kindness of strangers, who sometimes fed and sheltered her for the night. But, she also spent time sleeping under a shower curtain (her tent) and picnic tables along the way. “After the hard life I lived, this trail isn’t so bad,” Gatewood told reporters. Ben Montgomery’s book, Grandma Gatewood’s Walk, is well worth the read to follow the grit and willpower of an inspirational woman.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL: Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum) and pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sky over Nachusa Grassland, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie Savanna trail, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; August skies on the prairie, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada geese (Branta canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cash on the bench, Schulenberg Prairie, the Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; the prairie in August, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Prairie Bugs, Blooms, and Butterflies

“Adding butterflies to your life is like adding another dimension.” — Sharman Apt Russell

*****

There’s something good to be said for mosquitoes. Yup, you read that here. I remind myself of this as I pull on my head net. There’s not a soul on the prairie at the end of this July afternoon, and selfishly, I’m glad to have the prairie all to myself. Bugs plus heat plus humidity=A Quiet Hike.

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Well, not exactly quiet. A red-winged blackbird erupts in a cacophony of sound. His volume increases as make my way down the trail. Too close to his nest? I move on a little quicker than I had planned. A common yellow-throat is singing his “wichety-wichety-wichety;” the birdsong soundtrack to this particular prairie in summer. Nearby, a ruby-throated hummingbird stops to rest on a tree branch, silhouetted against the blindingly blue sky.

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July is the steamy month that the Illinois prairie begins to make its move to earn its name: tallgrass.  Big bluestem is tassling out. Other grasses are waist-high. Suddenly this month, compass plants spike the prairie, like hundreds of periscopes erupting from a sea of rippling green. As I draw closer to one plant, I see the silphium weevils have carefully sliced the top flowers off. On the stem is a sticky, glittering wound, which oozes plant resin.

silphiumweevilcompassplantSPMAwm7918.jpgI pull off a dab of the sticky stuff and taste it. Refreshing! Native American children reportedly chewed this sap like Wrigley’s spearmint gum. I’m more cautious. It tastes good, but it is tough to scrape off my teeth. Once it’s on your fingers, you stick to everything you touch in the next hour.

Brushing past the compass plants, I wade through Culver’s root, lush after the long season of rain and heat. The bees love it.

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And so do the butterflies.

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A nectaring viceroy butterfly performs a series of gymnastics to get every last drop from a Culver’s root stand.  Sideways…

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…wings backlit by the lowering sun…

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…upside down.

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I watch it until it flies away.

Nearby, on whorled milkweed, it’s a black bug bonanza. How many do you see in the photo below? The whorled milkweed tolerates a lot of disturbance, and we have a nice stand of it here in one of the more degraded prairie areas.

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It boggles my mind to think this is only one milkweed plant, on one prairie. So much activity!  So many insects here that are likely invisible to my eyes. All going about their business of keeping the prairie healthy and thriving.

Speaking of which…The bright patches of butterfly weed are true to their name today.  This bloom has a coral hairstreak butterfly and a fritillary—plus a bee—all competing for real estate. The bedraggled fritillary, doubtless frayed by birds trying to get a nibble of its wings, looks like it is winning the battle for supremacy. What a tough customer for such a fragile insect! As I watch, the bee and the coral hairstreak are forced off the flowers.

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And at last, I spot a monarch. Ah. I was hoping to see you.

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As I finish the trail, something yellow catches my eye. The first goldenrod buds. Already? Summer just started! Or so it seems.

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The goldenrod is a reminder to enjoy every moment of this time on the prairie. Autumn will be here before we know it. Difficult to believe on this steamy July afternoon.

So for now, I’m going to enjoy the butterflies, bugs, and blooms of July.  Store up the colors, sights, and sounds of summer. While they last.

*****

The opening quote is by Sharman Apt Russell (1954-)  from her book, “An Obsession with Butterflies: Our Long Love Affair with a Singular Insect.”

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Schulenberg Prairie in July, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) bloom lopped off by weevils, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown bee on Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus)  nectaring on Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) nectaring on Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) ) nectaring on Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) nectaring on Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; video of viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus)  nectaring on Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; whorled milkweed (Asclepias virticillata) with some unknown bugs, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) with two butterflies (left, probably a coral hairstreak, Satyrium titus; right, a fritillary, Speyeria,  although she’s pretty dinged up by  bird nibbles to tell as to species), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; monarch (Danaus plexippus) on butterfly weed (Asclepis tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; early goldenrod (Solidago juncea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.