Tag Archives: The Morton Arboretum

The Art of Prairie Restoration

This world is but a canvas to our imagination.” — Henry David Thoreau

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Winter is wonderful. Usually.

But this past week has been a rollercoaster ride of temperature swings from high 50s plunging to near zero; sunshine and gloom, snow and rain. In other words, typical. Fog blew in and settled on the prairies, coloring everything gray. A drag on the spirits.

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One of my go-to cures for the January blues—or should I say grays—is The Art Institute of Chicago.

I wander in. Immediately there is a blast of color and light in the Impressionist Gallery. Ironically, even the canvas,”Paris Street: Rainy Day,”  seems bright and cheerful.

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The Monet waterlilies…

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…bring back memories of summer in the prairie wetlands.

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I soak up the primary hues of paintings in the Modern Wing.

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Thinking of hikes through the snow this month…

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In unlikely stairwells, I stumble across reminders of  blue skies, obscured by clouds this week.

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I  imagine the prairie skies, hidden for so long behind shrouds of fog and curtains of snow and rain.

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As I stroll the halls and gaze at the creations showcased in this iconic place, it’s a good reminder of the courage of those who strove, against all odds, to create something beautiful out of nothing. These painters, sculptors, and other artists who had a vision.

Like some other folks I know.

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Prairie restorationists and artists have a lot in common. We think of restoration as a science. But it’s also about creativity.

Prairie restoration begins with a vision.

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The dream of how the land might be healed, imagined in the mind of a steward or site manager.

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There’s a lot of trial and error. Preliminary sketching, if you will; a few rough drafts. Sometimes, you scrap everything and start over.

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There may be misunderstandings along the way. People who don’t get it. They look at your “project” and shake their head. They wonder out loud if you have wasted your time.

“Weeds. It’s just a bunch of weeds.”

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Bet you’ve heard that one before, haven’t you?

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But you keep on moving forward. You believe in what you are doing. You look for the breakthroughs.

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Without imagination—without creativity—without courage—the best prairie restorations don’t happen.

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The rewards don’t always come in your lifetime. But the work you do isn’t for yourself, although the tallgrass is gratifying in a thousand different ways. You work, knowing you leave a legacy for those who will come after you. You think of them, as you drip with sweat, freeze, or pull weeds; plant seeds.

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You can see the future in your mind. Envision it. That end result. And as artists and restorationists know, it’s worth the work. It’s worth the wait.

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Think about it.

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*******

The writer Henry David Thoreau, whose quote opens this essay, was a naturalist, philosopher, writer, transcendentalist, and social reformer. A favorite quote from Thoreau, “We can never have enough of nature.” His 1849 essay, “Civil Disobedience,” continues to stimulate thinking about human rights. His most famous book is “Walden.”

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): prairie plants in the fog at Saul Lake Bog Nature Preserve, Land Conservancy of West Michigan, Rockford, MI; “Paris Street: Rainy Day,” 1877, Gustave Caillebotte, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; “Waterlily Pond,” 1917-19, Claude Monet, European Painting and Sculpture, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; prairie pond, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Clear Creek, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; “Yellow Hickory Leaves with Daisy,” 1928, Georgia O’Keeffe, American Art Gallery, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; beech (Fagus sylvatica) leaves on snow, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; “Sky Above Clouds IV,” 1965, Georgia O’Keeffe, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; sky over Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, United States National Park Service, The Nature Conservancy, Strong City, KS; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) and volunteer weeding, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; volunteers collecting seed, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) seedpod, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; “A and the Carpenter “I”, Sam Gilliam, 1973, Modern and Contemporary Art, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; barb wire and Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; “Grayed Rainbow,” 1953, Jackson Pollock, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL;  ice and grasses, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; snowy trail through Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove, IL; pasque flowers (Anemone patens, sometimes Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; late summer on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; “The Thinker,” Auguste Rodin, Rodin Exhibition, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL (add to the conversation here). 

