Tag Archives: The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction

5 Reasons to Hike the December Prairie

A sense of wild is engendered by awareness, a sense of connection with and deep understanding of any landscape. The pavement of any city side street wriggles with enough life to terrify and delight us if we choose to immerse ourselves in it.”—Tristan Gooley

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Brrrr! It’s bitter cold—-as it should be in December. The added hours of darkness make it seem more arctic. Whenever the sun shines during these short-lit days, I follow it, cat-like, from room to room, hoping to absorb as much as possible. Soon, the Winter Solstice will arrive, and with it, the return of longer hours of sunshine.

On our Christmas tree, I hang dried orange slices, backlit by the tree lights, which turn the fruit to stained glass. Anything for more light. Color. Beauty.

December darkness is relentless. The pandemic has shadowed this month with more than the usual gloom as well: limiting our activities, sapping our spirits.

For these reasons alone, it’s a great time to get outside. Walk the tallgrass prairie trails. Enjoy brief moments of sunshine, or even a bit of fresh air if the day is gray. Undecided? Worried that it’s too chilly? Here are five more reasons to hike the December prairie.

  1. Unpredictable sightings. I walk the local prairies regularly, yet I never fail to see something that surprises me. This past week, a belted kingfisher rattled from the prairie pond, amusing me with its call—and its “hairstyle.”

Not far away, a partially dismantled osage orange fruit lies on the tallgrass trail, appearing as some alien Christmas ornament.. Despite its name, it’s related to the mulberry, not the orange. I’ve seen them here before, but they always give me pause. So strange!

Nearby, in a stand of tall goldenrod, a plant displays two types of galls on one stem. Huh! That’s a new one for me.

You can see the ball gall–maybe two of them? —topped by the rosette or bunch gall. Nice to see the insects are sharing housing arrangements. It was a big year for goldenrod—-and galls—on this particular prairie.

Piles of cut branches are everywhere; the sign of ongoing maintenance to keep woody shrubs and trees out of the tallgrass. It appears staff or site stewards tried to whack back this persistent tree.

What a stubborn will to live! You have to admire its determination.

2. That peculiar slant of light. December has a certain type of light unlike any other month; low and piercing.

When the sun breaks through the clouds, the prairie ponds and wetlands dazzle; almost too too bright to look at directly. The light turns the landscape monochromatic in places.

The sun scrolls through the sky, hugging the horizon and leaving the grasses and forbs alight.

Aster seeds, seen in this light, may be more beautiful in December than when they were in bloom.

Their puffs of brilliant white brighten gray days.

3. The sounds of winter. As I type, half-asleep at the kitchen table in the early hours, a THUNK snaps me fully awake. A Cooper’s hawk is perched outside, scanning the area for breakfast. Looks like it hit the window—ouch!—but missed its prey. No wonder the feeders have been mostly empty all morning.

I watch the hawk preen its feathers, then hop down and sift through the prairie dropseed planted around the porch. Looking for voles, maybe? Or a frightened sparrow? It’s the hungry season for hawks. After a few minutes, it flies away. The backyard is quiet for a long time afterwards.

Out on the prairie edges, juncos flit from tree limb to limb, their wings shuffling through the dry leaves. Geese honk their way over the tallgrass, headed for a nearby empty soccer field.

There’s a sound of water running. Listening, I feel the tension in my muscles loosen and I relax. Water music has that effect on us. The brook runs free and clear. And, I imagine, cold.

Ice laces the edges.

I think of the legions of dragonfly and damselfly nymphs waiting under the water to emerge. So much life unseen! Water on the prairie—whether pond, brook, river or wetland—-is ever-changing. Never dull. Always interesting. There’s always something new to see, no matter the time of day, or the season of the year.

4. Those December skies! What will each day bring? Steel gray scoured clouds, snuffing out the sun? Burnished blue cloudless skies, warming up the 20-degree temperatures? Veils of milky cirrus?

Or wind-combed clouds, streaming toward some destination far away?

This week, the prairie’s night skies will fill with meteor showers, the best holiday light show of all. By night or by day, the prairie is a front-row seat to the life of the skies. Don’t forget to look up.

5. That feeling of well-being that a good prairie hike brings. Clear your mind of Zoom meetings. Inhale the fragrant smell of December—frozen earth, wild bergamot seedheads, the tang of ice and decay. Turn off the news. Put paid to politics. Silence your cell phone. Go for a prairie hike.

You’ll be glad you did.

