Tag Archives: tallgrass prairie

Prairie Bugs and Blooms

“Most children have a bug period. I never grew out of mine.” — E.O.Wilson

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As the curtain falls on June, rains and heat coax the prairie into luxuriant growth.

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Pale purple coneflowers, white wild indigo, and carrot-colored butterfly weed along with a suite of June’s other familiar wildflowers rampage across the prairie. I marvel at them as I hike. More unusual finds, like bunch flower and its suite of tiny flies and beetle pollinators, are a reason to drop to my knees in wonder.  Flora of the Chicago Region gives it a “10” as its coefficient of conservatism.

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Not far from the bunchflowers, the prairie lilies are in bloom. Another “10!” Such startling color. Somehow, the deer have missed munching on them this season. See if you can find the tiny crab spider.

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An umbrella paper wasp ignores me as it concentrates on an architectural project.

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Prairie coreopsis is a magnet for pollinators. Bees, wasps, moth caterpillars, flies, and beetles can’t resist its bright flowerhead, brimming with nectar and pollen. I love its sunny yellow flowers, a lift for my spirits.

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Wildflowers are the main event on the tallgrass prairie at the end of June. But today, I’m looking for dragonflies and damselflies.  Bugs? Pollinators? Not exactly.  Although they are in the Class Insecta, dragonflies and damselflies aren’t true bugs (Hemiptera)-–rather, they are part of the order Odonata. Although they don’t pollinate plants, dragonflies and damselflies are an important part of the prairie. I don’t have to look hard for them; the prairie is alive with different species in myriad patterns and colors. Some fly up out of the grasses as I hike. Others quietly perch, motionless.

Hello, Halloween pennants! Good to see you back on the prairie again.

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The black saddlebags dragonfly patrols in circles, silhouetted against the summer sky…

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…but I caught this one in a moment of rest.

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Common green darners are….well…common, but I still admire the patterns—that bull’s eye spot!—and coloration that makes them so distinct from any of their kind. Some say green darners look like cyclops. This female is unmistakable.

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In Willoway Brook, the ebony jewelwing damselflies flutter; looping in and out of the tallgrass to swipe smaller insects for breakfast.

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Every wildflower and grass stalk is a potential perch for an Odonate.  Widow skimmers. The blue you see on their wings is pruinescence, and gives it that startling contrast.

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Eastern amberwings hang out on leadplant. This one’s a female! Pretty.

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Male blue dashers watch for prey.

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A 12-spotted skimmers dragonfly basks in the sunshine, trying to regulate its body temperature, which it takes from the temperature around it.

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So many wonders! And summer on the prairie has only just begun.

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It’s going to be an amazing season.

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The opening quote is from E.O. Wilson’s  (1929-) Naturalist. His blindness in one eye from a childhood fishing accident led to his study of ants, which as “little things” were easy for him to focus on. Today, Wilson is recognized as the world’s leading authority on ants. He won several Pulitzer Prizes (1979, 1991) and the U.S. National Medal of Science (1976) among many other awards; he was named one of Time Magazine’s 25 Most Influential People in 1995. Thank you, John Heneghen, for loaning me Naturalist. A very enjoyable read.

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All photos taken at the Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): bunch flower (Melanthium virginicum); prairie lily (Lilium philadelphicum); umbrella paper wasp–dark paper wasp (Polistes fuscatus); prairie coreopsis (Coreopsis palmata); halloween pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina); common black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata); common black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata); common green darner dragonfly, female (Anax junius), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata); widow skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa); eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera); blue dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis);  12-spotted skimmer  dragonfly (Libellula pulchella), pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) and daisy fleabane (one of the Erigeron species, probably strigosus but possibly annuus). Note that many people consider daisy fleabane a weed; although common, it is a cheerful little native with many benefits to insects.

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Join Cindy for online dragonfly classes and online prairie ecology and ethnobotany classes:

“Dragonfly and Damselfly Beginning ID Online” through The Morton Arboretum. July 8 and July 10 –two morning classes online, with a day in between for you to work independently in the field, then bring your questions back for help. Register here.

“Prairie Ethnobotany Online” –through The Morton Arboretum. July 31 and August 7, 9-11 a.m. with a week  in between to enjoy your knowledge in the field. Learn about how people have used and enjoyed prairie plants through history. Register here.

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” begins a new session in September! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional ZOOM session. Register here.

Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org and other book venues. Order direct through Northwestern University Press and receive 25% off — use coupon code NUP2020 and see the information below. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during this chaotic time.Preorder Savings Chasing Dragonflies (1)

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.  

Summer on the Tallgrass Prairie

“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass on a summer day listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is hardly a waste of time.” —John Lubbock

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When the pale purple coneflowers bloom on the prairie,  you know summer has arrived.

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With the blooming of the prairie wildflowers comes their tiny pollinators, dusted in pollen, intent on finding the best nectar sources.

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Everywhere, sheets of wildflowers open under the prairie sky. Purple-blue scurfy pea and the non-native but exuberant ox-eye daisies crowd together, a delightful pairing.

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Black-eyed susans are suddenly noticeable, in all different stages of flowering. From bud…

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To barely open…

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…to just opening…

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…and finally,  a full “open-house” for pollinators.

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Purple milkweed, just about to bloom, waits for monarch caterpillars.

purplemilkweed61720WMSPMA We don’t have much of it on the prairie where I’m a steward, so spotting its bright buds is a delight. It’s a fine contrast to the first blush orange that washes across the butterfly weed. Monarch caterpillars in my backyard and on the prairie seem to prefer this milkweed species.

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Non-native nodding thistle—or musk thistle as it is sometimes called—blooms in startling pink, abuzz with a bee or two. It’s almost five feet tall! A show-stopper.

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I’ve not seen this thistle before, and wonder how difficult it is to manage. I read that its seeds may remain in the soil for up to ten years. Even in bud, it is so unusual!

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Prairie sundrops, Oenothera pilosella, are having the best year on the prairie that I’ve seen in more than two decades. Is it the lack of fire this season? Or the wet spring? I’d love to know what conditions have brought it to this state of profusion and perfection. Wilhelm’s Flora ranks its coefficient of conservatism as a “10.”

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Wild coffee—sometimes called “late horse gentian”—offers up its odd flowers to anyone with the patience to look closely. Snowberry clearwing moth caterpillars (commonly called “hummingbird moths”) use wild coffee as a host plant.

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Later, the each of the plant’s orange fruits—called “drupes”—will have three black nutlets resembling coffee beans. 

Prairie-loving creatures are everywhere. The ubiquitous silver-spotted skippers nectar on white wild indigo.

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Damselflies, like this variable dancer, float dreamlike through the tallgrass.

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This has also been a week of dragonflies, perching on old grass stalks and patrolling the prairie airspace. June is a big month for meadowhawk dragonfly emergence.

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So many 12-spotted skimmers! They bask in the sunshine.

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The butterflies are out on sunny days, brightening the prairies. Monarchs. Cabbage whites. And swallowtails. An eastern black swallowtail butterfly, flapping madly, is intent on finding non-native red clover, a good nectar plant. I’ve tasted red clover myself — so sweet! The butterfly is ragged and tattered. A survivor.

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In the savannas near the prairies, the bluebirds rest in the shade. They are year-round residents on the prairie here, but I never fail to be astonished by their color. They may raise two broods each season. The young from the later brood will stay with the parents during the winter.

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I’m grateful for their bright flash of blue glimpsed in any season.

