Tag Archives: The Morton Arboretum

Three Reasons to Hike the May Prairie

“…And life revives, and blossoms once again.” —Emily Pauline Johnson

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How can you describe the prairie in early May? So much is happening! New wildflowers open every minute. A different insect emerges. Bumblebees buzz. Rain falls. Strong winds ripple the new grass blades and foliage. A few dragonflies cruise by, sampling the warmer air and looking for love along the prairie streams and pond edges.

Common green darner (Anax junius), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2020)

The prairie is awake. So much jazz and motion and life! Here are three reasons to go for a hike on the prairies and prairie savannas this month and see what’s unfolding.

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  1. Wild and Wonderful Wildflowers: The spring prairie wildflowers have arrived. Look around the savanna and the prairie edges, and you’ll spot the prairie trillium. The deep wine petals are unmistakable.
Prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum recurvatum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, Il.

Maybe you learned this trillium by a different name, such as “wake robin” or “bloody butcher” or even “bloody noses” (as one of my friends tells me he called it as a child). By any name, it’s one of the touchstones of spring. The dappled leaves are camouflage against deer, which eat the leaves and flowers. It’s a common wildflower which occurs in every Illinois county.

It’s tougher to spot the jack in the pulpit; sometimes pale green, sometimes reddish green. Can you find “Jack” under the spathe or hood (the “pulpit?”)

Jack in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

The 20th century modernist Georgia O’Keeffe created a series of six paintings based on this unusual plant, although she is better known for her work with flowers, animal skulls, skyscrapers, and the landscape of the American southwest. What a great way to immortalize this curious flower!

Not far away in the open sunshine, a single pussytoes plant reminds me of a bundle of Q-tips. It is striking when seen alone…

Pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

…or in a small colony.

Pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (2020).

Such strange little flowers, with their feathery antenna-like “blooms!” Another white wildflower, Comandra umbellata, may not be as strange looking, but its common name “bastard toadflax” always gets the attention of my wildflower students.

Bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL (2020)

Bastard toadflax is the only plant in its genus, and it has a certain nostalgia for me. When I first began volunteering on the prairie more than two decades ago, I saw this tiny flower while I was bent over weeding. Puzzled, I asked Marj, an older volunteer, for the ID. She laughed. “Oh that!” Then she told me the name, and made me laugh. Marj is gone now, but I always think of her mentoring a newbie volunteer whenever the toadflax blooms.

Bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

These tiny wildflowers are just a hint of what’s out there. And so much more is on the way!

2. Signs of Bird Life: Mornings in May are all about birdsong. In the dawn light, I wake to robins chattering their joy, looking forward to the hours ahead. The first oriole showed up at my backyard feeder this morning, and the juncos-–those somber yet jaunty northerly birds, cloaked in nun-like colors–have disappeared, doubtless to their breeding grounds in Alaska and Canada.

On the newly greening prairie, killdeer find the perfect nesting spots in the exposed gravel after the burn. Their signature calls are a soundtrack for any hike in May.

Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL. (2020)

Have you seen them? No? Seeing the killdeer and listening to its heart-tugging, high-pitched cry is reason enough to get outside on the prairie. There is something elemental; something primal, about this particular bird call that always makes me think “spring!”

Other birds leave clues to their presence. Some feathers are breathtakingly soft, subtle.

Unknown feather (perhaps red-tailed hawk? (Buteo jamaicensis)) or something big!), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

This feather is a startling shaft of bright color.

Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) feather, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

I leave the feathers where I find them, even as I wonder what stories they hold. Imagine a bird’s-eye view of the life of the prairie. Supposedly, northern flickers may live up to nine years; red-tailed hawks may live up to 15 years in the wild. What glorious years those must be, spent so high in the sky!

3. The Fragrance of Spring Prairie: I don’t wear perfume, but if you could bottle the smell of the prairie in May, it’s a scent I’d gladly wear. The prairie in May smells like the drifts of wild blue phlox edging the savanna…

Wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2019)

…a sweet scent, but not cloyingly so. Fresh. Light.

Wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.(2017)

The fragrance of phlox mixes with the green chlorophyll scent of countless numbers of growing prairie plants and their cradle of damp earth. Inhale. That smell! It’s life itself. Can you feel your heart expand? Do you feel your spirits suddenly lift?

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

So much joy. You want to shout!

This is spring.

You are on the prairie.

Sunset, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Isn’t it a wonder to be alive?

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The opening quote is from a poem, “Fire-Flowers” by Emily Pauline Johnson (1861-1913), who also published under her Mohawk name Tekahionwake. Born on the Six Nations Reserve, Canada West, she was an artist, performer, and poet who authored three collections of poetry, including Flint and Feather (1912). Grateful thanks to Dan Haase who introduced me to this poet.

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Join Cindy for a program or class this spring!

Spring Wildflowers of Prairies and Woodlands Online: Thursday, May 6, 6:30-8 p.m. Join Cindy for a virtual hike through the wildflowers of late spring! Hear how wildflowers inspire literature and folklore. Discover how people throughout history have used wildflowers as medicine, groceries, and love charms. Offered by The Morton Arboretum. Register here.