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The opening quote is from Tristan Gooley, who has authored many books on reading and navigating the landscape. Thanks to my son and daughter-in-law for the boxed gift set of Gooley books—I am enjoying them immensely. Check out Gooley’s website at The Natural Navigator.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at College of DuPage Natural Areas, East Prairie, unless tagged otherwise (top to bottom): unknown vine with berry from invasive honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica); author’s Christmas tree, Glen Ellyn, IL; belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon); osage orange (Maclura pomifera); ball galls (Eurosta solidaginis) and rosette gall (Rhopalomyia solidaginis) on tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima); unknown tree sprouting; last leaves; prairie pond; COD East Prairie and line of osage orange trees (Maclura pomifera); unknown aster (Symphyotrichum sp.); Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; Canada geese (Branta canadensis) flying over COD East Prairie; Willoway brook ice, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; East Prairie skies; East Prairie skies; bench at COD East Prairie.

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Please consider giving the gift of books this holiday season! Support writers, small presses, and independent bookstores. Through December 31st, you can receive 40% off The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction (2016) and Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History (2020) when you order directly from Northwestern University Press. Use the code HOLIDAY40 at checkout. At regular price, order Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit (with Thomas Dean) from Ice Cube Press (2019). Or order these three books from The Arboretum Store or your favorite indie bookseller. Thank you, and happy reading!

Winter Arrives on the Prairie

“…There exists a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else…”–Mary Oliver

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Gusting winds and gale warnings overnight. Plunging temperatures. We wake up to an ice-cold sunrise. Brrrrr. Today is Dec.1, the first day of meteorological winter.

Astronomical winter is December 21, the winter solstice, when we’ll see more daylight hours again. But today, I’ll take the meteorological date. After an unusually warm November, it feels like the season has changed.

As the cold settles in, the work of the garden is almost finished. Mornings and evenings —jacket-less—I dash outside to the compost pile. Coffee grounds, strawberry hulls, and the odds and ends of Thanksgiving dinner vegetable leftovers mingle and molder in the lidded bucket for that purpose. After unscrewing the top of the Darth Vader-like black plastic helmet that holds the compost (dubbed “The Earth Machine” by the manufacturer) I shake the scraps into the pile, which at this time of year, lies stubbornly unchanged from week to week in the cold. Spring heat, which will turn these scraps into brown gold for my raised garden beds, is still a long way off.

Nearby, the desiccated cup plants, brittle asters, and grasses of my prairie patch rustle in the rising wind.

Swinging the empty bucket, I linger at the raised beds where the still-green parsley, bright wands of rainbow chard, and crisp kale have slowed production, but continue to provide fresh greens for our meals. Today brings temperatures that fall into the mid-20s for a sustained period, so I cross my fingers that I’ll continue the harvest. Other plants have surrendered. The sugar snap peas are in flower, but have long stopped setting pods. Woody overgrown radishes mingle with the parsnips and a few lone beets.

I pull a radish, and it’s nibbled around the edges. Voles? Mice?

More for the compost pile.

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Hiking the prairie this week, I notice almost all the green is gone—except on the grassy trails.

The joy of bloom and color—goldenrod, late asters—has passed; the shift of attention continues to move to structure and smell. The cool tang of mountain mint, when gently rubbed between the fingers…

…the dustier, Earl Grey tea-like smell of wild bergamot—bee balm—when vigorously crushed. Mmmm. Smells so good!

I know the wild bergamot —Monarda fistulosa—of the prairie is not the citrus fruit “bergamot” oil found in the tea. And yet. The smell is the same. I love the connection; love drinking Earl Grey on a frigid winter day and tasting prairie on my tongue.

As winter settles in, blue-bright skies will alternate with skies of slate and sleet. On clear nights, newly-visible Orion stalks the crystal whirl of constellations with the advent of this winter season. Seeing him after dark reminds me to go to the bookshelf and find “Orion Rises On The Dunes,” a chapter from Henry Beston’s The Outermost House, and re-read it again.

Indian hemp—or dogbane, if you will (Apocynum cannabinum)—-curls its now-seedless pods on stalks along the trails. The slant of sunlight turns it Santa suit red.

Native Americans knew that Indian hemp fibers can be stripped for good fishing line, cords, and threads. Try it if you grow the plants; it’s easy to make and a wonderful reminder of how the prairie was prized for its utility at one time, as well as its beauty.

As I round a corner of the trail, I discover goldenrod bunch galls, sometimes called “rosette galls.” They’re pretty common on my prairie walks.

But — wow —so many in one place! The galls are everywhere in front of me for yards and yards — the largest group I’ve ever seen.

I wonder what caused this vast profusion? I know the flower-like “gall” itself is made by a tiny fruit fly, Procecidochares atra (check out the link for a good guide to various goldenrod galls). But why are there so many of these rosettes in one place? They look like a winter prairie “wildflower” garden.

On the edge of the prairie where it melds into woods, I spy the still-green leaf of wild ginger. I had forgotten wild ginger keeps its foliage through the long season, unlike its spring ephemeral wildflower counterparts. Prairie Moon Nursery notes that it is a good native ground cover choice for that reason.

I’ve tried to grow it in my backyard, but without luck. So, I look forward to it on my walks. Seeing it at this time of year is a welcome surprise.

