Tag Archives: The Morton Arboretum

A Prairie Valentine

How important it is to walk along, not in haste but slowly, looking at everything and calling out Yes!”– Mary Oliver

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Ask for their top 10 list of February destinations, and most of my friends would tell you “anywhere warm.” I agree. Toward the end of a Chicago region winter, I’m  ready to shed the shivery cold for a few days and escape to some far-flung beach down south.

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But the beach in February is not my number one destination. I include walking trails through prairie remnants in winter a little higher on my list.

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Tonight, Jeff and I are walking the Belmont Prairie in Downer’s Grove, Illinois. It’s small, as prairies go, but as a remnant—part of the original Illinois tallgrass prairie which escaped development and the plow—it’s special.  Writer John Madson wrote in Where the Sky Began that his “feeling for tallgrass prairie is like that of a modern man who has fallen in love with the face in a faded tintype. Only the frame is still real; the rest is illusion and dream.” Remnants remind me of those “faded tintypes.” Ghosts.

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Very little of our original prairies have survived; about 2,300 high quality acres are left in Illinois. Another reason to be grateful for Belmont Prairie’s 10-acre remnant.

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The grasses are weather-bleached and flattened now. You can imagine how references to the prairie as a sea came to be. Walking the trails here, amid the waves of winter tallgrass, can leave you unsteady on your feet, a little like wading through the surf and sand.belmontprairiegrasseswaves2919WM.jpg

A creek glistens. Puddles of snowmelt glow.  I’ve been re-reading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series this winter, and the creek puts me in mind of Galadriel’s silver elvish rope that helped Frodo and Sam continue their quest to darkest Mordor. Magical. A tiny sliver of creek is also iced in on the right—can you see it in the grasses? Barely visible, but the setting sun sets it alight.

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As we hike, Canada geese begin to settle in, pulling their V-string necklaces across the twilight overhead.

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Geese have a bad rap here in the Chicago suburbs, but I admire their sense of direction, their seamless ability to work as an aerial team, their perfectly spaced flight pattern. Their confidence in knowing the way home.

Honk-honk! The soundtrack of dusk.

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A crescent moon scythes its way across the burgeoning gloom.

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Still enough light to see. The reflections of ice spark the last light.

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Poke around. In the mud and snow pockets, trapped in north-facing crevices, there are signs of spring to come. A few spears of green. Water running under the ice.

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The seeds on the ground attract  more than birds. There are gangs of squirrels, well-fed and prosperous. If I wake early, I might spot a large eastern cottontail scavenging seeds, or even a red fox, whose antics with her kits have delighted us in the neighborhood over the years (and kept the resident chipmunk herds in check). Once in a while, over the years, we’ll surprise her on our back porch.

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Another backyard visitor through the year is the opossum, who finds the seeds under the bird feeders a nice change of diet.

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The opossum’s face looks a bit like a heart, doesn’t it? It reminded me that Valentine’s Day is Thursday. Time to find or make a card, and perhaps shop for a book or two for my best hiking partner. Speaking of him….

As Jeff and I head for the parking lot at Belmont Prairie, the great-horned owl calls from the treeline that hems the tallgrass. I hear the soft murmur. Who-Who- Hoooo.

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Jeff and I once found a great horned owl here—perhaps this very one— in daylight, high in a tree on the edge of the grasses. I owl-prowl sometimes through the woods, hunting for bone and fur-filled scat pellets under trees. Find a pellet under a tree, look up, and you’ll occasionally get lucky and see an owl.

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I think about Mary Oliver’s poem, “Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard,” which begins….”His beak could open a bottle… .” As someone who teaches  nature writing in the Chicago region, I love to read this poem to my students. The sounds of Oliver’s word choices  (“black, smocked crickets”), her contrasts of terror and sweet, and her descriptions  (“when I see his wings open, like two black ferns”) remind me of the joy of words, images, and our experiences outdoors.

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Oliver’s poem about the owl ends; “The hooked head stares from its house of dark, feathery lace. It could be a valentine.”

The owl calls again. I think of the people and prairie I love. And, the joy that sharing a love of wild things with others can bring.