Practicing Prairie Patience

The prairie is patient. When drought sets in, as it inevitably does, prairie grasses bide their time. They do not flower without the nourishment to make good seed. Instead, they save their resources for another year when the rains have fallen, the seeds promise to be fat, and the earth is moist and ready to receive them. The prairie teaches us to save our energies for the opportune moment.” –Paul Gruchow

***

I love to read. But I just put down Thomas Friedman’s new book, Thank You for Being Late about the too-rapid, frenzied acceleration of climate change, technology, and globalization in the world because—I confess—I felt  it was too slow-paced.  I was impatient.

The irony of this is not lost on me.

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If I slow down and pay attention to my life closely enough, I see particular patterns emerge. If I listen to my life, certain messages are repeated. Lately, the messages and patterns are all about my need to relearn patience. Take things slowly. Sit with decisions. Wait.

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Two years ago, I blew out my knee while hiking in the snow and ice on the 606, Chicago’s terrific new urban trail. Since then, I’ve become much more aware of my own limitations. Because I have to physically slow down, it’s forced me to slow down in other ways. To become more attentive. More patient with myself. More patient—hopefully—with others.

But I can’t say it’s been easy.

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Until I was forced to slow down, I thought I was a pretty patient person. But there’s nothing like congratulating yourself on a virtue you think you have to discover how pitiful your abilities really are. Patience? Let’s see what she’s got. You quickly realize your illusions about yourself.

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In the last few months,  I’ve been invited to practice patience. Sitting in hospital waiting rooms. Long hours of car travel. Trains that didn’t run as scheduled. Cancelled flights. Jets that sat on the tarmac without taking off. Listening to endless loops of “on hold” music on the phone while watching time tick away. Anxious hours waiting for our new granddaughter to be born. Waiting for a response from someone I e-mailed weeks ago about a project.  Waiting for the temperature to warm up past zero so I can hike longer than 20 minutes at a stretch. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.

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Those of us who love the tallgrass and work with prairie restoration are well acquainted with patience.  We know the power of waiting. Nothing worthwhile happens on the prairie without it.

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And yet. Our world values speed. It values brevity. It promotes instant gratification. One click! Is “next day” not soon enough? How about the same day, then? Faster! Faster! 

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The prairie reminds me that many good things take patience. The pale purple coneflower seedhead below is an echo of numerous cycles of  freeze and fire; sprout and leaf; bud and bloom.

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In only weeks, the prairie will be touched by flames again. Floods of flowers will follow.

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None of this can be rushed. That’s part of the beauty of the whole. What makes it so meaningful.

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Think about it. Slow might be the way to go. Take a minute and look.  Don’t be in such a hurry.

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With the prairie as my model, I’ll keep trying to practice patience.

Difficult. But worth it.

***

Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) was a Minnesota writer who wrote such beautiful books as Travels in Canoe Country; The Boundary Waters: Grace of the Wild; Journal of a Prairie Year; The Necessity of Empty Places; and Grass Roots: The Universe of Home from which this opening quote was taken.

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All photographs copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Belmont Prairie Preserve at sunset, six degrees, Belmont Prairie Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Belmont Prairie Preserve Association, Downer’s Grove, IL; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Belmont Prairie Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Belmont Prairie Preserve Association, Downer’s Grove, IL; old apple tree (Malus unknown species), Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; shadows in the snow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock leaf (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; probably Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Belmont Prairie Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Belmont Prairie Preserve Association, Downer’s Grove, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Belmont Prairie Preserve Association, Downer’s Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) seedhead, Belmont Prairie Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Belmont Prairie Preserve Association, Downer’s Grove, IL; pale purple coneflowers (Echinacea pallida) (foreground), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) seedhead, Belmont Prairie Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Belmont Prairie Preserve Association, Downer’s Grove, IL;sunset on the Belmont Prairie Preserve, six degrees, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Belmont Prairie Preserve Association, Downer’s Grove, IL.