The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden Online: June 2, 7-8:30 p.m. Illinois’ nickname is “The Prairie State.” Listen to stories of the history of the tallgrass prairie and its amazing plants and creatures –-from blooms to butterflies to bison. Discover plants that work well in the home garden as you enjoy learning about Illinois’ “landscape of home.” Presented by Sag Moraine Native Plant Community. More information here.

Literary Gardens Online: June 8, 6:30-7:30 p.m. Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby for a fun look at gardens in literature and poetry. From Agatha Christie’s mystery series, to Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Mary Oliver, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver,  Lewis Carroll–and many more! See your garden with new eyes—and come away with a list of books you can’t wait to explore. Registration through the Downers Grove Public Library coming soon here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie: Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.

Thanks to John Heneghan for his help with bird feather ID this week!

A Tallgrass Prairie Morning

“Thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented culture, and doing nothing is hard to do. It’s best done by disguising it as doing something, and the something closest to doing nothing is walking.”–Rebecca Solnit

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High winds. Soaring temperatures. Sunshine and storms in the forecast. Let’s go for a hike and see what’s happening on the tallgrass prairie at the end of April.

Nachusa Grasslands at the end of April, Franklin Grove, IL.

Small clumps of sand phlox spangle the green.

Sand phlox (Phlox bifida), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

The pasque flowers, transplanted from the greenhouse only a few weeks ago, made it through the mid-April freeze. One plant puts out a tentative bloom.

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Look at all that growth, after the prescribed fire! The newly-minted wildflower leaves are up, as are the tiny spears of prairie grasses.

New growth on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Listen! Can you hear that buzzy rattle? Insects are out and about, dusted with pollen. I wonder what flowers they raided for all that gold plunder?

Unknown bee covered with pollen, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

A miner’s bee hangs out on Indian plantain leaves.

Possibly an Andrena bee, or miner’s bee, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Shooting star, deep pink at the base, prepares to launch its orgy of flowers. The prairies are full of these charmers, which mostly go unnoticed until they bloom. Soon! Soon.

Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Violets are everywhere in various color combinations: blue, purple, yellow, and white with purple centers.

Many homeowners and visitors to the prairie dismiss this humble but weedy plant, but I’m in awe of its delights—from giving us the makings of perfume, the joy of a candied flower on a cake, the treatment for a headache, or the edible, nutritious leaves, high in vitamin C. The violet can explosively shoot its seeds away from the mother plant, dispersing the seeds in a new location. It also relies on ants to move its seeds around (a process known as myrmecochory).

If you look closely—and with a bit of luck—you might find the native prairie violet (Viola pedatifida), a highly-prized member of the prairie community.

Prairie violet (Viola pedatifida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Look at that fan of distinctive leaves. So unusual.

Prairie violet (Viola pedatifida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

In late April, the wood betony leaves provide more color than some of the plant blooms.

Wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The trout lilies—with their trout-like speckled leaves–invite pollinators to check them out. What a banner year this prairie and woodland wildflower is having! I think the trout lilies look like sea stars—or perhaps, each one a parachuter about to land. What do you think?

A trout lily (Erythronium albidum) with an insect visitor, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, LIsle, IL.

A clump of wild coffee leaves (sometimes called “late horse gentian”) reminds me I’ve not yet had my cup of java this morning.

Wild coffee or horse gentian (Triosteum perfoliatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Time to head home and pour a mug.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, at the end of April.

A whole prairie season lies ahead. I’ll be back.

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The opening quote is from Rebecca Solnit (1961-), who has written more than 20 books on topics ranging from writing and wandering, the environment, western history, to feminism. If you haven’t read Solnit, try Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2001).

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Join Cindy for a program or class this spring!

A Brief History of Trees in America: Online, Wednesday, April 28, 7-8 pm CST Sponsored by Friends of the Green Bay Trail and the Glencoe Public Library. From oaks to sugar maples to the American chestnut: trees changed the course of American history. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation as you remember and celebrate the trees influential in your personal history and your garden. Register here.

Spring Wildflowers of Prairies and Woodlands Online: Thursday, May 6, 6:30-8 p.m. Join Cindy for a virtual hike through the wildflowers of late spring! Hear how wildflowers inspire literature and folklore. Discover how people throughout history have used wildflowers as medicine, groceries, and love charms. Register here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie: Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Register here.

The Promise of Prairie Pasque Flowers

“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” —Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Today’s prairie post is brought to you by the color green. Green. Green. Everywhere on the prairie, it’s green.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL

It’s the middle of April, and the prairie is assembling its components. From a distance on the prairie path, it appears the landscape is blanketed in sheets of emerald. But look closely. The prairie is as much shape as color. Ferny fringes of baby compass plants.

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

Ruffles of purple meadow rue.

Purple Meadow Rue (Thalyctrum dasycarpum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

These green sheets are an intricate mass of forms and hues. It’s easy to grasp the diversity of the prairie in July, when the tallgrass is a chorus of grasses and flowers. But never is that diversity more evident than in the new sprouts of life in April.

Today, there is one plant remarkable for its absence in this chorus of new growth: the pasque flower. It’s been on the brink of disappearing in years past, but this season, I’m having a difficult time finding it. It’s one of my favorites. Older prairie stewards knew it as Anemone patens.