There’s always something unexpected on the prairie.

Who knows what other astonishments the first week of winter will bring?

Why not go see?

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The opening line is from Mary Oliver’s prose poem “Winter Hours” in her poetry collection, Upstream. Oliver (1935-2019) paid close attention to the natural world; she ends the poem with these words: “For me, the door to the woods is the door to the temple.” I wonder what she would have thought of the prairie?

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at the East Prairie and Ecological Study Area, College of DuPage (COD), Glen Ellyn, IL, unless noted otherwise (top to bottom): prairie grasses and forbs; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum); forgotten seedling pots; Park’s rainbow blend radish (Raphanus raphanistrum subsp. sativus): horseweed (Conyza canadensis); trail through the COD prairie; common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum); beebalm or wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa); beebalm or wild bergamot (Monada fistulosa); prairie grasses (mixed); Indian hemp or dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum); COD East Prairie and Ecological Study Area; rosette or bunch gall on Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis); rosette or bunch galls on Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis); wild ginger (Asarum canadense reflexum); Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum) unknown thistles (possibly pasture thistle, Cirsium discolor).

Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization in 2021. Email Cindy through http://www.cindycrosby.com.

THIS FRIDAY! Literary Gardens Online: Friday, Dec.4, 1-2:30 p.m. CST– Take a break from the news and join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby from wherever you live in the world 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 Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Goudge, Rumer Godden, May Sarton, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Gilbert, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, and Lewis Carroll–and many more! This class is online. Register by Thursday here through The Morton Arboretum.

Just in time for the holidays — Save 40% when you order directly from Northwestern University Press — use Code HOLIDAY40! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History (and also The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction).

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Or pick them up at your favorite indie bookstore such as the Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during these unusual times.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (phrelanzer). Or visit her website at http://www.cindycrosby.com. See you there!

Early May at Nachusa Grasslands

“There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”–J.R.R. Tolkien

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Spring. At last! It’s come to the prairies and savannas in full flush.  Welcome back, prairie trillium.

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Hello, Virginia bluebells!

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A few days of warmth and sunlight followed by rain and cool nights keep the wildflowers fresh and vibrant. And as always, there is the promise of more to come.

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With the first days of May come good news. Our dragonfly data collection efforts at Nachusa Grasslands, restricted in April because of COVID-19,  could now—cautiously—begin. Saturday, Jeff and I drove to Franklin Grove, IL, so I could walk several of my regular routes and see what was flying.Nachusa Fame Flower Knob 5220 rocks WM.jpg

The day started out fair and sunny but gradually turned overcast and windy as we traveled. Yet the thought of being back at Nachusa–taking on a task that felt “normal” for spring—was a lift to our spirits. It felt odd to travel an Interstate highway again. Strange to stop and put gas in the car—our Suburu has gotten about eight weeks to the gallon lately. It’s bizarre to see many businesses shuttered; to pass a shopping outlet mall turned COVID testing center, lined with cars. What was so familiar only months ago is now changed.

Arriving at Nachusa, I hop out of the car to maneuver the heavy metal bars of the bison gate open and drive into the bison unit,

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Jeff and I scan the prairie ahead. The bison are noticeably absent. How such massive animals can disappear into the prairie is a mystery. I know that this spring, at least nine bison calves have been sighted. I look again. Nada. I remember previous summers and the joy I felt when the mamas and new babies appear.

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We continue to look for bison—and dragonflies—as we travel the gravel two-track to one of my route locations. Normally, the first dragonfly monitoring hike of the season is in April, although not much is flying at that time. Common green darners (Anax junius) will have arrived from the south. Freshly-minted  dragonflies and damselflies should be emerging from the ponds and streams, ready to participate in the ancient dance of pairing up and creating new life.Cattails NG PowerlinePonds5220WM.jpg

Although we’ve driven this two-track many times, it looks different this spring. Nachusa is known for prescribed fire; this is the first time I’ve seen its approximately 3,500 acres untouched by flames at this time of year. If you didn’t know it was May—and ignored the temperature —it could easily be January. But look closer, and you see that underlying carpet of emerald.

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Our first stop is a large pond I’ve monitored since 2013. But wait!

Where is it?

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What? It’s gone! Oh no…I can’t bear looking.

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It was in this pond that I saw my first Northern pintails, migrating through Illinois and stopping for a quick paddle and a bite to eat. It was here I had my one and only face-off with a mama bison; me, carelessly walking my route without paying attention to their movements. This pond is where the great egret would stop to rest on its hunting expeditions. So many memories. What could have caused such a change?

I remember the pond as it was in previous years.

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I look again. Wow.