In a woodland close to the prairies, the wood thrush sings its singular tune. It’s my favorite bird song, but a melancholy one, as I know the species is in decline. Read more about its amazing song patterns here.

The bees bump from bloom to bloom, drunk with the possibilities of June.

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Summer on the prairie is just beginning.

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Why not go see?

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John Lubbock (1834-1913) was an amateur biologist, with an interest in evolutionary theory and archeology. He and Charles Darwin exchanged correspondence. Lubbock is also thought to be the source for the quote, “We may sit in our library and yet be in all quarters of the earth.” Not a bad way to travel.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (from top to bottom): pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; mixed wildflowers, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta, unknown insect), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens), Schulenberg prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; musk thistle (Carduus nutans) with honeybee (Apis sp.), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; musk thistle (Carduus nutans), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie sundrops (Oenothera pilosella), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild coffee or late horse gentian (Triosteum perfoliatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; variable (or violet) dancer (Argia fumipennis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown female meadowhawk (Sympetrum spp.); Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL;  12-spotted skimmer dragonfly (Libellula pulchella), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; eastern black swallowtail butterfly (Papilio polyxenes asterius), Dick Young Forest Preserve prairie, Forest Preserve District of Kane County, Batavia, IL; eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) at Bliss Woods, Forest Preserve District of Kane County, Sugar Grove, IL; carpenter bee (Xylocopa sp.) on scurfy pea (Psoralidium tenuiflorum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve skies and prairie in June, Downer’s Grove, IL.

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Join Cindy for her upcoming online book event, online dragonfly classes, and online prairie ecology classes:

“Chasing Dragonflies in Literature, Life, and Art” Now Online! Saturday, June 27 10-11:30 a.m. Celebrate the release of author Cindy Crosby’s newest book, Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History through The Morton Arboretum. Cindy will be joined by the book’s award-winning illustrator, Peggy MacNamara,  artist in residence at the Field Museum. Enjoy a talk from the author and illustrator about the book, interspersed with short readings and insights on what it means for us as humans to be at home in the natural world. A Q&A session follows. Register here.

“Dragonfly and Damselfly Beginning ID Online” through The Morton Arboretum. July 8 and July 10 –two morning classes online, with a day in between for you to work independently in the field, then bring your questions back for help. Register here.

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” begins a new session in September! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional ZOOM session. Register here.

Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org and other book venues. Order direct through Northwestern University Press and receive 25% off — use coupon code NUP2020 and see the information below. Thank you for supporting small presses and writers during this chaotic time.Preorder Savings Chasing Dragonflies (1)

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.  

A Very Prairie Cemetery

“The prairie landscape insists on patience and commitment. It does not give up its secrets and wonders easily.” — James P. Ronda

*****

It’s the end of the work day at home, and I’m scrolling through Twitter. Then I see it —a tweet by tallgrass artist Liz Anna Kozik about a local prairie awash in shooting star blooms. A prairie I’ve never seen before! It’s only 30 minutes from my home. Jeff looks over my shoulder and sees the photo Liz has posted. Wow! We look at each other.

Let’s go!

The 37-acre Vermont Cemetery Prairie is part of the Forest Preserve District of Will County. One acre of the pioneer cemetery is designated as an Illinois Nature Preserve. This acre, untouched by agricultural plows which destroyed most of Illinois’ original 22 million acres of tallgrass prairie, is a rare piece of our history.

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The cemetery is home to the federally endangered  and state threatened Mead’s milkweed. Illinois has about two dozen native milkweeds, all of them host to the monarch butterfly caterpillar. I’ve seen many of these native milkweeds. But the Mead’s has been elusive. Maybe later this summer, I’ll see it here.

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As we get out of the car, I’m disappointed. Prairie plants? Sure. The immediate area around the parking lot seems to be prairie wetland, and we spot some familiar species.

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Birds are moving through. A killdeer. A mallard. Another mallard. And—what’s that?

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Lesser yellowlegs? I think so. Tringa flavipes. For fun, I look up the meaning of its scientific name. I discover “Tringa” is “a genus of waders, containing the shanks and tattlers.”  Hilarious! The Latin name flavipes is pretty straightforward: flavus is “yellow” and pes means “foot.” I love the scientific names; they always have a story to tell about a member of the natural world. I check the lesser yellowlegs’ range in Cornell’s All About Birds; it seems they are stopping here on their way to their breeding grounds up north.

We watch the lesser yellowlegs move through the wetlands for a while, then continue looking for the cemetery.   Jeff spies it first—-the black fencing in the distance is a tip-off. The Tall Grass Greenway Trail runs parallel to the prairie, between the fence and railroad tracks, flanked by towering power lines.

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A mammoth subdivision borders the other side of the preserve. House after house after house. But few people are at the prairie.

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The fence, which keeps us out, is necessary, as the prairie would easily be damaged by vandalism or poaching. Remnants like this have almost vanished in Illinois; only about 2,300 high quality original prairie acres remain. Remaining prairie remnants tend to be along old railroad tracks, on rocky knobs unsuitable for farming (such as you find at Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL), or in cemeteries, such as these.

Jeff and I walk the perimeter. Outside the cemetery fence, even the ditch and buffer zones are a treasure trove of prairie plants. Golden Alexanders.

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And its cousin, heart-leaved golden Alexanders.

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Compass plants.

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Wild strawberries.

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Tall coreopsis.

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Prairie dropseed.

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All this on the outside of the fence! Magical. Could it really be any better inside?

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We look in.

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Wow.

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So much shooting star. We see bumblebees among the graves, working the flowers in the early evening light.

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Among the shooting star is wood betony…

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..and so much hoary puccoon! These pops of orange are startling among the yellow of wood betony and the pink of shooting star. A few bastard toadflax throw white stars in the grasses.  Sedges are in bloom too! But what species?HoaryPuccoonVermontPrairieCemetery51220WM

I have no idea.

The health of this prairie is a tribute to long-time dedicated stewards Don and Espie Nelson. (Watch a video about their work on this prairie here.) Without the efforts of this dynamic duo, this prairie would not be the vibrant, diverse place we see today. It also owes its existence to Dr. Robert Betz, a professor at Northeastern Illinois University, who worked to restore this remnant in the 1960s through cutting brush and using prescribed fire. He’s one of our Illinois prairie heroes.

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I wonder what those who were buried here would have thought about the importance we put on the prairie flora found here today. Curious, I look up Wilhelmine Grabe, whose name appears on a gravestone with her husband, John Grabe.  She was born in Germany, immigrated here, and died in 1895, at the same age as I am today. What did she think, when she came from the forests of Germany and first walked through a tallgrass prairie? Was she enchanted? Or was she afraid of the vast, empty spaces that became her new home? Did she and her husband, John, work hard to break the prairie sod so they could farm and grow food for their family? Would it puzzle her to see how much we value the last vestiges of prairie here?

I look up other names I see on the markers, but find nothing. There are many other gravestones worn beyond deciphering. All of these markers ask us to remember people who called the prairie state home for a portion of their lives. All of them are now at rest in one of the most beautiful cemeteries I’ve ever seen.

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This prairie…these beautiful prairie wildflowers. This unexpected evening. This visit is a surprise that lifts my spirits and revives my sense of wonder.

The surprises have not all been good ones this week. My ginkgo tree, resilient and indestructible—-I thought — had leafed out. Then—wham! All of its leaves died this week.

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Will it survive? I email the Morton Arboretum’s plant clinic, a free service the Morton Arboretum offers to anyone, anywhere. Sharon, a repository of expert plant knowledge,  diagnoses freeze damage. She says it’s possible my little tree will summon enough energy to put out a new set of leaves.