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

When I began as a steward on the prairie, I learned it by its newer scientific name, Pulsatilla patens. “Pasque” comes from the Hebrew word “pasakh,” “passing over.” Despite the flames of early prescribed burns, the early blooming wildflowers are often “passed over” by the flames, often protected by the gravelly soil in which they prefer to grow. Slightly singed or sometimes a bit worse for wear, they make me think of courage.

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2016)

The blooms usually occur during the Passover or Easter season; thus the common name “pasque” from the old French language. Maybe that’s the reason they wear fur coats. They are ready for any late snows or cold spells.

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. (2016)

I love the meaning of the scientific names. The old name, Anemone means “windflower.” The newer Pulsatilla” means “sway” or “tremble” —and they do, in the slightest breeze. It takes a bit of plant adaptation to brave the sometimes brutal winds, prescribed fire, and seasonal instability of April, which the poet T.S. Eliot famously called “the cruelest month.” 

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2018)

On the prairie where I am a steward, our numbers of these fuzzy favorites were down to one clump plus a few stragglers in 2017.

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2015)

Seeing the imminent demise of a prairie favorite, I watched until the plants went to seed.

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2018)

I collected a handful of the fuzzy seeds…

Pasque flower seeds (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…and sent them to the propagation greenhouse.

Pasque flower seeds (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

There, the greenhouse staff worked their magic. Pasque flower seeds have a notoriously poor germination rate, but in 2019, a few small plants appeared. We transplanted them to the prairie. They didn’t take well. Back to the drawing board.

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

In 2019, hoping to hedge our bets and bring in some new genetic material, we sourced seeds from another prairie and direct sowed the. We also sent more seeds to the greenhouse. We planted. We waited.

Pasque flower seeds (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2018)

Just as the pasque flowers would have been making their first appearance in 2020, the pandemic hit. The prairie was closed. I stood outside the gates that month, peering in. Were the pasque flowers up? Did any of them make it? I couldn’t see.

Pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2018)

By the time we were able to access the prairie, the pasque flower season was over. It was difficult to know if the plants were successful.

In 2021, after the prescribed burn, I went out to check the pasque flowers. Oh no!

Animal burrow and remnants of a pasque flower clump, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

An animal —possibly a raccoon? — had tunneled into the pasque flower area. The “mother plant” was dead. All was lost! Or so it seemed.

During the pandemic, the greenhouse staff kept the work of the prairie going. Unbeknownst to me, more pasque flower seeds continued to germinate. Last week, seeing the demise of our plants on the prairie, I asked if any of the pasque flowers in the greenhouse had made it.

Pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2019)

More than 50 plants had germinated! They were actively growing and ready for transplanting.

Joy! Hedging our bets, I transplanted two dozen of them to the prairie.

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

We’ll hold the other two dozen in reserve to grow for another year in the greenhouses, just in case weather—and prairie mammals—decimate this first batch. Then we’ll cross our fingers, water them regularly, and hope.

Because even with more than 400 other species of plants on this prairie…

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2018)

No other plant could take the place of pasque flowers.

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Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) was the youngest man to ever receive the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 35 (1964). He was assassinated four years later. He was the author of five books, including Strength to Love, and the manifesto Letter from the Birmingham Jail.

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Join Cindy for a program or class this spring!

A Brief History of Trees in America: Online, Wednesday, April 28, 7-8 pm CST Sponsored by Friends of the Green Bay Trail and the Glencoe Public Library. From oaks to sugar maples to the American chestnut: trees changed the course of American history. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation as you remember and celebrate the trees influential in your personal history and your garden. Register here.

Spring Wildflowers of Prairies and Woodlands Online: Thursday, May 6, 6:30-8 p.m. Join Cindy for a virtual hike through the wildflowers of late spring! Hear how wildflowers inspire literature and folklore. Discover how people throughout history have used wildflowers as medicine, groceries, and love charms. Register here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie: Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Register here.

Thanks to the good folks at Byron Forest Preserve who donated seeds to help us with our pasque flower restoration.

***Please note: Today’s post was delayed because of WordPress technical difficulties. Thanks for hanging in there with me!

Three Reasons to Hike the April Prairie

“Little things make big things happen.”–John Wooden

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In the woodlands, the hepatica are opening. Have you seen them?

Sharp-lobed hepatica (Hepatica nobilis acuta), East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Toothwort, spring beauties, and prairie trillium keep them company. In the prairie wetlands, marsh marigolds ring in the spring.

Marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), Cindy’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL (2017).

Is there a more exciting time in the Midwest than the first week of April? It’s too early for most prairie wildflowers in my northeast corner of Illinois. Give them a few more weeks, especially if the prairie was recently burned. But the prairie has other goodies to offer. Here are three reasons to go for a hike on the prairie this week.

1. In early April, some of the mostly unseen life of the prairie is made visible.

Meadow voles and prairie voles are cartographers, whose debossed maps across the tallgrass are mostly invisible the rest of the year under blankets of blooms and grasses. So much activity!

Meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus) and prairie vole (Microtus ochrogaster) tunnels across the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Anthills, those towering structures that go unnoticed and unremarked (unless you stumble across one on a workday), are standouts this week. I’m reminded of how little I know about these important insects, and their role on the prairie. There is always so much more to learn.