It’s a happiness not quite like any other. Try it yourself. And see.

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Mary Oliver (1936-2019), whose words from Owls and Other Fantasies opens this blogpost, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet (1984, American Primitive) and winner of the National Book Award (1992, New and Selected Poems). Her admonition, “Pay attention. Be astonished! Tell about it.,” is some of the best advice I know. She died in January.

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All photographs copyright Cindy Crosby, from Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL, unless noted (top to bottom): beach umbrellas, Sanibel Island, Florida; sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus); Canada rye (Elymus canadensis); parking lot at sunset;  grasses on the prairie;  creek through the prairie; Canada geese (Branta canadensis) heading home; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) at sunset; crescent moon over the tallgrass; ice in the grasses; creek ice with new growth; downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; red fox (Vulpes vulpes), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; sunset over the prairie; Belmont Prairie treeline;  treeline at the edges of the prairie; Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) with common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pappus.

Extreme Prairie Weather

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

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

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

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

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Oh, the difference two days makes in February!

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

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

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

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

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Deep Roots

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

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

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

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

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

Narrow Leaves 

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

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

Orientation

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

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…or the prairie dock leaves are battered and torn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Under the Prairie Ice

“To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”–Aldo Leopold

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Polar Vortex! In the Illinois prairie region, all the chatter is about the week’s forecast: wind chill temperatures of 50-plus degrees below zero. Brrr! It’s a good time to dream a little bit about the summer to come.

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One of my favorite tasks as a prairie steward is monitoring dragonflies.  People often ask me in the winter, Where are the dragonflies now? How do they survive the brutal cold? 

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Some, I tell them, like the green darners and black saddlebags, have migrated south to reproduce. Later generations journey back north again, much like the well-publicized monarch butterfly. But most of our dragonflies are still here—in the nymph stage—under the surfaces of streams, ponds, and pools of prairie wetlands, waiting for spring and warmer temperatures. Under the prairie ice.

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Dragonflies and their population changes tell us a lot about our water quality. Dragonfly responses to climate also help us understand what we see happening in the see-sawing temperatures and weather changes in the world around us. Good reasons to care! With this in mind, citizen scientists monitor dragonflies of all species, tracking their numbers each year.

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We need our dragonflies. I’ve spent a lot of time kayaking and looking for dragonflies and damselflies on Silver Lake at Blackwell Forest Preserve in Warrenville, Illinois, just for fun.  But now, in this January cold, the lake is full of ice fisherman.

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Just across the preserve, not far from the ice fishing houses, is my destination—the Urban Stream Research Center. Here, one of our most vulnerable insect species, the Hine’s emerald dragonfly, is being reared.

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Some people dream of meeting sports heroes. Others, their favorite rock star. Me, I dream of seeing the Hine’s emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora hineana) winging its way through a prairie preserve. It’s our only federally-endangered dragonfly. Finicky? Yes! It has a lot of special requirements, including shallow flowing water and time spent in burrows made by the devil crayfish. 

During the winter months, I pore over my favorite dragonfly field guide by Kurt Mead part of the North Woods Naturalist Series

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… and open it to the Hine’s emerald dragonfly spread. Then, I think what it would be like to see the real thing.

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Today, I’ll get part of my wish.

Heading up the project in its third year in the Chicago Region is DuPage County Forest Ecologist Andrés Ortega. His enthusiasm for dragonflies and passion for the project are evident from the first moment of my arrival at the center.

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Andrés reaches into a refrigerator, and pulls out a dozen vials of tiny Hine’s emerald dragonfly nymphs.

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The dragonfly nymphs are in “diapause,” just as nymphs are outdoors. These nymphs enjoy cool refrigerator temps of about 40 degrees Fahrenheit;  their normal overwintering temperature, Ortega tells me.

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The eggs were gathered from gravid female dragonflies at known breeding sites in DuPage and Cook Counties, Andrés tells me.  Once netted, the tip of the female dragonfly’s abdomen is dipped into water—a process that simulates ovipositing—causing her to release her eggs. After the eggs are harvested, they are taken to a research laboratory in South Dakota. Here, they hatch and are cared for through their first months or even years of nymph life.