Or not.

All I can do, she said, is watch…and wait.

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I’ve gotten more practiced at watching and waiting the past two months. No problem.

Another surprise:  Sunday evening, three and a half inches of rain fell in a few hours. The Arboretum is still closed because of the pandemic, so we drive to Leask Lane which borders the west side of the Schulenberg Prairie to see how the prairie has fared. There, we pull off the road to peer through the fence. Willoway Brook rampages wide and wild. As a steward, I know the seeds of invasive plants are coming in with this deluge, and will require attention as the waters subside.

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It’s a challenge I anticipate. But it will be a few more weeks before the Morton Arboretum is open. Although my steward work won’t resume for a bit longer, I’ll be able to hike the Schulenberg Prairie again in less than two weeks.  At last. At last.

I’m anxious to see what the past two months have brought to the prairie. I look over the fence and wonder. Are the small white lady’s slipper orchids in bloom? This should be their week. I remember the delight of discovering them nestled deep in the new grasses.

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It’s a discovery that has never lost its charm, year after year.

What about the shooting star? Will they be visible, even with the old growth, unburned, still in place? Try as I might, I can’t see them. But I remember them, from previous years.

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I think of these years, and how beautiful the wildflowers were. I imagine the queen bumblebees, alighting on one bloom after another,  using their strong thoracic muscles—-performing “buzz pollination”—to loosen the pollen. Like salt sprinkled from a salt shaker.  One thought led to another. Had the federally endangered rusty patched bumblebee emerged? Was it out and about in the wildflowers?

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I wonder if the first eastern forktail damselflies are emerging along Willoway Brook, and what effects the water’s rise and fall are having on the dragonfly and damselfly populations.

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So much is happening! So much to anticipate. June 1, I’ll be back on the prairie I’ve grown to love for the past 22 years where I’ve been steward for almost a decade. Less than two weeks to go now. Until then, I peer through the fence.

It will be worth the wait.

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James P. Ronda, whose quote kicks off the blog today, is the author of Visions of the Tallgrass from University of Oklahoma Press. If you haven’t seen this book of lovely essays with gorgeous photographs by Harvey Payne, check it out here.

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All photographs taken at Vermont Cemetery Prairie, Forest Preserve District of Will County, Naperville, IL unless otherwise noted; copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sign; view of the wetlands; lesser yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes); approach to cemetery remnant; approach to cemetery remnant; golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea); heart-leaved golden Alexanders (Zizia aptera); compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis); cemetery fence; shooting star and gravestone (Dodecatheon meadia); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) and gravestone; wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens) and bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata); prairie and power lines; ginkgo tree (Ginkgo biloba), author’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; small white lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL–photo from previous years; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL–photo from previous years; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia); eastern forktail (Ishnura verticalis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Tremendous thanks to Liz Anna Kozik  for the heads up about Vermont Cemetery Prairie. Check out her tallgrass prairie graphic comics and other art here.

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Join Cindy for a class online!

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology” class online in May through The Morton Arboretum is SOLD OUT.   Sign up now to ensure a spot in our June 7 class here.

Nature Journaling is online Monday, June 1 — 11am-12:30pm through The Morton Arboretum:
Explore how writing can lead you to gratitude and reflection and deepen connections to yourself and the natural world. In this workshop, you will discover the benefits of writing in a daily journal, get tips for developing the habit of writing, and try out simple prompts to get you on your way. (WELL095) — Register here.

Want more prairie while you are sheltering in place? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.

February Prairie Joys

“The season was…caught in a dreamy limbo between waking and sleeping.” — Paul Gruchow

*****

And so, February slogs on. We slip on ice, shovel the driveway, or shiver as cold slush slops into our boots. The sky alternates with bright sun and scoured blue skies to gray sheets of clouds that send our spirits plummeting. It’s difficult to not wish February gone. And yet, there is so much February has to offer. So much to enjoy! Hiking the Schulenberg Prairie and savanna after the snow on Valentine’s Day Friday, I was reminded of this.

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It’s 14 degrees Fahrenheit.  Brrr! There’s something comforting about water running under the ice in Willoway Brook.

In other parts of the prairie stream, the water looks like a deep space image, complete with planets, asteroids, and other star-flung matter.

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Wrinkles of ice form on the surface, like plastic wrap on blue jello.

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This slash of blue stream owes much of its color to the reflected February sky. Bright and sunny. So welcome after a string of gray days!

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However, to say the brook is blue is to overlook its infinite variations in color. Leaning over the bridge, I knock a drift of powdered snow loose. It sifts onto Willoway Brook and sugars the ice.

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The prairie is quiet. Roadway noise from a nearby interstate is an ever-present current of background sound, but the “prairie mind” soon learns to filter it out. My “prairie steward mind” notes the numbers of Illinois bundleflower seedheads along the stream, a mixed blessing here. We planted this native as part of a streambank rehab almost 20 years ago. Now, the bundleflower is spreading across the prairie in leaps and bounds and threatening to become a monoculture. What to do, what to do.

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For today, I’ll just enjoy its unusual jolt of shape and color. Wait until spring, bundleflower. I’ll deal with you then. Meanwhile, I enjoy some of the less rowdy members of the prairie wildflowers. Bee balm with its tiny pipes, each hollow and beginning to decay, shadowed in the sunlight. It’s easy to imagine hummingbirds and butterflies  sipping nectar here, isn’t it? Its namesake bees love it too.

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The February prairie is full of activity, both seen and unseen. A few sparrows flutter low in the drifts. Near the bee balm, mouse tunnels and vole holes pock the snowbanks.

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Coyote tracks, their shamrock paw prints deeply embedded in the slashes of snow, embroider the edges of the tallgrass.

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The remains of prairie plants have mostly surrendered to the ravages of the season.

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Carrion flower, a skeleton of its former self, catches small drifts. Such a different winter look for this unusual plant!

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Pasture thistle stands tall by the trail, still recognizable. This summer it will be abuzz with pollinator activity, but for now, the queen bumblebees sleep deep under the prairie. Waiting for spring.

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*****

The Schulenberg, a planted prairie, and Belmont Prairie, a prairie remnant, are less than five miles apart but feel very different.  On Sunday, Jeff and I drove to Downer’s Grove and hiked the Belmont Prairie. The bright sun and warming temperatures—44 degrees! —-also made Sunday’s hike a far different proposition than my Friday hike at 14 degrees on the Schulenberg Prairie.

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The shallow prairie stream at Belmont glistens with ice fancywork.

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The prairie plants here—what’s left of them in February—display infinite variety as they do on the Schulenberg. Nodding wild onion.noddingwildonionbelmontprairie21620WM.jpg

Rattlesnake master, its seedheads slowly disintegrating.

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Rattlesnake master’s yucca-like leaves, once juicy and flexible, are torn into new shapes. The textures are still clearly visible.

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Soft arcs of prairie brome…

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…are echoed by curved whips of white vervain nearby.

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The compass plant leaves bow into the snow, slumped, like melted bass clefs.

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I can identify these plants. But then the fun begins. What is this seedhead, knee-high by the trail? Such a puzzle!

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Without plant leaves, ID becomes more challenging. But the usual suspects are still here. A chorus of tall coreopsis…

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…and the wild quinine, now devoid of its pungent summer scent.

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Soft Q-tips of thimbleweed are unmistakable.

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As is the round-headed bush clover silhouette; a burst of February fireworks.

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February is flying by. There’s so much on the prairie to see before it ends.

Why not go look?