How to Spark (Prairie) Wonder

“While we are born with curiosity and wonder, and our early years full of the adventure they bring, I know such inherent joys are often lost. I also know that, being deep within us, their latent glow can be fanned into flame again by awareness and an open mind.”–
Sigurd Olson

***

I’m thinking about the above quotation as I hike through prairie snow. The temperature? Below zero. Not an optimal day for outdoor adventures. But after more than five decades of wanderings—and at the beginning of a new year—I’ve been wondering. How do I keep my sense of curiosity and wonder in a cynical world? How do I “fan the flame;” “stay aware” as Olson writes? It’s so easy to become insular.

Then, I look around.

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Time outdoors. Perhaps that’s always the answer.

 

SPMAwasharea123117.jpgEven a short walk in the brutal cold is a mental palate cleanser. It sweeps clean the heavy holiday fare. Too much travel. Noise. Not enough time to think.

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I breathe in. The air sears my lungs; seeps into my gloves, painfully nips my hands. Then all feeling recedes.

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Above me, the wild geese fly in formation over the prairie, calling to each other. The sound carries clearly in the cold, crisp air. I inhale again, and feel the fuzziness in my mind begin to dissipate.

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I think of Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese.” When I worked as a ranger on a wilderness island, one of my many non-glamorous tasks was sweeping the visitor center floor at the end of the day. As I’d push the broom, back and forth, back and forth, I’d try memorizing a new poem each week, written on a card in my pocket. It made the task more pleasant. “Wild Geese” was one poem I memorized that became a favorite.

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Lost in remembrance, I almost miss what’s under my feet. The prairie and meadow voles have been busy tunneling through the snow, on a seed-finding mission.

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The short winter list of prairie birds and animals are easier to name than the lengthy  roll call of plant species. Winter plant ID is a guessing game. The once-familiar wildflowers have shed their leaves and bleached their colors. Some I can be fairly certain of, like these thimbleweeds, with their tufts of seeds in various stages of blow-out along a sheltered edge of the prairie.

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Or the pasture thistle, in its familiar spot next to the path.

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The compass plant leaf, even when cold-curled like a bass clef, is unmistakable.

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But other wildflowers, sans identifying colors, scents, or leaf shapes, are a mystery. Is this one an aster? Sure. But which one? I realize how limited my naturalist skills are every winter.

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Such a jumble of seasonal botanical leftovers! All in various stages of decay. Monarda? Check. Blackberry canes? Check. And is that tiny curl a bit of carrion flower vine? But which species?

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Hours could be spent in this fashion; looking, listening, hypothesizing, thinking, remembering. It takes so little to rekindle the spark of curiosity and wonder. To wake up. To be refreshed.

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Just a short hike. A moment’s attention toward what’s happening around your feet. A glance at the sky.

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And suddenly, you feel it: the embers of curiosity and wonder begin to glow again.

***

Sigurd F. Olson (1899-1982) wrote nine books, including my favorite, The Singing Wilderness.   Many of his essays are about the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and North Woods, and a few are about the prairie. Some include beautiful scratchboard illustrations from artist Francis Lee Jaques,  who was born in Illinois. Olson was a conservation activist and one of the greatest advocates for natural areas in recent times. The quote that begins this blog post is from his book, Listening Point.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): West Side bridge, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Orland Grassland, Forest Preserve Districts of Cook County, Orland Park, IL;  Orland Grassland, Forest Preserve Districts of Cook County, Orland Park, IL; fence line at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Canada geese (Branta canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie vole (Microtus ochrogaster), or meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus) tunnels, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant leaf (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; aster (unknown species), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blackberry canes (probably Rubus argutus), bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), and carrion vine (Smilax, unknown species), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  Saul’s Lake Bog and Prairie, Land Conservancy of West Michigan, Rockford, MI; sunrise, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL.

Hope in the Tallgrass

“Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering, ‘It will be happier.'” —Alfred, Lord Tennyson

I watched a flock of sandhill cranes scrawling their calligraphic way south this week, high above my backyard prairie patch. You’re late, I said under my breath. But of course, they’re not.