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Then, they are driven to Illinois and hand-delivered to Ortega at the Urban Stream Research Center.

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These are ferocious little critters. Andrés tells me they keep similar-sized nymphs with other similar-sized nymphs, as larger ones will enjoy the smaller ones for dinner if thrown together. Cannibalism! It’s a bug-eat-bug world out there. Staff carefully control the water quality (which should not be too clean) and water temperature.

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In the spring, the nymphs will be released into the research center’s indoor raceways. These are long pools that mimic stream-like conditions. The temperature of the water in the raceways is carefully calibrated to reflect the rising temperatures outdoors.

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Raceways are custom made by employees expressly for the dragonfly rearing. Sand, rocks, frayed rope pieces, and plastic aquarium plants offer hiding places for the nymphs. In about mid-May, the nymphs will begin feeding from a menu that includes small crustaceans and midge larvae. The screens and netting will keep midges from escaping and interfering with other research work at the center, such as mussel propagation.

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It will take the dragonfly nymphs about four to five years to reach maturity, from the egg stage to the beautiful creatures of the air I see in my field guide. When ready to emerge, they will be released into suitable nature preserves in the state.

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Ortega tells me that less than one percent of the Hine’s emerald dragonfly nymphs survive in the wild. Pretty slim odds, aren’t they?  I’m grateful to people like Andrés Ortega. He is one of our unsung heroes, doing the hard work of keeping part of the natural world from vanishing forever.

The next time you see a frozen prairie stream or pond this winter, think of the many different species of dragonflies waiting to emerge, just underneath the surface. Who knows? This might be the year we see more of the Hine’s emerald dragonflies, cruising through prairie wetlands. I’m planning to show up and look.

How about you?

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The Aldo Leopold quote that opens this essay is from Round River. Leopold is often referred to as the father of wildlife ecology and the United States’ wilderness system. Please visit The Aldo Leopold Foundation’s website to learn more about Leopold and his work, which is carried on today.

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Grateful thanks to Andrés Ortega for his tour of the Urban Stream Research Center; his patient answers to all my questions;  his reading and suggested edits for this blogpost (all remaining errors are my own); and his terrific work with dragonflies. Contact him at aortega@dupageforest.org.

Many thanks to super nice guy Kurt Mead, author of Dragonflies of the North Woods, Third Edition (2017), and Sparky Stensaas, co-owner of Kollath+Stensaas Publishing, who approved using the cover and pages with the Hine’s emerald dragonfly for this post (and also thanks to photographer Troy Hibbitts whose Hine’s emerald images (thehibbets.net) appear on those pages. If you are interested in dragonflies, you should own this beautiful guide–it is indispensable for Midwestern dragonfly chasers, even if you live a little further south of the North Woods (I live in Illinois).  Order from your favorite local bookseller, or online here.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Mt. Hoy, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; cold day at Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL; hundreds of Canada geese (Branta canadensis) on open water of Springbrook Creek at Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL;  male calico pennant (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL:  ice fishing shacks on Silver Lake, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; Cover of Dragonflies of the North Woods, Third Edition, by Kurt Mead (2017), courtesy Kollath+Stensaas Publishing and Kurt Mead; interior spread, Dragonflies of the North Woods, Third Edition, by Kurt Mead (2017), courtesy Kollath+Stensaas Publishing and Kurt Mead. Andrés Ortega (Homo sapiens), ecologist, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; vials of Hine’s emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora hineana) nymphs, Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; Hine’s emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora hineana) nymph, Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; Hine’s emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora hineana) nymph,Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; Hine’s emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora hineana) nymph, Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; water system, Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; raceway system, Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; life support system, Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; Fox River, Geneva, IL.

Life in the Prairie Cold

“There was nothing so real on the prairie as winter, nothing so memorable.” — Martha Ostenso

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Seven degrees.

It’s that time of year on the prairie. You know. That time.  Frigid temps. Icy trails that make it an effort to get from point “A” to point “Z.”  Add a brutal wind, and it lessens any desire on my part to emerge from piles of blankets on the couch, or to leave my stack of library books and mug of hot chocolate.