****

Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) penned the opening quote to this post, taken from the chapter “Winter” from Journal of a Prairie Year (Milkweed Editions, 1985). Gruchow remains one of my favorite writers; his treatises on Minnesota’s tallgrass prairie and rural life are must-reads.

All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Schulenberg Prairie and prairie savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook in ice and thaw, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ice on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ice on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ice on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; vole tunnel (may be a meadow vole or prairie vole, we have both!), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; trail through the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; carrion vine (likely Smilax herbacea) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; skies over Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; stream through Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; nodding wild onion (Allium cernuum), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL;  rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie brome (Bromus kalmii), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; white vervain (Verbena urticifolia), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; unknown, possibly purple or yellow meadow parsnip (Thaspium trifoliatum/flavum), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL.

Thanks to Illinois Botany FB friends (shout out Will! Evan! Paul! Duane! Kathleen!) for helping me work through an ID for the possible native meadow parsnip.

Join Cindy for a class or event!

Nature Writing and Art Retreat, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, February 22 (Saturday) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Cindy will be facilitating the writing portion. Sold Out. Waiting list –register here.

The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction– February 29, Saturday 10-11 a.m.,  Aurora Public Library,  101 South River, Aurora, IL Open to the public! Book signing follows.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26.  Details and registration here.

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum. For details and registration, click here.  

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

5 Reasons to Hike the February Prairie

“…Some say that February’s name comes from an ancient and forgotten word meaning “a time that tries the patience.” — Hal Borland

*******

February is the shortest month of the year. But it may seem like the longest.

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Big, wet snowflakes fall outside. I welcome the snow—-it brightens up the seemingly endless gray skies that feature so prominently this month. Snow helps lift my mood. Hiking the prairie? Even more so.

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Let’s take a stroll on the prairie…

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…and find five good reasons to walk it in February.

1. Experience Weather Swings

Indecisive February!

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The weather shivers between rain, sleet, sunshine and snow. To hike the prairie this month is to experience shifts of temperature in real time. Feel the freezing sleet on your face. Admire the snowflakes that collect on your sleeve. Crystals play on a hundred thousand seedpods, as precipitation pelts the prairie plants.

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I love to discover transitions on the prairie as the temperatures plunge and rise.

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There’s the tension between freeze and thaw; sunshine and leaden skies; the snap of ice under our boots and the suck of mud. February is all about our impatience for the last month of meteorological winter to finish and the first month of meteorological spring to arrive in Illinois. Hurry up! Our minds are already turning to spring. But what a loss it would be, if we failed to enjoy what February has to offer.

2. Signs of the Unseen

I rarely glimpse the meadow voles, prairie voles, or white-footed mice during the warmer months in the tallgrass. Although once in a while I’m surprised, as Jeff and I were this spring when we reached into a prairie trail map box and found these tenants.

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In winter, these mostly-invisible members of the tallgrass community are betrayed by their tracks and tunnels. I think about them as I follow their progress across the prairie.  The collapsed snow tunnels. An occasional escape hole. And my favorite—the sewing machine “stitches” —-tiny tracks evenly spaced—that criss-cross the trails.

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As we hike, Jeff and I leave our tracks alongside their prints—and the tracks of geese, coyotes, deer, and other members of the prairie community. I like that. It reminds me that we’re all a part of this place.

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3.  Plant Silhouettes

The same gray skies that plunge some of us into seasonal affective disorder throw prairie plants into sharp relief this month. It’s a new perspective. Indian hemp pods swing in bundles, bereft of any seeds.

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I’m more aware of the ribbon-like curves of big bluestem leaves, shorn now of  their turkey-footed seadheads.

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I enjoy the rhythmic sway of Indian grass, pushed by periodic blasts of Arctic wind.

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Prairie cinquefoil takes on a ghostly aspect, blurred in the falling sleet.  Its silhouette makes me think of tulips. Of the bulbs beginning to spear through the garden in my backyard. Of spring.

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These grasses and wildflowers won’t be here long.

Fire is coming.

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4. Unexpected Gatherings

When I think “grassland birds,” mourning doves aren’t exactly what comes to mind. But hiking the College of DuPage’s Russell Kirt Prairie this weekend, that’s what turned up. Notice how this mob has fluffed out their feathers against the cold—like down vests, puffy and tinged with color. It reminds me of the down vests I wore in the 1970s.

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Why did they choose this tree on the prairie, and not another? What are they murmuring about? I wonder. After a bit of looking around on birding websites, I discover a group of doves is called a “dole” or “dule,” and sometimes, a “cote, a “bevy,” and even, a “flight.” Flight? Maybe not. These birds look like they’ve settled in for the long haul.

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Seeing them in the tree reminds me of one of my favorite scenes from the original 1967 Disney adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book.” Remember the four vultures, loosely modeled on the Beatles, talking to each other in a tree? “What do you wanna do?” one asks. “I dunno, what do you want to do?” And so it goes. I can imagine these mourning doves asking each other the same question, over and over. Makes me smile.

5. Snow Magic

Hike the prairie in February, and you’ll be aware of contrasts. Snow is the mitigator. A light dusting of snow makes everything softer, brighter, more appealing. Snowmelt softens the crisp edges of senescing plants, like this prairie dock leaf.

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Cup plants, cracked and brittle…

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…become a foil for the crystal flakes, their veins and wrinkles more obvious now than in the summer. This leaf looks like footed pajamas hung on a laundry line, doesn’t it?

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A sprinkling of snow makes February’s gray skies seem a little brighter.

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A little snow makes the month of February a little more do-able. More digestible. Beautiful. Why not go for a hike and see for yourself?

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February will be over before you know it.  The prairie is waiting.

*****

This winter, I’ve been enjoying the writing of Hal Borland (1900-1978), whose quote from A Sundial of the Seasons, 365 days of natural history observations, opens this post.  It was tough to find his books—all out of print, I believe— so I’m once again grateful to the marvelous Sterling Morton Library of the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL,  which carefully curates vanishing works of literature like Borland’s. Thanks to Mary Joan for introducing me to to his work. The original opening quote is prefaced by the caveat, “There’s no evidence to support it in the dictionaries, but some say… .” Ha!  If the actual etymology of the word “February” isn’t true, the supposed meaning certainly is.

*****

All photos this week are taken at College of DuPage’s Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL, except where noted (top to bottom): Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum);  Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis); “Prairie Parking” sign with unknown lichens; snowy trail through the prairie; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); COD pond; white-footed mice (Peromyscus spp.), Wolf Road Prairie, Westchester, IL (photo from 2019); mouse and vole trails through the snow;  top of the ridge on COD’s Russell Kirt Prairie; Indian hemp, sometimes called dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum); big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); prairie cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta—us older prairie folks will remember it as Potentilla arguta); little bluestem (Schizachryium scoparium); mourning doves (Zenaida macroura); mourning doves (Zenaida macroura); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum); cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum); tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima) and wild bergamot, sometimes called bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); snowy trail through the prairie.

*****

Please join Cindy for a class or talk!

Pre-Valentine’s Event! The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Shop: February 13 (Thursday) 8-9 p.m., Park Ridge Garden Club, Centennial Activity Center 100 South Western Avenue Park Ridge, IL. Free and open to the public! Book signing follows.

Wheaton Book Signing! Local Authors Event.  Sunday, 2-3 p.m., Prairie Path Books in Town Square, Wheaton, IL. Free and open to the public. Click here for details.

Nature Writing and Art Retreat, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, February 22 (Saturday) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Cindy will be facilitating the writing portion. Sold Out. Waiting list –register here.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26.  Details and registration here.