 

Sandhill cranes know the rhythms and patterns encoded deep in their bones; ancient and primitive. They don’t need someone like me, who lives by clocks and calendars, to tell them when it is time to shift places. The wild things know what they need to know.

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But we who do live by clocks and calendars know that this particular week is a symbolic one; one that brings our year to a close.

It’s been a bittersweet year for many of us. For some, a year of losses. Disappointments.

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For others, a year of joys. A year of surprises, perhaps. Of new beginnings.

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For most of us, a blend of all of these. In a few days, the coming season stands ready to be unwrapped, like a bright shiny package. Full of unknowns.

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We look back on a prairie season that brimmed full of braided ladies’ tresses orchids and ebony jewelwing damselflies;

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…dickcissels and purple prairie clover; Scribner’s panic  grass and ornate box turtles.

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Subtle sunrises and in-your-face-spectacular sunsets. Clouds that splattered the prairie sky in a thousand different patterns. Thunderstorms and snow. Wide open spaces that gave us room to think.

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Rainbows and sun halos and sundogs that prismed the clouds with color.

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Astonishing! All of it. How can we not marvel?

But most of all, this past year the prairie continued to amaze me with its people. Volunteers. Their generosity and willingness to give continually exceeded my expectations. People who care! They are willing to put sweat equity into ensuring the tallgrass prairie’s survival.

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Such a diverse group! Some are gifted in art or poetry; theology or math; in music or mechanical engineering; in home economics or biology. These volunteers are pilots, librarians, homemakers, real estate agents, clergy, nurses, and lawyers. They are the unemployed, the already-too-committed, students, and retirees.

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They arise early in the morning. Drive long distances to pull weeds, cut brush, collect seeds. Set prescribed fires. Listen patiently to someone like me talk or teach about prairie. Week after week, they get up and do it all over again. It’s because of them that the tallgrass prairie has a chance in this world.

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As this year ends, I think of the prairie and its community of rich diversity. And I think of this rich diversity of people I know who so faithfully care for it. For without them, the prairie today would no longer thrive in a world where its currency has tenuous value.

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Looking back on 2017, it is easy to feel overwhelmed, anxious, discouraged and—even at times, looking at recent headlines—despair about the natural world. I’ve felt all of these things at some point during the year. But this week, I choose to feel hope.

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Because of the volunteers I know. Because they are working to make this world a better place. Because they show up, week after week.  They believe they can make a difference.

Don’t give up.

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This year, I hope you’ll be out there on the prairies and other natural areas with us.

We’ll be waiting for you.

****

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), whose quote opens this blog post, is a good writer to end the year on. He was Poet Laureate of Great Britain and Ireland. He suffered great grief in his family; his father was abusive, and of his 11 siblings, two became addicts and several others suffered acute mental illness. Poetry was his escape, and he poured his life into it. Read about his work and explore his poems at The Poetry Foundation.  I particularly like his short poem, The Eagle.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom):  sun halo with sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis); last weeks of December at Orland Grassland, Forest Preserves of Cook County, Orland Park, IL; goldfinch nest (Spinus tristis), Orland Grassland, Forest Preserves of Cook County Orland Park, IL; bison (Bison bison) at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;   praying mantis (Mantis religiosa) egg case, Orland Grassland, Forest Preserves of Cook County, Orland Park, IL; ebony jewelwing damselflies (male and female) (Calopteryx maculata), Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wetland and prairie, Orland Grassland, Forest Preserves of Cook County, Orland Park, IL; clouds over Orland Grassland, Forest Preserves of Cook County, Orland Park, IL; sundog over Lake Michigan after a prairie visit, St. Joseph, IL;  volunteer on Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; volunteers caring for prairie planting, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wetland and prairie, Orland Grassland, Forest Preserves of Cook County, Orland Park, IL; clouds and prairie, Orland Grassland, Forest Preserves of Cook County, Orland Park, IL; Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), Orland Grassland, Forest Preserves of Cook County, Orland Park, IL; two-track through Orland Grassland, Forest Preserves of Cook County, Orland Park, IL.