There are reasons to go outside, however. Especially for those of us who love snow.

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Or wonders in the sky. The lunar eclipse, or what was popularly called the “super wolf blood moon eclipse,” lured me out to my back porch after dark this week. In the western suburbs of Chicago, we had a savagely cold night for viewing, but oh! What a view! The moon seemed to chase Orion across the night sky as it progressed through its different darkened stages. Crisp stars sparkled as a backdrop for the eclipse. I returned inside long past my bedtime.

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It was a good reminder: When you forgo being outside in January, the life of the natural world goes on as usual. It doesn’t miss your presence. But you are the poorer for missing the moment.

One particular afternoon this week, despite the breathtaking cold, Jeff and I hike the Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve,  an 1,800 acre-plus natural area that is, one of three regionally significant grassland bird communities in the state.

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Springbrook Prairie is home to short-eared owls, and is a confirmed site for nesting turkey vultures. Bobolinks and dickcissels can be heard singing in the spring. Springbrook also hosts the state-endangered northern harrier.

Today, however, nothing much moves in the wind except the brittle grasses and spent wildflowers.

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Until…

A hawk flies up out of the tallgrass in the distance. Could it be the northern harrier? We hike faster, crossing our fingers.

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It settles into a tree. We move in for a closer look.

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Red-tailed hawk.  Common? Sure. Still magnificent. Although not the northern harrier we’d hoped for.

The rest of the bird life of Springbrook is noticeably silent. The Arctic winds that cause us to wrap our scarves more tightly around our heads are most likely the reason. But there is life here besides the red-tailed hawk. A ball gall next to the trail reminds us. Somewhere inside the gall, a tiny insect larvae is waiting to emerge. Pretty smart, I think, to spend days like today encapsulated in a warm sphere.

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The sharp wind seems to be in my face, no matter which way I hike.

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It sculpts blue shadows in the snow, carves ripples into the white stuff; scoops out gullies.

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Tiny prints necklace the prairie, made by a tiny mammal. Brave—or hungry—to be out in this bitter cold. I remind myself I need to re-learn mammal tracks.

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There are cars in the parking lot of the preserve, but we don’t see a soul on the trails. Springbrook Prairie is so vast! Few prairies in Illinois today offer these sweeping vistas in every direction. As we hike up a rise, we see clouds piled up in the east, more than 20 miles away over Lake Michigan. Part of the lake effect.  

Looking north, the preserve’s wetlands are partially frozen and and quiet.

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In the west, the prairie could be a landscape painting. Or an old sepia photograph, perhaps.

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A living painting or photograph, that is. The ball gall, the hawk, and the mammal tracks remind me of this. Under the ground, the deep roots of prairie plants wait. In only months, they’ll push green spears through the soil and completely change this icy world of the prairie I see today.

I realize I can no longer feel my fingers. Wind-burnt, frozen, we begin the hike back to the car and turn up the heater as high as it will go. Grateful for the warmth. But still…glad to have been a part of the life of the prairie for a moment. Content to have been present to our “landscape of home.”

And… ready for that hot chocolate and those library books.

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Novelist and poet Martha Ostenso (1900-1963) immigrated with  her family from Norway to Manitoba, then Minnesota. After living in New York City, she moved to Los Angeles and became a screenwriter. She died of complications from alcoholism.  The Wild Geese (1924) is her best-known novel, and, as her publisher writes, “Set on the windswept prairies, it is…a poignant evocation of loneliness… .”

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby, and taken this week at Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve, Naperville, IL, except where noted (top to bottom): snowfall at the intersection of the collections and wetland prairie plantings on the West Side of The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL; super wolf blood moon eclipse over author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), trail through the tallgrass; red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis); red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis); ball gall on goldenrod (probably either Solidago canadensis or Solidago altisissima) made by the goldenrod gall fly (Eurosta solidaginis); bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) in the tallgrass;  blue shadows and spent wildflowers and prairie grasses; possibly mouse or  vole tracks in the snow; prairie wetlands; looking west on the prairie.

Thanks to Jennifer Crosby Buono, who explained the lake effect snow cloud formations to me that we saw to the east, and provided me with the link in the post.