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum. For details and registration, click here.  

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

The Tallgrass Prairie: A Cabin Fever Cure

“I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure in the landscape—the loneliness of it—the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it; the whole story doesn’t show.”–Andrew Wyeth

*****

There’s something about a Midwestern cold snap. Suddenly, I have an urge to bake bread. Read books by the fireplace. The coffeemaker perks from dawn until dusk.

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I halfheartedly look for my hiking boots to go for a prairie hike, then pause. Wind howls around the house and rattles the windows. My weather app tells me  the “real-feel” temperature is minus 16 outside.  I go back to my book. Wimp! I scold myself. But I feel a deep desire to hibernate.

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As the snowfall ended and hypothermic temperatures dissolved Monday into manageable levels, indoor pleasures palled. I had read through a large stack of library books over the weekend, baked more sourdough bread than Jeff and I could ever possibly eat, and drank enough coffee and tea to keep myself awake for a month.  Cabin fever. Now, I was ready for a prairie hike.

You too? Let’s go.

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Jeff and I arrived at Belmont Prairie Monday to find an empty parking lot. Looks like a prairie hike isn’t on most people’s agenda. Snow underlies the prairie, with the occasional frozen pool showing the effects of sleet and rain over the weekend.

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Grasses are bowed by drifts.

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Others are upright, but shorn of their seedheads, like these big bluestem.

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It looks like January—winter at last—on the prairie, from the bare trees on the rim of the tallgrass to the golds of the grasses.

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The prairie is mostly quiet, except for the occasional skein of Canada geese calling overhead.

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As we hike, we see a few tracks here and there, showing that at least one person has trekked these paths since Saturday. Mostly, the paths are full of a different kind of print. Squirrel tracks. Deer. The occasional mouse or vole hole. As we move down the trail, Jeff grabs my arm. Look! Five white-tailed deer bound away. We watch them go, blurs in the distance.

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This prairie remnant—untouched by the plow and left undeveloped—holds a treasure-trove of native plants.

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Each in its particular stage of senesce. Each with its own particular allure.

Carrion flower.

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Bee balm—or wild bergamot as some prairie stewards like to call it—is everywhere. Its scientific name, Monarda fistulosa, is apt: fistulosa means “hollow reed” or “tubular.” No wonder hummingbirds and hummingbird clearwing moths swarm this plant in the summer.

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Pewter-colored wild quinine is as pretty in January as it is in bloom. Gardeners would call these plants “winter interest.”

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Ditto for rattlesnake master, whose yucca-like leaves have interesting texture and a rough-hewn elegance.

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Some of the rattlesnake master seedheads remind me of straw-colored dahlias.

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Not everything I admire is native. Even though Queen Anne’s lace is an invasive, I always enjoy it in January. I love its structure. Later, in the growing months, I’ll weed it out on the prairie and in my backyard. But for now, I can see its delicate grace.

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The clouds begin to break up, and the sun suddenly throws the prairie into sharp relief.

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We’ve reached the far side of the preserve now, and the stream is just ahead.

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The bridge is a bit treacherous, but I’ve got Yaktrax on for the first time this season.  These rubber stabilizers pull on over my hiking boots and help me keep my footing on the ice. Today, they are a complete mismatch, as I’ve lost one each from two different pairs (one has a strap, one is without). But they see me across the icy trails and bridge without mishap.

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The creek through Belmont Prairie, full after Saturday’s rains, is mostly frozen now.

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I stop and take a closer look.

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Ice art is everywhere, a dance between ice and thaw. It’s as if the prairie grasses have scribbled designs in the stream.

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I love the abstract shapes and delicate traceries. Some seem to reflect the clouds of a prairie sky.

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The melted places add their own filigreed patterns.

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The tips of growing plants—blue flag iris, perhaps?—are barely visible, spearing through the ice and snow.

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Green plants! Signs of life. They make me think of spring. But—hold on. I don’t want to rush this season. We need the snow cover and cold each year for the health of the tallgrass. Winter is an important chapter in the prairie’s story.

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I can’t help the jolt of happiness I feel, though.  The green plant tips seem to hold a promise. Spring is coming.

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As we hike back to the car, I’m grateful for the bracing prairie hike. Glad to see the beauty of the ice and snow. Grateful—yes, really—for the cold that blew so many cobwebs out of my mind. I feel rejuvenated. My mind is clear.

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Cabin fever? Not me. Not anymore.

Thanks, tallgrass.

*******

Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) was a controversial painter specializing in realism. Love his work—-or find it cheesy—he was an important figure in the popular culture of the mid-1900s. His most famous painting is probably Christina’s World. Charles Schulz fans will remember in Schulz’s “Peanuts” comic strip that when Snoopy’s dog house burned down, Snoopy replaced his Van Gogh with a Wyeth painting. Wyeth received the National Medal of Arts in 2007.

*****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken this week at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL (top to bottom): ice crystals on the prairie trail; ice crystals on prairie grass;  trail through Belmont Prairie; view in to Belmont Prairie; grasses in snow; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); mixed grasses and trees; Canada geese (Branta canadensis); white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus); pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida); carrion vine (Smilax spp.); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa);wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium); invasive Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) trail through Belmont Prairie; trail through Belmont Prairie; bridge over the stream; stream through Belmont Prairie; stream through Belmont Prairie; ice art, ice art; ice art; ice art with growing tips of unknown plant; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica); unknown plant; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans).

Please join Cindy at an upcoming event or class this winter:

THE TALLGRASS PRAIRIE: A CONVERSATION, January 30 (Thursday) 9-11:30 a.m.  University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum, Curtis Prairie Visitor Center–Auditorium, Madison, WI. More information and tickets here.

Nature Writing and Art Retreat, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, February 22 (Saturday) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Cindy will be facilitating the writing portion. Sold Out. Waiting list –Register here.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26.  Details and registration here.

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum. For details and registration, click here.  

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

A Little Prairie Fog Magic

“Things take the time they take. Don’t worry.” — Mary Oliver

*****

Seems Mother Nature is trying to cram all four seasons into one week as January gets off to a tumultuous start in the Chicago region. From the “Winter Storm Icepocalypse” that fizzled, to temps veering from a balmy 50 degrees to a bitter 17 (and what about those wind gusts at 40 mph?) we’ve already experienced weather worthy of all four seasons. Sun. Snow. Ice. Sleet. Wind. Rain. Fog.

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With a winter storm in the forecast, I headed to the Schulenberg Prairie Friday to put in some long-overdue pasque flower seeds.  Pasque flowers are one of the first wildflowers to bloom in the spring after a prescribed burn.

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We usually deal with the seeds immediately as they ripen, pushing them into the soil next to the mother plant. But our flowering plants have dwindled here—in 2018, to just a few blooms. We’ve also been starting them in the greenhouse—and direct sowing them—but I worry about the limited genetic pool we’re drawing from. Slowly the population is increasing. But we have a long way to go.

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This season, generous folks at a local forest preserve were kind enough to share seeds with us to help invigorate our dwindling, genetically-inbred population. But, by the time the seeds arrived, I was out of commission for the season after cancer surgery. The seeds languished in an envelope. Until now.

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Winter seeding is a time-honored method to stratify certain prairie seeds that need a cold, moist period to germinate. Better late than never, I tell myself. This morning, the temperature hovers in the mid-40s. But snow is on the way.

Fog envelopes the prairie and prairie savanna.

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I grab my bucket of sand and envelope of seeds, and head for the area I have in mind for the pasque flowers.