Thanks to Heather Herakovich for the nest ID! And thanks to the staff and volunteers who work to preserve the 960-acre Orland Grassland, and to Bob Rottschalk, a faithful blog reader who suggested I go see this preserve for myself. What a beautiful prairie and natural area! I’ll be back.

Why (Prairie) Words Matter

“‘Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its own accord.’”– from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, on burning books.

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While hiking an unfamiliar prairie this past weekend, I came to a stream, limned with ice.

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The bridge spanning the waterway was gone. Hmmm. My choices were simple. I could turn back. Hop from slick rock to slick rock. Or, wade the shallows to the other side, and get my feet wet. Reluctantly, I chose the path of least resistance and retraced my path. The rest of the prairie would have to wait for another day’s exploration, better footwear, or the bridge repair.

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As one who seeks to know new places more intimately, I’m reminded that the loss of bridges—connecting points—-matter.

As a writer, I get that as well. Words are bridges. They have the capability to connect us to places—and to dynamic ideas. They elicit memory. They provoke action. They stimulate emotion. They are a springboard for the imagination.

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How many times has a parent told you, “Her first word was—-.”  Or a grieving person: “His last words were—–.” Words are significant! Our ancestors also knew the importance of words. The First Amendment notes, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press… .” Words matter. Losing words matters.

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When we lose particular words about place, we lose part of the collective memory of our people. These words comprise a slice of our identity. They are the language of the place in which we live. More specifically, when we lose prairie-related vocabulary, we break links that join us to the tallgrass; specific identifiers that bind us to a place.

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Words are one way we give human voice to a land that speaks in prairie dropseed, bobolinks, and dung beetles. Naming things brings them to our attention, just as learning the name of someone we meet makes them more memorable, more “real” to us.

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When we learn the name for a particular sedge or a specific bee, we can visualize it, even when it isn’t in front of us.  In a time when tallgrass prairie is dubbed one of the most threatened natural areas on earth, to lose any of these names is to lose some of our momentum in cherishing and caring for it.

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We’re lazy.  We don’t have enough time, do we? It’s easier to use non-descriptive, bland words that trip easily off the tongue. Ecosystem. Landscape. Grasses. Plants. Bugs. Use generalities and the prairie becomes a blur, a non-entity.

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There is rhythm and motion in the prairie vocabulary; joy in the particulars. Delight in the common names: Canada wild rye. Regal fritillary. Hoary puccoon. Cream wild indigo. Try saying some of the scientific names out loudBison bison. (That double whammy! Like a drumbeat.) Or, Monarda fistulosa. Spiza americana. Let these descriptive words roll off your tongue: Mesic. MollisolsLoess.

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Speak the words. Keep them in front of people.

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It’s a fragile hold we have on these words.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

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As we draw toward the winter solstice on Thursday—the shortest, darkest day of the year—remember the light that words can bring into the world. Words of color and sound. Words of hope. Words of restoration. Words of promise.

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Specific words matter.

Let’s use them.

*****

Ray Bradbury’s (1920-2012) short, powerful book Fahrenheit 451, written in 1953 about a post-literate society, seems almost prophetic more than six decades later. Bradbury’s writing spanned many genres, from science fiction to fantasy, as well as a terrific book, Zen in the Art of Writing on the craft of putting words together well. My favorite is Dandelion Wine, his fictional memoir of growing up in Illinois.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blown-out Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) seedheads on Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL;  Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL;  mixed grasses with smartweed (Polygonum spp.)  around the pond at Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL; mountain mint (probably Pycnanthemum virginianum), Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve DeKalb, IL;  mixed grasses including Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) on Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL; mixed grasses with little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) on Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL; Canada wild rye, Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL; unknown sunflower seedheads (Helianthus spp.) with Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis) Afton PrairieAfton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL; wild cucumber (Echinocystis lobata), Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL; sunset, Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Thanks to John Heneghan and Tricia Lowery for taking us to Afton Prairie for our first visit there. And thanks to Joshua Clark and the good folks at DeKalb County Forest Preserve who care for Afton Prairie and its associated beautiful natural areas. Once again, a big shout-out to Paul Marcum and the ID gurus at Illinois Botany Facebook page for help with wild cucumber.