Ant structure, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Hole, holes, everywhere. Hiking cross-country across the prairie, the cinders from the prairie burn crunch crunch crunch under my feet, I barely grasp the sheer numbers of holes I see. Who are the occupants? Likely a wide assortment of mammals, reptiles, and insects. I wonder at this hole—is it a crayfish home? Illinois has 23 species of crayfish; I know very little about them. But I’d like to know more.

Possible crayfish hole (species uncertain), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Many of the holes and burrows are strewn with detritus or slung about with spiderwebs.

Burrow for unknown mammal with evidence of its snacks, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Early April is full of reminders that the prairie always has more to discover. It’s a never-ending story for those who are curious. The life of the prairie underground is a vital part of understanding what makes a tallgrass prairie healthy and vibrant. And yet. So much of my attention is focused on the life above the surface. I need to go deeper.

2. The first identifiable prairie plants are up.

And what a joy it is to see those spears of spiked lime green and shout: “Rattlesnake master!”

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The porcupine grass shoots of prairie dropseed, slightly singed by the prairie burn, are enough to make anyone smile.

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Walking the trails, I see small rounded leaves and whisper: Shooting star! My mind races ahead to the pink blooms to come.

Shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

April is only beginning to rev up her plant engine. Temperatures in the seventies and warm rains this week will invite more growth. These first small plants are a foreshadowing of the future.

3. Prairie ponds are open; prairie streams now run ice-free and clear.

Any day, common green darner dragonflies will return from the south or emerge from the prairie waterways. The first ones have already been sighted in the Chicago Region.

Common green darner (Anax junius), Nachusa Grassland, Franklin Grove, IL. (2020)

Along the shoreline of Willoway Brook, I spy mussel shells, likely discarded by raccoons. The ones I find on my hike today are each as big as my hand. I’m reminded that in the early to mid 1900s, Illinois had a thriving pearl button industry, fueled by freshwater mussels. Today, mussel-shell buttons are replaced by plastic.

Freshwater mussel shells (unknown species), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The mussel shells are nestled in green shoots. As a prairie steward, I’m aware of the verdant growth of invasive reed canary grass along the shoreline, already in process. I get the message. There is a lot of stewardship work to be done in the coming months.

The Schulenberg Prairie in early April.

Even in these early weeks of spring, I’m stunned by the prairie’s diversity. It’s a different awareness than in summer, when insects, blooms, and birds are center stage. Ants, crayfish, small mammals…the prairie burn aftermath briefly illuminates them for leisurely study. Soon, I’ll be distracted by the flying critters and colorful flowers of late spring and summer. Early April reminds me that there is so much more to the prairie than what can be seen in a single season.

By Willoway Brook, I stop for a moment and study the reflection of the trees beginning to leaf out in the savanna. The surface wobbles—now clear, then rippled—by the strong breezes which have swirled dust plumes across the ashes of the prairie this week.

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

I reflect on the past year.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL (2018)

Then I think of the tallgrass season ahead. The life of the prairie unfolding.

So much to anticipate.

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After the NCAA basketball tournament final last night, it seems appropriate to kick off this blog with a quote from Coach John Wooden (1910-2010). The beloved “Wizard of Westwood” won ten—count ’em—ten NCAA basketball championships in a dozen years (and seven in a row). His teams also won a consecutive record 88 games–wow! Read more about John Wooden here.

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Join Cindy for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a full list of upcoming talks and programs.

THIS WEEK! Virtual Wildflowers Walk Online: Section A: Friday, April 9, 11:30 am to 1:00 pm CST Woodland Wildflowers, Section B: Thursday, May 6, 6:30 to 8:00 pm CST Woodland and Prairie Wildflowers. Wander through the ever-changing array of blooms in our woodlands and prairies in this virtual walk. Learn how to identify spring wildflowers, and hear about their folklore. In April, the woodlands begin to blossom with ephemerals, and weeks later, the prairie joins in the fun! Each session will cover what’s blooming in our local woodlands and prairies as the spring unfolds. Enjoy this fleeting spring pleasure, with new flowers revealing themselves each week. Register here.

A Brief History of Trees in America: Online, Wednesday, April 28, 7-8 pm CST Sponsored by Friends of the Green Bay Trail and the Glencoe Public Library. From oaks to sugar maples to the American chestnut: trees changed the course of American history. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation as you remember and celebrate the trees influential in your personal history and your garden. Registration here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie: Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Register here.

Prairie Fire Season

“Fire works best in nature as it does in the lab, as a catalyst. It interacts. It quickens, shakes, forces.” — Stephen Pyne

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It’s time.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Rising temperatures. Light winds. Rain, forecast later in the week. There’s a sense of urgency. This is the moment.

Time to burn the tallgrass prairie.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

In 2020, the Covid-19 lockdown occurred during prescribed fire season. For the first time in recent memory, the Schulenberg Prairie—like many prairies—was left unburned.

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

So much was surreal about 2020; not the least was to see the prairie in its second year growth. Spring wildflowers were partially invisible under thatch and old grasses. Black walnut saplings, sumac, and gray dogwood moved in. Prairie shrubs looked, well, shrubby, without their annual fire regime. Most stunning was the prairie pasture rose, which grew taller than I’ve seen it before, with beautiful rose hips that lingered into spring.