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Later, I learn what’s happened. Beavers! They’ve spent the past months re-sculpting the prairie landscape to be more to their liking. Who would have thought? At Nachusa, I usually think about the thousand pound-plus bison and the changes they may make to the places I frequent. Amazing what a few 50-pound beavers can do in a matter of months. Such a big changes from a small animal. I think of Mary Oliver’s poem “Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard”: “It’s not size, but surge that tells us when we’re in touch with something real…” Although the beavers’ work was slow and gradual; the end result brings about a surge of emotion. The beavers have upended my idea of a place I thought I knew. I feel unsettled.

Onward! Next monitoring route. Once a stream, then re-shaped by beavers several years ago as a pond, now a stream again. It’s fascinating to see the different types of dragonfly and damselfly species change over time with the habitat changes; some dragonflies prefer running water, others choose still water.  Jeff sets up his camp chair and pulls out a book while I pick my way alongside the stream, watching for any insect movement.

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The skies fill with clouds as the wind picks up, although the temperature remains in the 70s. A great blue heron flies over.

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After 30 minutes, it’s clear no Odonates are out and about; at least none I can find. Not surprising at this time of year. I log my times and mark the data sheet with a big fat zero. We pack up, and move to the next route.  Around a curve, over a bridge, and across the prairie on the gravel two-track.  Still no bison. But—stop the car!— I shout. Jeff quickly pulls over, and we get out and marvel over a carpet of wood betony—Pedicularis canadensis—more than I’ve seen in all my years as a prairie steward.

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Wood betony is a hemiparasite which can draw nutrients from other plants, especially prairie grasses. For this reason, it is coveted by prairie stewards who want to open grass-dominate areas for prairie wildflowers. I love this wildflower for its crazy flowers and crinkly leaves.

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The bumblebees are working the pinwheeled blooms, sampling one after another.

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I read on Illinois Wildflowers website later that long-tongued bees are the primary pollinators, including queen bumblebees and mason bees.

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We watch the bees for a while, then clamber back into the car and continue to the next site, a small pool I call the “Power Line Pond.”

Except…not so small anymore.

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The beavers strike again!

This pond is flooded almost beyond recognition.

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When bison came to Nachusa Grasslands, their hooves changed the shoreline of this watering hole, making it difficult to get close to the water in places. Last year, I re-rerouted my data collection hikes in an ever-widening arc to stay on solid footing. Today, I’m grateful for my knee-high rubber boots. Looks like I’ll be wading.

As I slosh through the water, I see them. Common green darners!

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My first dragonfly data for the season. Delighted, I mark my tally sheet.  Jeff and I watch them zip across the expanded pond, occasionally stopping to oviposit, then flying to a new spot to start again. Another common green darner appears, flying solo. One of the best moments of dragonfly season is making the first hash mark on your data sheet. Today is that day. The season is off and running. At last.

There are several small ephemeral pools nearby, perhaps bison-made, that sometimes shelter damselflies of various species. Today, all I see are a few water-striders, admiring themselves in the mirror of the sky-reflected water.

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One of my all-time favorite novels, Crow Lake, tells the story of three children unexpectedly orphaned in rural Canada. The oldest son, about to leave for college, chooses to invest in his siblings and stay home so they won’t be parceled out to various relatives. By doing so, he comes to terms with his losses, including a promising future derailed. Mary Lawson uses the life of a pond—-in particular, its surface tension—as a way to consider how sudden change may re-route our plans; cause us to reinvent ourselves. The outcomes aren’t always what we’d expected, or even hoped for. It’s how we choose to respond to sudden change that shapes us and our future, she shows through her story.

This trio of common green darners  turned out to be all we’d see for the day. A spatter of rain begins, and our hopes of more sightings disappear. We drive out of the bison unit, and head for home. But on the way, we pass Clear Creek, one of my routes I’ve not gotten to today. We swing in and park. The chances are slim to none to see any dragonflies or damselflies, but who can resist one more hike?

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As we walk, we glimpse the quick touch-down of a mourning cloak butterfly. This spring, I’ve only seen the cabbage white butterflies and red admirals. Mourning cloak butterflies are unusual in that they often overwinter, then mate in the spring. This one refused to turn around and give us the full glory of its coloration.

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But I had seen this species in bright sunlight the previous spring, and marveled.

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It is exciting to see the first butterflies of the season. But I want dragonflies. I wade into Clear Creek and scrutinize the shoreline, slowly walking the edges. Later in the season, Clear Creek is populated by ebony jewelwing damselflies and springwater dancer damselflies and shadow darner dragonflies. But today, no damselfly or dragonfly is stirring under the steel gray skies.Clear Creek NG 5220WM

I pull a few garlic mustard plants, then wade back to the trail. Jeff has already hiked to the top of  Fame Flower Knob, overlooking the creek.

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I follow the trail to the top, scrutinizing the new growth as I hike. No dragonflies on the trail…but look!

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Sand phlox. An unexpected delight. And over here…pussy toes.

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Such unusual flowers. Like a cluster of shaggy Q-tips.

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And over here….a small patch of birdfoot violet. So tiny!

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I spend some time admiring them up close. Then, I join Jeff.