A Prairie Pause

“Every day I see or hear something that more or less kills me with delight…it is what I was born for—to look, to listen… .” — Mary Oliver

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First-timers to the prairie in December may be underwhelmed. The grass colors are draining away; plants are nibbled and ragged. Shopworn.

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But, as the opening lines of the Mary Oliver poem above suggest, for those who hike and look during these gray days, December has its rewards.  Kaleidoscope skies delight us in the afternoons, straight out of a Van Gogh painting.

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Slow-burning sunsets, trailing scarves of fire, deliver quiet satisfaction. They end  some of the shortest days of the year.

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As a prairie steward at two different sites, I find December is a good time to reflect on the coming season. At home, I scribble in my notebook. RCG? means, “What will I do about the reed canary grass we can’t get rid of that’s infesting a high-quality area of the prairie?”  That caricature of a flower next to it is purple loosestrife, which consistently mounts a stealth operation into the west end of the stream from a subdivision across the road. A reminder that constant vigilance is the price of an invasive-free waterway.

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All of these invasive plants will be put on an “alert” list and dealt with in 2018. But for now, they are just words on paper. Something to think about in the abstract.

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And then, there is my prairie “wish list.” Oh, such possibilities! Maybe, adding a little cardinal flower in the wetter areas.

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Along the streambank, where the native Illinois bundleflower has become an aggressive bully,…

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…I can proactively place great blue lobelia. These “blues” may take root, and chase some of my problem plants away. Or, so I hope.

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I digitally page through online native plant nursery catalog offerings, make notes, calculate costs. Wonder what the possibilities might be. I pore over my prairie plant inventory list, made this season. What plants have gone missing this year? Who is new that showed up to the party, uninvited? Which species is getting a little aggressive, a little too territory-hungry? A little less monarda—a little more pasqueflower? 

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In my faith tradition, December is a time of waiting. A time of anticipation. Preparation. On the prairie, as a steward, I find the month of December to be much the same.

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A rest from herbicide management, writing workday summaries, or thinking about dragonfly populations in the creeks and ponds of the prairie wetlands.

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I like this rhythm of the seasons. I need a pause, one in which I’m not pulling weeds; collecting seeds. Sure, there are tasks that can be done—I’m still trying to wrap up some spreadsheets, finish some year-end reports—but let’s be clear. Nothing is screaming “spray me now!” No seeds I need are being eaten by birds, or explosively shooting off into the grasses before they can be collected.

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There is time to catch up on unread piles of articles; to thumb leisurely through a book or two on prairies that I’ve been meaning to read. Find journal essays online about dragonflies. Set workshop dates to train new monitors. Compare notes with other stewards. There is time—precious time—to untangle my thoughts.

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With gray skies wrapped around our days like a smothering cloak, the impulse to be indoors, instead of out, is strong.  No warm breezes beckon. I don’t wonder if I’m missing a new dragonfly species when I curl up on the couch with a mug of hot tea.  I don’t worry that the sweet clover has, seemingly overnight, overrun a new portion of the tallgrass. I can take a break, guilt-free. December is a simpler month; a welcome interlude in the busyness of the life of the prairie.

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I don’t know what the new year holds. I prepare as best I can. Scribble lists. Reflect. Dream a little. Prepare. Anticipate. Scribble some more.

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When I’m out hiking the trails, I imagine the prairies as they will be, vibrant and blooming in the spring. I look at them now, clear-eyed. Yes, they are brittle, a little shaggy. Ragged under their sprinkle of new snow. Different. But no less beautiful. Then I retreat back home to make a few more lists.

And I savor the pause.