For more information on galls, check out this interesting article from Entomology Today.

 

A Very Prairie New Year

“The ignorant man marvels at the exceptional; the wise man marvels at the common; the greatest wonder of all is the regularity of nature.” — G. D. Boardman

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2019.

The new year stretches ahead; an unmarked trail. Full of possibilities.

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2018 is now water under the proverbial bridge.

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Some of us don’t want to let go of the year; full of sweet memories and adventures.

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For others, 2019 can’t happen fast enough.

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2018 may have left us a little worse for wear.

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The symbolism of the “clean slate” is attractive, either way.

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Out with the old. In with the new.

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Sure, the year ahead will hold new challenges. Some of them may leave us bent, broken, even temporarily defeated.

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And yet.

The prairie reminds us that there is a rhythm to life. The tallgrass has its own predictability.

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There will be a few curveballs. Predictability is always punctuated on the prairie by surprises.

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The unexpected waits to emerge.

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That’s part of the frisson, even tension of greeting a new year.

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And part of the joy.

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Where will the next days and months take us?

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And will we be up to the challenges?

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Let’s plunge in and find out.

*****

George Dana Boardman Pepper (1833-1913) was a pastor and president of Colby College in Maine.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) snowy trail through little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook in the Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  tracks through the Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; dogbane or Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; bug eaten leaf, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown tracks, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; stack of 2018 season’s sweet clover (Melilotus alba and officinalis) along the two-track, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; praying mantis (Mantis religiosa or possibly the Chinese mantis, Tenodera sinesis) egg case on fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; interpretive trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; Willoway Brook tributary through the Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Thank you to Candy Peterson for bringing the opening quote to my attention! Grateful.

 

A Merry Prairie Christmas

“In late December I feel an almost painful hunger for light…It’s tempting to think of winter as the negation of life, but life has too many sequences, too many rhythms, to be altogether quieted by snow and cold.” — Verlyn Klinkenborg

*****

Christmas morning dawns, cold and overcast. The scent of snow is in the air.

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On the prairie this week, it’s been mostly sunny. Quiet.

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Willoway Brook provides the December soundtrack: water moving fast over rocks. Ice lingers in the shoreline’s shadows.

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Wildflower seedheads silhouette themselves along the edges of the stream.

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Prairie dock leaves, aged and brittle, offer their own late season beauty. Lovelier now, perhaps, than in their first surge of spring green. Spent. No towering yellow blooms to distract us. The marks of age—wrinkles and splotches—will soon end in a flurry of flames.

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Along the edge of the prairie, fragrant sumac fruit could pass for furry holly berries—with a bit of imagination.

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Blown out stars of sudsy asters froth along the gravel two-track.

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Crumpled leaves of pale Indian plantain create stained glass windows when backlit by the winter sun. The woods are often called “cathedrals'” by writers. A bit of a cliché.  But it’s not much of a stretch to call the prairies the same. The tallgrass offers its own benedictions to those who hike it. Especially in solitude.

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Flattened by an early November blizzard, the prairie reminds me of the ocean, washing in grassy waves against the coast of the savanna. I think of Willa Cather, who wrote in “My Antonia”: “As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea…and there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow to be running.”

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The end of the year is just a breath away.

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Who knows what wonders we’ll see on the prairie in the new year? I can’t wait to discover them. How about you?

Happy holidays and Merry Christmas to all!

***

The opening quote is from Verlyn Klinkenborg’s The Rural Life. Klinkenborg (1952-) was raised on an Iowa farm. He teaches creative writing at Yale University. Listen to Klinkenborg speak about his writing here.

*****

All photos (copyright Cindy Crosby) in the blog post today are from the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, except where noted (top to bottom): bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); the Schulenberg Prairie in late December; Willoway Brook reflections; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) seedheads; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica); unknown aster; pale Indian plantain leaves (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium); prairie grasses and savanna; sunset at College of DuPage’s East Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

5 Reasons to Hike the December Prairie

“Curiosity, imagination, inventiveness expand with use, like muscles, and atrophy with neglect.”  —Paul Gruchow

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December mornings dawn bright and clear. Venus dazzles in the southeast, just before first light.