Pasture Rose (Rosa Carolina) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

And now, in a matter of four hours, the last two seasons of tallgrass growth have gone up in smoke.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

A red-tailed hawk hovers, waiting to pounce on any small mammals running ahead of the flames. How do they know what fire will do? I wonder. Nearby, a field sparrow sings from a wild plum tree, oblivious to the spectacle taking place. I often find hawk feathers and other bird feathers on my hikes here; now, there will be no trace. Only ashes and bird song.

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

A woman pulls her car to the side of the road; rolls down her window. “Do you know why they’re doing this?” she asks. It’s an excellent question. The short answer is this: Prescribed fire helps keep a prairie healthy. Without fire, we would lose our prairies.

Fire keeps brush and trees from taking over the tallgrass and turning it to woodland.

Bur Oaks (Quercus macrocarpa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Spring burns warm the ground. The blackened soil heats up much more quickly than unburned soil. This tells the prairie plants it’s time to grow.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Old leaf litter—dead plants—vanish in the flames, freeing up space for new growth.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Fire also helps control some weedy plants that might otherwise take over the prairie and outcompete native plants. The prescribed burns help prairie stewards maintain diversity.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I watch the hardworking women and men of the fire crew check the prairie for hikers, then lay down a waterline around each area to be burned.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The water line, back-burns, mowed pathways, and the gravel road create boundaries that help keep the fire within a contained space.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

With the help of a drip torch, different portions of the prairie are set on fire.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Up in flames go the prairie dock leaves.

Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Mountain mint seedheads turn to ashes.

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

The last lingering seeds of carrion flower: vanished.

Upright Carrion Flower (Smilax ecirrhata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Late figwort disappears into the inferno.

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

The last vestiges of 2020 on the prairie are only a memory.

False sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides) Shadow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Fire is usually something we fear.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Today, we embrace it. Welcome it. Respect it.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Losing our prairie burn season in 2020 was only one of many losses in a year full of assorted griefs.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

But with today’s prairie fire, I feel joy.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

At last. There’s hope for the season ahead.

*****

Stephen Pyne (1949-) is professor emeritus at Arizona State University, and the author of The Perils of Prescribed Fire from which the opening quote for this post is taken. He’s written 34 other books, most of them about fire. Listen to his Ted Talk How Fire Shapes Everything here.

*****

Join Cindy for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a full list of upcoming talks and programs.

Virtual Wildflower Walks Online: Section A: Friday, April 9, 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. CST Woodland Wildflowers, Section B: Thursday, May 6, 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. CST Woodland and Prairie Wildflowers. Wander through the ever-changing array of blooms in our woodlands and prairies in this virtual walk. Learn how to identify spring wildflowers, and hear about their folklore. In April, the woodlands begin to blossom with ephemerals, and weeks later, the prairie joins in the fun! Each session will cover what’s blooming in our local woodlands and prairies as the spring unfolds. Enjoy this fleeting spring pleasure, with new flowers revealing themselves each week. Register here.

A Brief History of Trees in America: Online, Wednesday, April 28, 7-8 p.m. Sponsored by Friends of the Green Bay Trail and the Glencoe Public Library. From oaks to sugar maples to the American chestnut: trees changed the course of American history. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation as you remember and celebrate the trees influential in your personal history and your garden. Registration here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie: Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm. CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Register here.

The Prairie Skies in March

“Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them.”–Aldo Leopold

*****

High winds. First green growth. Warm sunny days, alternating with blustery snowstorms. It’s migration season.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) and a sun halo over Cindy’s backyard prairie this weekend.

This week, Jeff and I walk the Belmont Prairie in Downers Grove, Illinois, a 10-acre remnant hemmed by homes, soccer fields, highways and railroad tracks.

More than 300 species of plants and animals are found here. We go to see what emerges in the warmer temperatures of mid-March. At a glance, the prairie looks much as it did all winter. No prescribed burn has touched it yet.

But look closely. The first weedy black mustard’s emerald leaf florets lie flat against the prairie soil. An insect flies low and slow. Too quick for me to slap an ID on. Blue flag iris spears through the muddy waterway that winds through the dry grass and spent wildflowers. Signs of spring.

Blue flag iris (Iris virginica shrevei), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

I browse online to find more about the prairie and encounter this on the Downers Grove Park District’s site: “… in April of 1970, Alfred and Margaret Dupree presented a photograph of a rare prairie wildflower to an expert at the Morton Arboretum, as they were interested if it represented possible remnants of a native prairie. Upon inspection, it was found that the field had numerous native prairie species, and with the help of The Nature Conservancy, the owners were tracked down and the land was purchased. After officially becoming a part of the Park District, it was named an Illinois Nature Preserve in March, 1994.” I love it that two people paid attention to this remnant—and took time to investigate. It makes me wonder what we’ll see, if we look closely.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

So much to discover under our feet. But today, the real action is over our heads. The clouds sail fast across the horizon.

A breeze ruffles my hair. The melancholy whistle and the clickity-clack, clickity-clack, clickity-clack of a nearby train fills the air. But there’s another sound vying with the wind, train, and traffic noise. A high pitched babble. Look! There they are.

Riding on the winds above us are the sandhill cranes. Thousands and thousands of sandhills. Chasing a memory of somewhere north where they have urgent business to conduct. Each wave seems louder than the next. They are high—so high—in the sky.

Sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2019)

The sun is merciless; so bright, we often lose them in its glare. The cranes wheel and pirouette; now flashes of silver overhead, now vanished.

All the obligatory words rise to my lips: Prehistoric. Ballet. Choreography. Dance. None seemed sufficient for this performance in the theater of the sky. The cranes assemble into a “V”, then slip into a sloppy “S”. Now they kettle, swirling and twirling. I’m reminded of my old “Mr. Doodleface” drawing board from childhood, where I dragged a magnet across black shavings to put hair and a beard on a picture of a man. The cranes seem like black shavings pulled through the sky in intricate patterns. Circles and lines and angles and scrawls. Changing from moment to moment. But always, that heart-breaking cry.

At home, I page through my field guides and bird books, then check online for more about cranes. I read that they are about four feet tall, the size of a first grader, with a wingspan of more than six feet.

Sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL (2019)

The newer scientific name since 2010 for sandhill cranes is Antigone canadensis. My birding guides, all a dozen years or more old, still have the previous genus name, Grus. The common name “sandhill” refers to this bird’s stopover in the Nebraska Sandhills, a staging area for the birds.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area, Medaryville, IN (2016)

Sandhill cranes can be found in North America, all the way to the extremes of northeastern Siberia. Three subspecies live in Cuba, Mississippi, and Florida year-round, according to Cornell University. These cranes are omnivores, changing their diet based on what’s available. Small amphibians, reptiles, and mammals may be on the menu one day; grains and plants the next.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Horicon Marsh, WI (2019)

The sandhills mate for life, or until one of the pair dies. Then, the remaining crane seeks a new partner.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL (2019)

Although gray, the sandhill crane has a rusty-colored wash on its feathers, caused by the bird rubbing itself with iron-rich mud. The birds have a distinctive scarlet patch on their foreheads.

Sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis), Green Lake, WI (2019)

The form of the crane is one of the first origami shapes many of us learned to make. According to a Japanese legend, if you make a thousand origami cranes the gods will grant you a wish. As I watch them fly over Belmont Prairie, it’s easy to think of what to wish for in the coming year.

As we leave, I find a single bird feather, caught in the tallgrass.

Unknown feather, Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

A crane’s? Probably not. But a reminder of the connection of birds to this prairie remnant.

Later that afternoon, we hang my hammock on the back porch and I swing there with a book, pausing each time to look as the cranes pass overhead.

Crane watching, Glen Ellyn, IL.

A sun halo appears.

Partial sun halo, Cindy’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Magical! How does anyone ever say they are bored when there are clouds, and cranes…and marvels all around us?

Sun halo, Cindy’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The thousands and thousands of sandhills migrating this weekend were barely ahead of Monday’s winter storm.

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

Snow powdered the prairie with fat flakes and turned our world to white.

Crocus (Crocus sp.) Cindy’s backyard prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I wonder if the cranes knew the storm was coming? Prescient sandhills. Smart birds.

Welcome back.

*****

Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) is best known for A Sand County Almanac, from which the quote that kicks off this post was taken. His book was published shortly after his death and has sold more than two million copies. If you visit New Mexico, you can drive through the miles of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness in the Gila National Forest, named for him in 1980. Driving it, you’re aware of the solace of vast and empty spaces, and the importance of conservation. Find out more about Leopold here.

*****

Join Cindy for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a full list of upcoming talks and programs.

A Brief History of Trees in America Wednesday, April 28, 7-8 p.m. Sponsored by Friends of the Green Bay Trail and the Glencoe Public Library. From oaks to sugar maples to the American chestnut: trees changed the course of American history. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation as you remember and celebrate the trees influential in your personal history and your garden. Registration here.

Virtual Wildflower Walks Online: Section A: Friday, April 9, 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. CST Woodland Wildflowers, Section B: Thursday, May 6, 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. CST Woodland and Prairie Wildflowers. Wander through the ever-changing array of blooms in our woodlands and prairies in this virtual walk. Learn how to identify spring wildflowers, and hear about their folklore. In April, the woodlands begin to blossom with ephemerals, and weeks later, the prairie joins in the fun! Each session will cover what’s blooming in our local woodlands and prairies as the spring unfolds. Enjoy this fleeting spring pleasure, with new flowers revealing themselves each week. Register here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie: Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm. CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Register here.

March on the Tallgrass Prairie

March winds and April showers, bring forth May flowers.Nursery rhyme inspired by Geoffrey Chaucer

******

Tempestuous March opened meteorological spring yesterday with a whisper, rather than a shout. In like a lamb…

Twilight blues of the vanished prairies over DeKalb County, IL.

Does that mean March will go “out like a lion”?

Sunset over DeKalb’s vanished prairies.

Those of us in the tallgrass prairie region know that with March, anything is possible.

Willful, changeable, whimsical March.

Stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

March is thaw season. Mud season. Melt season. Even as the ice vanishes by inches in prairie ponds and streams…

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

…we know the white stuff hasn’t surrendered. Not really.

Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

March is the opening dance between freeze and thaw.

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

Snow and rain. Fire and ice.

The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

It’s a teasing time, when one day the snow sparkles with sunlight, spotlighting the desiccated wildflowers…

Unknown aster, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…the next, howling winds shatter the wildflowers’ brittle remains.