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Together we’re silent, taking in the view. It’s familiar, yet changed by circumstances — the lack of prescribed fire, the work of prairie creatures such as bison and beavers, the temporary lack of stewardship activity over the past weeks during Illinois’ quarantine. Witnessing these changes to a place I care about is part of building a relationship with it.

What other changes will 2020 bring?

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There’s no way to know. But I do know this. I’ll be back here, to watch them unfold.

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J.R.R. Tolkien is best loved for his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and the delightful prequel,  The Hobbit. The lines that kick off this post are spoken by the dwarf Thorin to young dwarves in The Hobbit as they look for shelter in a rainstorm on their way to burgle treasure from the fearsome dragon Smaug. Instead of shelter, the dwarves find… well, if you haven’t read the book in a while, this is a great time to revisit it. Read more here.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL, unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum recurvatum), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; smooth Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Fame Flower Knob;  Nachusa in early May; bison (Bison bison) with their little ones (taken in a previous year); pond in early May; Nachusa Grasslands in early May; dried out pond in May; great egret (Ardea alba); pond in 2017; former pond in 2020; stream; great blue heron (Ardea herodias); wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis)); wood betony ((Pedicularis canadensis) with unknown bumblebee (Bombus spp.);  wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis) with unknown bumblebee (Bombus spp.) ; wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis) with unknown bumblebee (Bombus spp.)’ Power Line Pond; Power Line Pond; common green darner dragonflies (Anax junius) at Busse Woods (taken in a previous season), Forest Preserve of Cook County, Schaumburg, IL; water strider (possibly Aquarius remigis); two-track gravel road to Clear Creek; mourning cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa); mourning cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Clear Creek in early May; Fame Flower Knob in early May; sand phlox (Phlox bifida); field pussy toes (Antennaria neglecta); field pussy toes (Antennaria neglecta); birdfoot violets (Viola pedata); Fame Flower Knob in early May, red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus). Thanks to the Kleimans for their help in understanding how beavers are changing Nachusa Grasslands.

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Several of Cindy’s classes have moved online! For updates on classes and events, please go to http://www.cindycrosby.com.

If you enjoyed the “Wild and Wonderful Illinois Wildflowers” webinar, please join me for the new Enchanting Spring Prairie Wildflowers, an online webinar this Friday, May 8 1-2:30 p.m. CST, through The Morton Arboretum. Spring on the prairie is a story of color, pollinator pizazz, and native  plants that shaped North American history through their value as  edibles, medicine, and even love charms! Enjoy colorful  photos of some of Illinois’ most beautiful blooms—and a few native  grasses, too!  Click here to register.  

The next “Tallgrass Prairie Ecology” class online on May 4 through The Morton Arboretum is SOLD OUT.   See more information and registration for our June class  here.

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

Looking for Light on the Prairie

“The…world becomes even more beautiful the closer you look. All it takes is attention and knowing how to look.” – –Robin Wall Kimmerer

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What stories does a feather have to tell?

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Jeff and I are hiking Belmont Prairie; our last hike, it turns out, for a while. As we follow the shallow stream to where it disappears…

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…the feather comes into focus at my feet. It looks unreal, with its polka-dotted edge and its graceful arch. Such a lovely silken feather, lying in the mud. I wonder. Who did it belong to? Later, I text a photo of it to a birder friend. Downy or hairy woodpecker, he tells me, most likely. I wonder at the stories this feather could tell.

Once, this feather embodied flight. It provided warmth and waterproofing. Now, it is grounded. Soon, it will disappear into the prairie soil and be unremembered. Except by me.

I’ve felt sad this week. A deep grief. There has been so much loss.

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My usual remedy for sadness and uncertainty is to go to “my” prairies and walk, journal, and think. But the options for hiking have narrowed this week. My prairie stewardship is on hold because of our shelter in place orders. One prairie where I lead a regular work group is closed. Another, requires extensive travel, and I’m no longer comfortable with the idea of driving 90 miles each way. Scientific research and monitoring is halted until the end of the month. Or longer.

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And now, a walk on Belmont Prairie—not far down the road from where I live—is becoming an adventure of the sort I don’t want. Narrow trails. Too many hikers.  Each of us is painfully aware of not getting too close to the other.

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Today, instead of enjoying my walk here, I feel tense.  A hiker appears in front of me, wearing earbuds. I step deep into the tallgrass and we smile at each other as he passes. Too close. Another arrives on a bike. Seeing me, she veers away. A bridge requires single file passage. Because there has been no prescribed burn due to the shelter in place, it’s difficult to see someone until we almost run into each other.

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This, I come to understand as I walk, will be my last hike here for a while. Looks like our backyard prairie may be the best place for Jeff and me during the next few weeks.