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Fog brings a certain silence with it. On Sterling Pond, across from the prairie savanna, the cold ice of the pond kisses the warm air. The fog shape-shifts across the water. A living thing. A breath of transition.

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A few goldfinches in their buff-colored winter plumage bounce through the scattered trees.

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Along the trail, a pasture thistle throws sparks of light from the fog moisture.

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Learning to distinguish between the native thistles (keepers!) and invasive thistles (begone!) was one of my early tasks as a prairie steward. One clue is the pale reverse sides of the leaves on native thistles. Even in winter, this pasture thistle’s leaves are a give-away. Keeper.

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The trail is mushy, and I’m soon thankful for my knee-high rubber boots. Mud clings to the soles, weighing my steps. It’s a slog, but I’m slowed more by the beauty around me than the mud. The prairie is on fire with water.

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Fog droplets kindle sparks of light on every plant surface, reflecting the upside prairie.

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Arriving at my chosen spot, I push the pasque flower seeds into the moist ground and sprinkle a little sand over the top to anchor them so they don’t blow away before the snow falls. When gale force winds arrive that evening, I’ll think back on this and be glad I did.

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The coming snow will provide cover. Freeze and thaw. Freeze and thaw. The seeds will settle into the prairie soil and wait, ready to germinate—I hope—this spring.

It’s tough to focus on the task at hand when all around me, droplets hang from the tips of grasses like crystals. Canada wild rye is beaded with diamonds.

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Big bluestem, our Illinois state grass, is clear-pearled and luminous.

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Switchgrass hangs wands of lights in the gloom.

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It’s unearthly. Magical. I’m mesmerized by contrasts. Worn, wet prairie seedheads. Sprinkled with light.

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I return to the seeds. Pasque flowers have a reputation for going into deep dormancy if not planted immediately after harvesting. So my hope for seeing any quick results in the spring are tempered with the knowledge that these were held in storage longer than I would have liked. It might be years. And yet. Sometimes, life doesn’t work out the way you planned it. You have to adapt to what you’re given.

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2019 was a year of the unexpected for many of us. Me included. As a prairie steward, I had to adjust my expectations of what I would accomplish. Looking back at the year,  it’s tough not to think about the projects that remain unfinished.

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These pasque flower seeds were one fall-out of those adjusted expectations of my prairie work. After surgery in August, it was two months before I could hike as far as the pasque flowers’ seeding spot.

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I’m grateful that today, five months later, I can effortlessly hike across the prairie. As the late poet Jane Kenyon wrote, “It could have been otherwise.

Brian Doyle wrote about his  cancer diagnosis in One Long River of Song: Notes on Wonder. Don’t call it “a battle with cancer,” he said. It’s not a battle. Rather—as a tiny, frail nun once told him—cancer becomes your dance partner. You don’t want this partner;  you don’t like this partner, but you have to dance, he writes.

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The shadow of that dance partner will always be with  you. I think of this as I gently pull the pasque flower seeds from their envelope. How quickly our lives may change. How unwelcome  “the dance.” But as I sow the seeds of the pasque flower, and sand them into their places, I feel optimistic about the future.

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The common name “pasque” means Easter, as this is the time the plant usually flowers. Its scientific name  is Pulsatilla patensPulsatilla means “beaten about” in modern Latin, or “beaten by the wind.”

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We burn the tallgrass prairie here each spring. Amid the ashes and bare, blackened earth, the pasque flower dances with the prescribed fire. None-the-less, it blooms. Trembles in the wind. It’s almost been defeated here, on this site, over the years.

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But not yet. I’m not going to let it go. The dance continues. I’ll keep planting pasque flower seeds for the future. I’ll continue to hope.

*****

The opening quote is from Felicity by Mary Oliver (1935-2019),  winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. If you haven’t read her writing, a good place to start is New & Selected Poems Volume 1.

****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): trail to the Schulenberg Prairie in the fog, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Franklin Grove, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens) seeds, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; fog on the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bridge over Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Sterling Pond in the fog, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; goldfinch (Spinus tristis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) leaves, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; droplets on Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens) seeds, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; prairie interpretive trail under the snow, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; coyote (Canis latrans) tracks in the snow, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL;  ice art, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sanding in the seeds, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens) blooms fading, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens) opening (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The line from the Jane Kenyon poem is from Otherwise. Thanks to Susan Kleiman and Russell Brunner for their help with the pasque flower seeds! Grateful.

*****

Please join Cindy at an upcoming event or class this winter!

Sterling Stories, Lisle Heritage Society, Sunday, January 19, 2 p.m. With co-presenter Rita Hassert, Library Collections Manager, The Morton Arboretum. Location is the  Lisle Library, 777 Front Street, Lisle, IL. Open to the public.

Nature Writing and Art Retreat, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, February 22 (Saturday) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Cindy will be facilitating the writing portion. Sold Out. Waiting list –Register here.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26.  Details and registration here.

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum. For details and registration, click here. 

A New Year in the Tallgrass

“Joy as I see it involves embracing life. … Joy isn’t the opposite of sorrow, but encompasses and transcends sorrow. You know you’re truly connected with yourself when you’re experiencing joy.” — Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge

*****

Where did 2019 go? The time passed so quickly.

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This year we saw changes on the prairies we love. After the prescribed burns that torched the tallgrass…

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… we marveled at the new growth soon after.

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Watched the early pasque flowers bloom….

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and then, set seeds for the future.

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We stood amazed at the constellations of shooting star, bent and humming with bumble bees.

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Then, were astonished at the July wildflowers. Sure, we seem them each summer. But each year seems like a miracle.

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Now, at the end of December, the prairie has its own sort of loveliness. The beauty of sky and clouds…

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…the delights of a single seedhead.

Pasture thistle.

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Bee balm.

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Blazing star.

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Each prairie plant has a different method of making seeds and ensuring its future. Each has  a story to tell.

Remembering the familiar cycle of prescribed fire, new growth, flushes of color, and fruition of seed are all comforting at the close of the year.

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It comforts us as we remember how, in 2019, we wrote our own stories. Some of us lost people we loved. Had surgery. Battled cancer. Made new friends. Laughed a lot. Cried a lot, too. Weeded, seeded. Planned and worked to make those plans—both on the prairie and off—a reality. Celebrated the successes. Resolved to learn from the failures.

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In 2019, there were the surprises and vagaries of weather. Remember the big snow in April? Then, the cold and wet through the middle of June. Blazing hot in July. Snow on Halloween. Sixty degree days in December. Through it all, the prairie sailed on. The tallgrass  prairie was built for these extremes.

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Woven through 2019 was joy. True joy. The kind that is hard-won. The prairie, with its glories and challenges, defeats and delights, reminds us of this. Fire brings growth. Deep roots hold firm, drawing from long-held reserves when unexpected events throw the season out of kilter. The prairie survives.

It survives, also in part, because of people with vision.  Each prairie is a story of sweat and joy; patience and persistence. Of survival. Like a Polaroid snapshot, stewards and volunteers bring struggling remnants back into sharp focus.

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Many saved at the eleventh hour.GensburgMarkhambigbluestemWM122719.jpg

2019 was the continuing story of people who care enough to preserve places that aren’t always easy—at first glance–to understand. When I drive by the roughly 105-acre Gensburg-Markham prairie on congested I-294, set aside in 1971, I wonder what most commuters whizzing by this precious remnant think about it. Do they know what was saved, and why it matters? Do they wonder why it was never developed? Or is it just a blur in their rear view mirrors as they speed to their destinations?