Pale Indian Plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

March is shadow season. Light and dark. Sun and clouds.

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

It’s been so long. So long since last spring. So many full moons have come and gone.

Full Snow Moon, West Chicago, IL.

We remember last March, a month of unexpected fear. Shock. Grief. Anxiety for what we thought were the weeks ahead…

Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…which turned into—little did we know—months. A year. Hope has been a long time coming.

Unknown asters, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

But now, sunshine lights the still snow-covered prairie.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Deep in the prairie soil, roots stretch and yawn.

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

Seeds crack open.

Round-headed Bush Clover (Lespedeza capitata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

A new season is on the way.

Canada Geese (Branta canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

In March, anything seems possible.

Trail through the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Hope seems possible.

******

The nursery rhyme “March winds and April showers, bring forth May flowers” is likely adapted from the prologue to Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. There, it reads a bit inscrutably for modern readers: “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote, The droghte of March hath perced to the roote… . ” Chaucer, who was born sometime between 1340-45, is called “the first English author” by the Poetry Foundation. Troubled by finances, he left The Canterbury Tales mostly unfinished when he died in 1400, possibly because “the enormousness of the task overwhelmed him.” Chaucer is buried in Westminster Abbey; the space around his tomb is dubbed the “Poet’s Corner.”

******

Join Cindy online for a class or program this spring from anywhere in the world. Visit http://www.cindycrosby.com for more.

Sunday, March 7, 4-5:30pm CST: Katy Prairie Wildflowers, offered through Katy Prairie Conservancy, Houston, Texas. Discover a few of the unusual prairie wildflowers of this southern coastal tallgrass prairie. Register here

Thursday, March 11, 10am-noon CST: Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History is a book discussion, offered by Leafing through the Pages Book Club at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (Morton Arboretum members only) Registration information here.

Friday, April 9, 11:30a.m-1pm CST: Virtual Spring Wildflower Walk —discover the early blooming woodland and prairie plants of the Midwest region and hear their stories. Through the Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Register here.

A Tallgrass Prairie Thaw

To the mouse, snow means freedom from want and fear…. To a rough-legged hawk, a thaw means freedom from want and fear.” —Aldo Leopold

*****

Drip. Drip. Drip.

I’m raking snow off our roof when I hear it. The sun broke through the gray haze like a white hot dime an hour ago, and I’m grateful for its feeble warmth. The gutters groan and bend under their weight of ice. I’ve knocked most of the icicles down, pretty though they are—-lining the roof’s edge like a winter holiday postcard.

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

We have a foot and a half of snow on our roof. Uh, oh! For the first time in our 23 years of living in the Chicago Region, we’re concerned enough to borrow a friend’s roof rake and try to do something about it. As I rake, the snow avalanches down the shingles and I’m sprayed with white stuff. It’s like being in a snowball fight with yourself. The squirrels wait in the trees nearby, ready to return to their assault on the birdfeeders when I finish. I try to imagine what they’re thinking.

Fox squirrel (Sciurus niger), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Then I hear it again. Drip. Drip. Drip.

The sound of thaw.

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

The prairie, slumbering under her weight of white, hears the sound. There’s a faint stirring in the ice, especially where the sun strikes in full.

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

Winter is far from over; its icy clasp on the prairie will linger for many more weeks. And yet. There’s something in the air this week, despite the cold haze that hangs over the tallgrass.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie in late February, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Certain sounds—that “drip!” Water trickling in a prairie stream under the ice. Snow melt. The smell of something fresh.

Ice on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2019)

A male cardinal sings his courting call. I stop in my tracks. He doesn’t seem to be daunted by the snow flurries, seemingly stuck on “repeat” this week. He knows what’s coming.

Above the ground, the prairie grasses and wildflowers are smothered in snow drifts. They look bowed and broken by the wild weather thrown at them over the past few months.

Cindy’s backyard prairie patch at the end of February, Glen Ellyn, IL.

A few stalwart plants stubbornly defy the storms and stand tall.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Their long roots—-15 feet deep or more—begin to stir. You can almost hear a whisper in the dry, brittle leaves. Soon. Soon.

It’s been a beautiful winter.

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

But a long one, as winters tend to seem when you’re half past February and not quite close enough to March.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, viewed through the piled parking lot snow at College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Even as the snow is grimed with soot by car exhaust along the streets, there’s beauty. All around, the particular delights of February. The stark silhouettes of grass stems…

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…the prairie’s geometric lines and angles; devoid of frills and flounces.

Winter at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. (2016)

The gray-blues and rusts of the prairie landscape, seem intensified at this time of year. Everything is clarified. Distilled.

Perhaps because of the long grind of the pandemic, this winter has seemed longer and gloomier than usual. Colder. More difficult.

Hidden Lake prairie plantings, Downers Grove, IL (2019).

But when I open the newspaper over breakfast, the headlines seem less grim. A faint whiff of optimism tinges conversations with friends. I feel hope in the air; hope that we are nearing the end of our long haul through this dark night.

Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

My spirits lift when I see the signs, scent the smells, hear the sounds of a new season on the way.

Spring is coming. Do you sense the thaw? Can you feel it?

Dickcissel (Spiza americana), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. (2017)

I’m ready.