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Later, I try to sit with my grief over yet another loss. The loss of beloved places. I try not to ignore my feelings. Not set them aside. But I let myself feel this grief for a few moments. It’s slightly terrifying. My old ways of coping by “going for a hike on the prairie”  are no longer available. I realize I have a choice. I can be angry at what’s closed off to me. I can be depressed at what’s been taken away. Or…

I can be grateful for what I do have.

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I don’t want you to think I’m being Polyanna-ish about this. I’ve been mad this week, and I’ve been sad. I mourned when my  stewardship work was put on hold; and cried again when my other prairie was closed to visitation, science work, and stewardship. These were good decisions by good organizations—made for the health of people. But tough for those of us who love a particular place. Each loss hurt—to not see the emerging pasque flowers bud and bloom, to miss the first crinkled shoots of wood betony pushing through the prairie soil. To not watch the killdeer return. The emerald scrub brushes of newly-emerging prairie dropseed will be long and lush before I’m hiking those trails again.

belmontprairiebackside420WM.jpgThe solace of these familiar and beloved places is no longer available to me. I can choose to continue to be unhappy about this.  Or I can take account of what I do have.

What I do have is a backyard. I have my walks. ‘Round and ’round and ’round the block we go each morning, Jeff and I, soaking up the surprisingly diverse natural world of our neighborhood. Grassy lawns full of common wild violets, our Illinois state wildflower.

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Lawns–some full of diversity, others chemical-ed into monocultured submission. Some are power-edged sharply along sidewalks with volcano-mulched trees, aggressively brought to obedience.

Others are softer, more natural. An eastern-cottontail munches clover in one yard against a backdrop of daffodils. We hear loud cries, and look up as sandhill cranes fly over, somewhere above the bare silver maple limbs etched across blue skies and altocumulus clouds. Like stained glass windows to another world we can only dimly perceive.

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In the cracks of the driveways and the sidewalks blooms a tiny flower. I’m not sure if it’s early Whitlow grass or common chickweed. My iNaturalist app isn’t sure of the ID either. I count the petals, and when I return home, consult my field guides. Chickweed has five petals, deeply cleft—which look like ten at a glance, my guide tells me. Early Whitlow grass, I read, has four petals, deeply cleft, looking as if they are eight petals.

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Chickweed it is!

As I walk, I think about the backyard that will be my “hiking spot” for the foreseeable future. When we moved in, and I met our neighbor Gerould Wilhelm, co-author of Flora of the Chicago Region, I asked his advice. What was the best way to learn native plants of our area? He told me, “Key out one plant in your backyard a day, Cindy. By the time a year has passed, you’ll know 365 plants.” It was great advice, and I took it—for a while. Then I quit. Now might be the time to put my backyard ID into more regular practice.

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I walk through my yard, looking. Over there in the prairie patch—new growth of rattlesnake master and shooting star. And —oh no—buckthorn! Garlic mustard has infiltrated the prairie patch, pond, and garden beds. While my attention was elsewhere doing my stewardship work removing invasives the past few years, these bad-boy plants crept into my yard.

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As I slosh through the wetter areas of the yard, I’m reminded that our house is on the downslope of three other homes in our suburban subdivision. Water, water, everywhere. Our raised beds have helped us solve the problem of growing vegetables in the “swamp.” My little hand-dug pond, sited at the lowest point of the yard, holds some of the water and provides great habitat for western chorus frogs, dragonflies and damselflies, and marsh marigolds which came into bloom a few days ago on the perimeter.

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One of the outflows of all this water is the mosses that accumulate.  But what kinds of mosses? With mosses on my mind, I ordered a  “Common Mosses of the Northeast and Appalachians,” recommended by Dr. Andrew Hipp.  (If you haven’t checked out his thoughtful and intelligent woodland blog, give it a look!) Mosses are…. difficult. I begin with a simple moss that appears in the cracks of our neighborhood sidewalks and backyard patio.

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I follow with a photo of a moss from my Belmont hike.

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Hmmm. It’s a good book. But I can see identifying mosses is going to be a challenge. There’s no instant gratification, and it’s a lot more difficult than ID’ing the chickweed. But, it’s a potentially absorbing activity that I can look forward to over the next few weeks in my backyard. I like having something new to focus on that’s available to me.

After a while, I put the mosses book aside and sit in a patch of sunshine. A cardinal pours out his heart to his lady-love. Goldfinches chitter and chat, then swarm the thistle feeder, resplendent in their brightening plumage.

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It’s good to feel a connection with my backyard. A kinship with the natural world.  ID’ing mosses—feeling the warmth of the sun, listening to birdsong—reminds me that I’m not alone. I needed that reminder right now.  You, too?

We’re in this together.

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Keep looking for the light. It’s there.

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Keep watching for signs of hope. Pay attention.

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Hope and light are all around us. We only need to look.

*****

The opening quote is from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s (1953-) Gathering  Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses (2003). She is best known for Braiding Sweetgrass, but her earlier book is still my favorite.