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Do the people who drive by the 91-acre Sundrop Prairie, dedicated in 2000 and part of the Indian Boundary Prairies in Markham, IL, know what a treasure these acres contain?

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The tallgrass grows and changes. Our understanding of their importance evolves. And yet, the prairies continue on, as they have for hundreds of thousands of years. There’s a comfort in knowing that when we’re gone, the prairies will continue to survive and thrive under the care of future generations.

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I think of these things as I hike a prairie trail at Fermilab in the last days of the year. According to the Chicago Tribune, “In 1975 when he heard that Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, near Batavia, was looking for suggestions on what to do with the thousands of acres it owned, Bob Betz sat down with then-director Robert Wilson and went over his vision of having a restored prairie on the property. ‘And when Dr. Wilson asked how long it was going to take, Dr. Betz said, ‘Ten, 20 or maybe 30 years,’ then Dr. Wilson said, ‘Well, we better get started this afternoon.’ ” From these beginnings, beautiful prairies were planted and now thrive at Fermilab.

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Prairie remnants like the Indian Boundary Prairies—Sundrop and Gensburg-Markham— require people to discover them, bring them to the attention of the rest of us, and then, care for them with prescribed fire and stewardship. They require organizations like the Nature Conservancy and Northeastern Illinois University and others, and the generous donations of individuals, to ensure their protection. They require vision. And action. I think of Bob Betz, and his work with the Indian Boundary Prairies, as well as with Fermilab’s natural areas.  I think of the volunteers who undertake a hundred different tasks to maintain prairies today.

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Other preserves, like Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL–which has both remnant and planted prairies—shows the rewards of focused funding and care since 1986 by the Nature Conservancy Illinois and later, joined in that care by Friends of Nachusa Grasslands. I think also of the 100-acre Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum just outside of Chicago, and the volunteers, including myself, who dedicate time each season to cut brush, plant new natives, and collect seeds. Such different prairies! Each one irreplaceable.

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Now, it’s time to close another chapter in the life of the prairies. 2019 is a wrap.

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2020 is waiting. So much possibility!

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So much good work to do. So much joy to look forward to.

*****

The opening quote is included in the book, Poemcrazy: Freeing Your Life with Words by Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge. It’s one of my favorite books on writing; I re-read it at least once a year.

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Sundrop Prairie, Midlothian, IL: prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; greening up after the prescribed burn, top of Dot’s Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL: pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens) in bloom, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatiilla patens) in seed, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; July at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; the end of December at Fermilab Natural Areas, interpretive trail, Batavia, IL; pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; blazing star (probably Liastris aspera), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Sundrop Prairie, Midlothian, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Sundrop Prairie, Midlothian, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Sundrop Prairie, Midlothian, IL; backlit prairie plants (unknown), Sundrop Prairie, Midlothian, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; Illinois nature preserve sign, Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; Sundrop Prairie in December, Midlothian, IL; Gensburg-Markham Prairie with bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), grasses, and wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; Fermilab interpretive trail edges at the end of December, Batavia, IL; Carolina horsenettle (Solanum carolinense), Fermilab interpretive prairie trail, Batavia, IL: prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; Wilson Hall from the interpretive trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL;  interpretive trail at Fermilab Natural Areas at the end of December, Batavia, IL.

***

Please join Cindy at one of her upcoming classes or talks in the new year!

Nature Writing and Art Retreat, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, February 22 (Saturday) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Cindy will be facilitating the writing portion. Register here.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26.  Details and registration here.

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum. For details and registration, click here. 

Happy New Year! Thank you for reading. See you in 2020.

A Tale of Two Prairies

“The natural world is the refuge of the spirit… .” E. O. Wilson

*****

Sunday, my family and I braved the traffic out of Chicago to celebrate Christmas together in northwestern Indiana. There were a surprising number of commuters.

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Probably the holidays.

Any opportunity to travel is an opportunity to see prairies. As we drove toward the Indiana state line, making good time, Jeff suddenly veered off I-294 at the exit for Highway 6. “Let’s revisit Gensburg-Markham Prairie!” he offered. We had dropped by this prairie several years ago, and impressed, always vowed to return.

Oh no! The entrance gate, at the end of a neighborhood cul-de-sac, seemed to be locked.

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Determined, I squeezed through the opening between the fence and the chain-closed gate. Later, I read that the chain is merely draped over the top of the fence. Ha! I could have lifted it off and opened the gate, it seems. Perhaps it was more of an adventure my way.

On the other side, this remnant prairie is full of treasures, even in December.

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Drifts of prairie dropseed swirled through the prairie.

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Mountain mint seeds were mostly gone, but no less beautiful for that.

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Deep in the grasses I found prairie dock leaves. This is my favorite time of year for them. Like “swiss dots” fabric.

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Its Silphium cousin—compass plant—wasn’t far away.

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A few purple prairie clover seedheads remained. I struggle, sometimes, to distinguish the white prairie clover from the purple at this time of year, when the seeds are partially gone. One is grittier, and one is softer and lighter colored. Hmmm.

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White vervain, which occurs in every county of Illinois, curtained the edges of the prairie.

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I walked the mowed trail and listened. Not far away, the Tri-State Tollway traffic roared and billboards signed their temporary depressing messages. Legal services. Gambling. Fast food. Strip clubs.

 

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But the magic of the switchgrass…

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…and the remains of the tall coreopsis and other prairie plants gone to seed were enticing enough to propel me deeper into the prairie, wondering what else I might see. Alas! There wasn’t nearly enough time to explore. We needed to get back on the road.

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After our family gathering in Indiana, Jeff and I headed home via some back roads through St. John, avoiding the traffic on the Tri-State Tollway as much as possible. Gray skies promised an early dusk and perhaps, snow on the way. On this route, we always watch for the Shoe Corner, at the intersection of 109th and Calumet—an odd tradition in this part of the Hoosier state of dropping shoes along the roadway. As we braked at a stoplight, Jeff pointed. “Look!”

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We immediately signaled and drove slowly along the edges of the prairie, looking for an entrance. The best spot seemed to be a parking lot with an abandoned building.

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This, I thought, was more forbidding than the locked gate to Gensburg-Markham. I doubted we were at the correct entrance. But a trail mowed along the edge of the prairie offered a way in. As I walked into the grasses, I wondered about the history of this place. Indiana once was about 15 percent tallgrass prairie, according to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Later, I learned that this 34.2 acre remnant was saved from development and dedicated in 1992.

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Reading more at home, I found that according to the DNR, at least 175 species of native plants are here; one federally threatened. Three rare animals. Several rare moths and insects. Biesecker Prairie is also an introduction site for the  federally-threatened Mead’s milkweed; an unusual milkweed that no longer occurs naturally in Indiana. I promised myself to come back in the summer, when we had more daylight and knew where to park and hike.

Beisecker Prairie is a gem in a rough-cut setting. We could have so easily missed it! A defunct business nearby had piled refuse, boats, and old electronics along the far edge of the area. It’s so easy to focus on what is broken and ugly; to only see the damage we’ve done to the beautiful natural areas we once had in Indiana and Illinois.

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But often, beauty and restoration are just around the corner. Literally.

Despite its surroundings, Biesecker Prairie seemed….tranquil. Peaceful, despite the traffic flying by. A little oasis. Like Gensburg-Markham by the Tri-State Tollway.

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I wonder what Biesecker Prairie will look like in spring. From different vantage points at this time of year, you could see common milkweed; tall coreopsis, prairie dropseed, perhaps a little cordgrass. Native prairie plants.  Someone cared enough to preserve and protect this little corner prairie remnant. Someone realized its value.  Its history. And because of this, it survives.