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Step outside. Brrrrr! Hello, December, with your mercurial weather and often-frigid temps.

It may seem like a daunting month to hike the prairie. After all, there’s not much going on, right?

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Wrong. For those who venture out to the tallgrass, there are wonders to be had.  Here are five reasons to bundle up, get outside, and go take a look.

1. Critters 

Love ’em or can’t stand ’em, you can’t get away from squirrels in December. Despite their inroads on my backyard bird feeders, I’m a bit of a fan. Walk through any prairie savanna or check the trees scattered across the prairie, and you won’t have to look too hard.

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Check out this tree on the edge of the prairie. How many squirrels can you see?

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I counted at least a dozen, possibly more.  A group of squirrels like this one is called a scurry. Perfection, right?  Those leafy nests high up in the trees are the squirrel condos. You can see one in the above photo, on the left. Squirrel homes, and sometimes a squirrel family group, are called a drey or sometimes, dray.

Most squirrels were enjoying a snack. The scritch scritch scritch scritch of so many furballs gnawing on black walnuts was the soundtrack to our prairie hike.

Not a squirrel fan? Walk on… .

2. Ice Capades

Temperature ups and downs on the prairie leave ponds and streams a virtual canvas for weather to paint its delights upon. Crystals, ice shelves, frozen droplets…the scene changes from moment to moment with the rays of the sun.

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Unless you visit the prairie in December, you’ll miss the magic.

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Isn’t it important for us to witness the beauty in the world?

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

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3. Shifts of Weather

Woolly bear, woolly bear, what do you see? Traditionally, the banded woolly bear caterpillar is the foreteller of winter weather. The longer the black stripes, the longer the winter. This little bear looks as if it’s predicting a mild winter, doesn’t it? But it was out in 17 degree weather! And, we’ve already had one blizzard in the Chicago region. Hmmm.

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The woolly bear caterpillar will emerge in the spring as the isabella tiger moth. Woolly bear, you’re cute.  But I might stick to watching meteorologist Tom Skilling’s weather report.

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4. The Splendors of Grass

We think of grass as juicy, green, and supple. But one of the many delights of prairie grass is its winter wardrobe. Nuanced, ranging through metallic tones of bronze, silver, and gold, the tallgrass changes colors with the slant of the sun.

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Sure, the recent snows flattened the tallgrass. Take a look, and see how your perspective on the prairie changes when the grasses and forbs, towering over your head just a month or two ago, no longer obstruct the view. New vistas open up. Grass takes on different role in December.

5. Mindful Hiking

What does the prairie have in store for you in December? Smell the tang of cold air. Feel the hot sun on your face on a frigid day. Listen to the sounds of the winter residents of the prairie and the prairie savanna; woodpeckers drumming along the edges, the rustle of squirrels dashing from tree to tree on the prairie edges. Taste the last dollop of snow. Check out the coyote scat on the trail to see what “trickster” has been sampling. Persimmons? Meadow vole? The fur and seeds tell the story for those who take time to look. Check the ponds and streams and see who is hanging out there.

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It’s easy to get caught up in the baking, shopping, socializing, and other activities of the holiday season. Need a break? A walk on the prairie may be just the thing to clear your head. What are your motivations to hike the December prairie? Please share them in the comment section below.

Because we all need a little extra push to get outside this month.

Happy hiking!

*****

The opening quote is from Boundary Waters: Grace of the Wild by Minnesotan Paul Gruchow (1947-2004). Gruchow writes compellingly about the rural life and the natural world in his books. If you haven’t read him before, try Grass Roots: The Universe of Home, or A Prairie Journal.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Venus in the dawn sky, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL: little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; eastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) on the edge of the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; three eastern fox squirrels (Sciurus niger) on the edge of the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ice on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: ice crystals on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  ice on author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; ice on the author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; woolly bear (Pyrrharctia isabella) caterpillar on the prairie trail, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; snow patches on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: bridge in December on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blue heron (Ardea herodias) with a few mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), East Branch of the DuPage River Restoration, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.