****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): downy or hairy woodpecker feather, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; stream trickling to an end at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; trail by Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; raccoon (Procyon lotor) tracks, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; footbridge over the stream through Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; Jeff hikes Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; common blue violet (Viola sororia sororia); silver maple (Acer saccharinum) with sky and clouds, author’s neighborhood, Glen Ellyn, IL; common chickweed (Stellaria media), author’s neighborhood, Glen Ellyn, IL;   bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), invasive Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) and native rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; unknown moss (but hopefully not for long!), author’s neighborhood, Glen Ellyn, IL; unknown moss (but hopefully not for long!); Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; goldfinches (Spinus tristis) at the feeder, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; sun halo over author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL: unknown rock on my neighborhood walk, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Thanks to John Heneghan for help with the bird feather ID.

*****

Cindy’s Speaking and Classes

Cindy’s classes have moved online! For updates on classes and events, please go to http://www.cindycrosby.com. The next “Tallgrass Prairie Ecology” class online begins in early May through The Morton Arboretum. See more information and registration  here. The website is updated to reflect current conditions. A free spring wildflower webinar is also in the works! Watch for a link on Cindy’s website, coming soon.

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

February Prairie Joys

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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*****

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

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The shallow prairie stream at Belmont glistens with ice fancywork.

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

Rattlesnake master, its seedheads slowly disintegrating.

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

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Soft arcs of prairie brome…

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…are echoed by curved whips of white vervain nearby.

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

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

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

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

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Soft Q-tips of thimbleweed are unmistakable.

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

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

Why not go look?

****

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

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

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

Join Cindy for a class or event!

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

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

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

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

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

A Year of Reading Prairie

“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.” –Jane Austen

*****

December is here, and my bookshelves are overflowing. Some books are stacked on the floor; other shelves have two rows of books instead of one. And yet…. my Christmas list includes more books. Where will I ever put them all?

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I’ve tried to pare down some of my inventory. But when I get to my prairie books, the winnowing stops. I thumb through old favorites. Sigh over a few that I’ve skimmed and want to spend more time with. I run my fingers over their book jackets and add them to the piles of books already on (and under) the nightstand.

By reading these field guides and coffee table books and essays on the tallgrass,  I’m building my relationship with the prairie. That feels good, especially on a day this week when 60 mph winds roared across the tallgrass and kept me indoors.

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When I was an independent bookseller, I believed for every question, there was a book that might help me wrestle with the question—even if the answers were still fuzzy.  As a prairie steward and naturalist, I love the wide range of literature that helps me explore the natural world. You too?

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As 2019 draws to a close, it’s time to take an annual romp through my prairie bookshelves together. The books below are not a comprehensive reading list by any means. Some of the prairie books I own are out on loan and don’t appear here; some of them are temporarily out of sight (likely in that pile by the coffee table) or being used as coasters (!!!). I didn’t have room to include books on gardening with native plants, like the passionate A New Garden Ethic by Benjamin Vogt or Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home…. or even the biographies of prairie heroes, such as Arthur Melville Pearson’s excellent book on George Fell, Force of Nature. These books that follow also have more to do with prairie plants than other members of the prairie community (so no field guides given here on butterflies, mammals, dragonflies–another bookshelf full of great reads to discuss on a different day).

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All are ones that as a prairie enthusiast, prairie lover, and prairie steward I spend a lot of time browsing, recommending, or giving as gifts. They focus specifically on prairie history, prairie restoration, and prairie plants. Ready? Let’s go!

*****

Is that a prairie plant—or a weed? I get this question a lot. And the answer isn’t always as simple as you’d think. When I first hiked the tallgrass prairie in 1998, I didn’t know foxtail grass from Canada wild rye. I’m still learning my plants. As I wrangle with questions about tallgrass prairie plant ID’s, I look to great field guides like the Tallgrass Prairie Wildflowers Falcon Guide (Doug Ladd and Frank Oberle) (available new and used in several editions). My copy, which replaced a falling apart earlier edition, is dogeared fromuse in the field. Ditto for my well-thumbed Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide by Lawrence Newcomb. An updated edition is available now, although I’d find it difficult to trade my old annotated one in. I appreciate Newcomb’s for general wildflower ID, in the prairie, woodlands, and wetlands.

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I’m a big fan of Andrew Hipp’s Field Guide to Wisconsin Sedges. His easy-to-use guide, with the smart drawings by the talented Rachel Davis, give me hope that maybe this season I’ll learn a few more members of my prairie, wetland, and savanna community. Sedges are hard.

The book behind Andrew’s is Wildflowers of the Tallgrass Prairie: The Upper Midwest by Sylvan Runkle and Dean Roosa. My first edition is long out of print, but the awesome  folks at University of Iowa Press published a second edition with better photographs; check it out here.  Short ethnobotanical stories for each prairie plant make this book a winner, with a bit of explanation on plant scientific names.