***

Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), whose quote opens this blog post, is best known for his book of collected essays, A Sand County Almanac, published a year after his death. Today, it is considered a critical foundation for conservation and wilderness thinking. Leopold’s book has sold more than two million copies and influences many who work in wildlife and prairie conservation today. Another favorite quote: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Read more about him here.

*****

Last Chance to Register for February 24 Program! Join me online from anywhere in the world via Zoom.

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

Reading the Tallgrass Prairie

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

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

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

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

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy reading!

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

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

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

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

5 Reasons to Hike the February Prairie

“If you stand still long enough to observe carefully the things around you, you will find beauty, and you will know wonder.” — N. Scott Momaday

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Zero degrees. My backyard birdfeeders are mobbed.

White-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The squirrels take their share. I don’t begrudge them a single sunflower seed this week.

Fox squirrel (Sciurus niger), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

It’s tempting to stay inside. Watch the snow globe world from behind the window. It’s warmer that way. But February won’t be here for long.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Let’s pull on our coats. Wrap our scarves a little tighter. Snuggle into those Bernie Sanders-type mittens.

Ice and snow on unknown shrubs, West Side, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Need a extra push, during these polar vortex days? Consider these five reasons to get outside for a prairie hike this week.

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  1. Bundle up in February and marvel at the way snow highlights each tree, shrub and wildflower.
East Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Enjoy how the snow drifts into blue shadows on the prairie, punctured by blackberry canes. A contrast of soft and sharp; staccato and legato; light and dark.

Snow drifts into wild blackberry canes (Rubus allegheniensis) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Notice: Rather than being muzzled and smothered by snow, the prairie embraces it, then shapes it to its February tallgrass specifications.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve prairie plantings, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Downers Grove, IL. (2018)

Snow in February creates something wonder-worthy.

2. The restrained palette of February demands our attention. Ash and violet. Black and blue. A little red-gold. A bit of dark evergreen.

Prairie plants along the shore of Crabapple Lake, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

You’d think it would be monotonous. And yet. Each scene has its own particular loveliness.

Wetland with prairie plants, East Side, Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

We begin to question our previous need for bright colors…

Bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2018)

…as we embrace the simplicity of the season.

Road to Thelma Carpenter Prairie, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. (2016)

As we hike, there’s a yearning for something we can’t define. More daylight? Warmth? Or maybe, normalcy? Our personal routines and rhythms of the past 12 months have been completely reset. There’s a sense of resignation. It’s been a long winter. February reminds us we still have a ways to go. Keeping faith with our prairie hikes is one practice that grounds us and doesn’t have to change. It’s reassuring.

Possibly burdock (Artium minus), Lyman Woods, Downers Grove, IL.

3. In February, we admire the elusiveness of water. It’s a changeling. One minute, liquid. The next—who knows?

Ice on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (2017)

Winter plays with water like a jigsaw puzzle.

Ice forms in Belmont Prairie’s stream, Downers Grove, IL (2020)

February’s streams look glacial.

Bridge over the DuPage River prairie plantings in February, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Snuggle into your parka and be glad you’re hiking, not swimming.

4. If you are a minimalist, February is your season.

East Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Everything is pared to essentials.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardi) leaves, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Many of the seeds are gone; stripped by mice, extracted by birds.

Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2018)

Everywhere around you are the remains of a prairie year that will soon end in flames.

Prescribed burn sign, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

What you see before you is the last whisper of what is, and was, and what will be remembered.

Hidden Lake in February. (2018)

Look closely. Don’t forget.

5. In February, turn your eyes to the skies. What will you see? The marvel of a single red-tailed hawk, cruising over the tallgrass in the distance?

Prairie planting with red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis0, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

A sundog—that crazy play of sunlight with cirrus that happens best in the winter? Or a sun halo, blinding, dazzling?

Sun halo, Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL. (2020)

Maybe it will be a full Snow Moon at the end of this month, setting sail across the sub-zero sky. Or a daylight crescent moon, scything the chill.

Crescent moon, Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL. (2020)

What will you see? You won’t know unless you go. Sure, it’s bitter cold. But soon, February will only be a memory. What memories are you making now?

Coyote (Canis latrans) on the trail through the Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The prairie is waiting.

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N. Scott Momaday (1934-) is the author of Earth Keeper (2020), House Made of Dawn (1968, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Literature in 1969) and my favorite, The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969), a blend of folklore and memoir. Momaday is a member of the Kiowa tribe, a group of indigenous people of the Great Plains. Writer Terry Tempest Williams calls Earth Keeper “a prayer for continuity in these days of uncertainty.”

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

Begins Monday, February 8 (SOLD OUT) OR just added —February 15 (Two options): Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online (Section A or B)--Digitally explore the intricacies of the tallgrass prairie landscape and learn how to restore these signature American ecosystems as you work through online curriculum. Look at the history of this unique type of grassland from the descent of glaciers over the Midwest millions of years ago, to the introduction of John Deere’s famous plow, to where we are today. We will examine different types of prairie, explore the plant and animal communities of the prairie and discuss strategies specific to restoring prairies in this engaging online course. Come away with a better understanding of the tallgrass prairies, and key insights into how to restore their beauty. All curriculum is online, with an hour-long in-person group Zoom during the course. You have 60 days to complete the curriculum! Join me–Registration information here.

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