 

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This small prairie remnant in Indiana—and others like Gensberg-Markham Prairie, a remnant carefully preserved in Illinois—still stand despite the odds.  We find these prairies juxtaposed between golf courses and highways. Sandwiched  into neighborhoods, defunct businesses, and Interstates. These precious few acres of tallgrass prairie remain because people paid attention. They cared enough to protect them. Kudos to the volunteers, stewards, and agencies that made it happen—and who continue to steward these tallgrass prairie preserves today.

Two urban prairies. Two different states. Two stories.

Hope for the future.

*****

The opening quote is by E. O. Wilson (1929-), Professor Emeritus and Honorary Curator in Entomology at Harvard, from Biophilia (1984). Wilson is considered the world’s foremost authority on ants. Blinded in one eye as a child in a fishing accident, he learned to focus on “little things” he could see up close, or under a microscope. Wilson has won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction twice; once for On Human Natureonce for The Ants (with Burt Holldobler). He is sometimes called “the Father of Biodiversity,” and is known for his theory of island biogeography (with Robert Macarthur).

****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): possibly cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum), Naperville, IL; gate to Gensburg-Markham Prairie; Gensburg-Markham Prairie in December, Markham, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; mountain mint (probably Pycnanthemum virginianum), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; white vervain (Verbena urticifolia), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; I-294 and Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL;  tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; corner of Biesecker Prairie, St. John, IN.abandoned business close to Biesecker Prairie, St. John, IN; edges of Biesecker Prairie, St. John, IN: Biesecker Prairie in December, St. John, IN; Biesecker Prairie, St. John, IN.

******

Please join Cindy at one of her upcoming classes or talks in the new year!

Nature Writing and Art Retreat, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, February 22 (Saturday) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Cindy will be facilitating the writing portion. Register here.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26.  Details and registration here.

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum. For details and registration, click here. 

A Twilight Prairie Hike

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”  — Rachel Carson

******

December. The roads are choked with traffic; shoppers busy with the work of preparing for the holidays. Neighborhoods dressed in Christmas lights glow. Chicago radio stations swap out their playlists for Jingle Bell Rock and Frosty; Oh Holy Night and Santa Baby. The temperatures warm into the high 40s and then, plummet into the teens. We think of snow.

Under steel skies, the prairie is quiet, an impressionist study in golds, browns, and rusts.

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Sunday, Jeff and I drove to Crystal Lake, Illinois, where I gave a late afternoon talk on Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit.

signprairieview12819WM.jpg Afterwards, there was just enough light to go for a hike on the prairie, silent in the gathering dark. Mary, my delightful host, told me the prairie was originally a farm, run by Hazel and her husband, Otto Rhoades, president of Sun Electric Company. The 7,500 square foot education center was originally their home built in 1945.

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The McHenry County Conservation District purchased the property in 1993 and began converting the private home to an educational center.  Today, the center serves thousands of McHenry County children and families with low-cost nature programs, camps, and school field trips. These kids will grow up knowing that tallgrass prairie is something special.

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As the light fades on the prairie, so do the sounds. We move a short way down the path and realize the day is almost gone. Our hopes of hiking the  six and a half miles of hiking trails through the prairie and savanna restorations, culminating at the banks of the Fox River, won’t happen this time. This short walk will only be a taste of what this place has to offer.

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Just over the horizon a plume of smoke lifts, likely a neighbor burning leaves.

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In the gloaming, the grasses and wildflowers take on a mysterious aspect. The prairie has been called “a sea of grass” in literature, and I can imagine these wildflowers at the bottom of an ocean floor, waving gently in the current.

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As we hike, I think of the old farm and the lives spent in agriculture here. It would be a shock to Hazel and Otto to see these acres, likely wrestled from prairie at one time, turned back to tallgrass prairie again.

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John Madson, in his eloquent book, Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie, talks of visiting the area where his great-grandparents turned tallgrass into farm. He wrote: “What would they think in our time if they could stand in the Walnut Creek Refuge and look over a prairiescape again? They might deplore it as so much foolishness, feeling somehow betrayed by this replication of a wilderness they had been so proud to have tamed. Or would they see it for what it really is—a common ground between their lives and ours?”

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Walking through the tallgrass, I try to envision it as farm in the forties. My imagination fails. Prairie stretches across the horizon. In the dim light, the grasses  become waves crashing into the savanna.

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But the wildflowers have amazing detail and grace, like this goldenrod rosette gall on a goldenrod plant.

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Even the weedier prairie natives, like evening primrose, seem festive.

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A deer emerges from the tallgrass, shadowed, then motionless, so much that Jeff and I almost miss our “Illinois state animal.” The deer reminds me of the book I’ve been reading, Wilding: Returning Nature to Our Farm , by Isabella Tree. Set in Great Britain, Tree tells of the experiment her family undertakes to let their intensive agricultural venture go and then, watch the land recover. They add old English longhorns, fallow deer, red deer, and Exmoor ponies to their land to churn it and fertilize it. They withhold herbicides. Quit planting. Then, they watch the exhausted land become healthy again. As birds and insects return to their thousands of acres, the neighbors are aghast to see good cropland be “wasted.” Of the experiment, Tree writes: “It was an affront to the efforts of every self-respecting farmer, an immoral waste of land, an assault on Britishness itself.

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Reading Madson and Wilding reminds me that our ideas about how to use the land and what we value are always changing, always in transition. Land use isn’t always something we agree on. Prairie, because it is so nuanced, may be seen as land that is “wasted.” Couldn’t that land be better used? But when you build a relationship with prairie, you understand its true value.

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I wonder what my grandchildren will make of prairie, and how they will care for the landscape they’ve inherited. How they will change it. I think of the next generations. What will they value when they explore the prairie trails? Will they see the beauty and sense of history that permeates these places?

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Prairieview ‘s work—and the work of other prairie education programs for families and schoolchildren—gives me hope.  That we will invest in children and their prairie experiences. That we will let them absorb the beauty and mystery of the prairie through personal time spent hiking and exploring the tallgrass. That educators and parents will help them understand the value of its plants and its animals. Then, our children will have a reason to love the prairie community and care about its future.

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We’ve not gone very far into the tallgrass, but it’s time to turn around and head for the car. Dusk has turned to dark. Just a bit of light remains.

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We’ll be back.

******

The opening quote is from Rachel Carson’s (1907-1964) The Sense of Wonder. Begun as a magazine essay, the book is a stirring call to nurturing children’s sense of delight and marvel over the natural world.

******

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken this week at Prairieview Education Center, Crystal Lake, IL except where noted: prairie at Prairieview Education Center in December; welcome sign; Prairieview Education Center; little bluestem (Schizachyium scoparium); view from the education center; trails through the prairie; mostly bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); switchgrass (Panicum virgatum); mixed grasses and savanna in the dusk; rosette gall, made by the goldenrod gall midge (Rhopalomyia solidaginis); evening primrose (Oenothera biennis); white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus);  compass plant (Silphium lacinateum); young child explores the prairie, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata); common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).

Thanks to Mary, Barbara, and the good folks at Prairieview who hosted the booksigning and talk on Sunday. And thank you to Dustin, who recommended “Wilding” to me.

*****

Please join Cindy at one of her upcoming classes or talks in the new year!

Nature Writing and Art Retreat, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, February 22 (Saturday) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Cindy will be facilitating the writing portion. Register here.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26.  Details and registration here.

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum. For details and registration, click here.