****

The opening verse is from Mary Oliver’s poem, “Mindful.” If you haven’t read the whole poem, and you love volunteering or caring for the tallgrass prairie in some way throughout the year, this poem is for you. Read it here.  It’s beautiful. Oliver (1935-) won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984. Her newest poetry collection is Devotions.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): prairie dock leaf (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cloudy December skies over the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Gensburg-Markham Prairie Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, and Northeastern Illinois University, Markham, IL:  vigilant bullfrogs (Lithobates catesbeianus)  Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; ice in Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Nomia Meadows Farm prairie and wetlands, Franklin Grove, IL; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, Il; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; path through Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), female, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ball gall at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL. 

A Prairie Wish and a Prayer

 “Labor brings a thing nearer the heart’s core.” –Mary Webb

***

For prairie volunteers, it’s impossible to walk the tallgrass in December and not think of endings. This month is the symbolic culmination of a year’s worth of stewardship; the grand finale of planning, sweat, risk, small successes and—sometimes—epic failures. Three steps forward, two steps back.

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Take a deep breath. Look around you. Everything that can go to seed has flossed out; emptied itself into the wind and soil. Wade into the tallgrass. Bits of seed silk fly out in  pieces all around, a little prairie mock snowstorm.

Sun slants through seedheads; sparks stalks and stems into silver and gold.

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Hike the trails and mull over the season that has passed. Muse on the new season still to come. 

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In the distance, smoke hazes the prairie, tumbles above the treeline. 

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Natural resource managers, taking advantage of the warm, dry conditions, lay down prescribed burns in the nearby woodlands and wetlands. But not yet on the prairie. Soon, we tell the tallgrass. Very soon. Your turn will come.

December has been, by turns, warm and balmy; all sunshine then thunder; bitter and breezy.

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Listen closely as you hike the prairie trails and you’ll hear the tell-tale sounds of the end of juice and sap. The rustle of switchgrass. The brittle rattle of white wild indigo seed pods.

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The indigo stems snap off in 50 mph winds then roll, tumbleweed-like, across the prairie, scattering their progeny.

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Broken—but accomplishing their evolutionary task of moving around their DNA. In years to come, we’ll see the results: those incomparable white wild indigo blooms. Close your eyes. Imagine.

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But for now, look closely.  Who knows what you’ll see? A heightening of intense rusts and coppers, right before the final brutal bleaching freezes of January and February.

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Keep looking. You may see the occasional fluke or strange oddity as nature deals the tallgrass a wild card.

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Admire the blown-out stars of asters, spent for this season. Think of the seeds they’ve dropped in the rich black prairie soil, which now harbors a constellation of future blooms for the coming summer.

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New beginnings. They’re all here. Think of what weeding, a bit of planting, and a little dreaming might help this prairie become.
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So much possibility.
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Make a wish. Say a prayer.
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Your hard work may be mostly done for this season. But it has brought this little patch of tallgrass very close to your heart. Let your imagination run wild for what this prairie might become.

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Because on the prairie in December, anything for the coming year seems possible.

***

Mary Webb (1881-1927), who penned the opening quote, was an award-winning English poet and romantic novelist. Her health ultimately failed from Grave’s Disease; her marriage failed as well and she died alone and with her last novel unfinished at age 46. Her writing reflects her fatalism and compassion for suffering. Gone to Earth (1917) expresses her horror of war; Precious Bane (1924), whose heroine has a disfiguring impairment, received the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse Anglais award, a French literary prize. She is known for her intense creativity, mysticism, and her love for the natural world.

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Schulenberg Prairie in December, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cream wild indigo (Baptisia leucampha), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  unknown brome (Bromus spp.), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; prescribed burn, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) seed pods, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) upside down stalks, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie in December, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata) with mutation because of fasciation (viral, genetic, chemical), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; unknown aster, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias  syriaca) pods, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pappus, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hand with common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pappus, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nomia Meadows Farm Prairie, Franklin Grove, IL.

Thanks to Illinois Botany FB page for their help with my question about fasciation and the round-headed bush clover, especially Paul Marcum.