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If you’re really serious about learning your grasses and wildflowers—and you live in the Chicago Region—you’ve probably already purchased Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rericha’s Flora of the Chicago Region.

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With 3,200 plant species in the 22-counties it covers described along with each plant’s neighboring plant associations, insect associations, and “C” value (plus some awesome illustrations), this unique book belongs on every prairie steward’s bookshelf.  At $125, the holidays are a good time to put it on your wish list. My copy weighs 10 lbs, so I get a good workout just carrying it around.  After a morning taking notes in the field, I sit down at the kitchen table and browse through its pages.  The essays and other auxiliary matter are absorbing reads for anyone who loves prairie.

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Sure, you can use the excellent, free iNaturalist app on your cell phone for basic prairie plant ID. I use it too! But  there is no substitute for a good field guide.

In preparation for the spring season, I’m working on prairie seedling ID. Like sedges, those new shoots and leaves are a challenge to figure out.  Sure, some seedlings are distinctive from the start, like prairie alum root or wood betony. But the grasses? Tough.

Two books have been particularly useful to me this year: The Tallgrass Prairie Center Guide to Seed and Seedling Identification in the Upper Midwest by Dave Williams (another great Bur Oak book) and the Prairie Seedling and Seeding Evaluation Guide (Paul Bockenstedt, et al.) I picked up the spiral edition of Prairie Seedling on a visit to University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Arboretum Bookstore on a whim, and was glad I did.

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The Tallgrass Prairie Center’s guide has color photographs that highlight the critical points of identification, as well as seed sizes and characteristics. Take a look.

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The Prairie Seedling guide’s spiral format makes it easy to use in the field, and its nod to look-alike plants are a useful tool. Although not comprehensive, it has a solid 54 prairie plants and 26 weed species.

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If you love the tallgrass prairie—but are more interested in its stories than figuring out the plant names—-the best place to begin is with John T. Price’s edited volume, The Tallgrass Prairie Reader. Price presents essays on the prairie chronologically from the 19th to 21st Century. To read the almost 400 pages from start to finish is to begin to understand how people have viewed prairie over time—and how our ideas about prairie have changed. (Full disclosure: I’m delighted to have an essay in this compilation.)

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Another of John Price’s books, Not Just Any Land, explores our relationship to prairies through personal experiences. Paul Gruchow also loved the tallgrass prairie and wrote volumes about it; his Grass Roots: The Universe of Home (Milkweed) includes the iconic essay, “What the Prairie Teaches Us” that I’ve read aloud and shared with numerous nature writing classes, my prairie volunteers, and my tallgrass ecology students.

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Another of Gruchow’s marvelous books, Journal of a Prairie Year is a series of reflections and hikes on the prairie, month by month. I re-read it every year.  Other books that explore our relationship with prairie include William Least Heat-Moon’s PrairyErth, specifically focusing on Chase County, Kansas; Seasons of the Tallgrass Prairie, with Paul Johnsgard’s passion for prairie birds front and center; Buffalo for the Broken Heart which tells of Dan O’Brien’s work with bison and prairie in the Black Hills; and two books of spiritual essays, Jeffrey Lockwood’s Prairie Soul, which includes an exploration of religion and science, and my own By Willoway Brook, which I wrote on prayer as I was beginning to explore the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum.

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Tom Dean and I released a reflective book of full-color photographs and essays this spring that explores the connections between people and prairie: Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit.  Short “conversations” are paired with images of prairie as we explore how the prairie has much to tell us about wonder, loss, home, joy, change, restoration, healing, and more.

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Tom and I are both big Paul Gruchow fans, so you’ll see Gruchow’s influence in the book.  There’s a little poetry in the pages as well.

 

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Images have a lot of power to engage people with the tallgrass prairie. In the books below, the photographs and drawings make a compelling combination. John Madson and Frank Oberle team up for the Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie; Aimee Larrabee and John Altman put their talents to work in the gorgeous coffee table book accompanying their PBS documentary,  Last Stand of the Tallgrass Prairie; the incredibly talented artist Liz Anna Kozik puts a new twist on prairie restoration in her Stories in the Land; and Michigan’s prairies get a shout-out in the lovely Prairies and Savannas in Michigan by Ryan O’Connor, Michael Kost, and Joshua Cohen.

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Prairie aficionado? Plant nerd? Either way, these three books below on prairie ethnobotany — how people have used plants over time—will absorb you for hours on end. Native American Ethnobotany by Daniel Moerman is a compilation of the human uses of 4,000 plants, including many of the prairie, by specific tribes. Fascinating reading! Kelly Kindscher’s dynamic duo Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie and Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie are geared toward the prairie plants of Kansas, but I find plenty of useful information  when I teach prairie ethnobotany in Illinois. Plus, all three books give you a glimpse of a different time, when we were tightly connected to prairie as our grocery store, pharmacy, hardware store, craft supply, and love charm shop.

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What if you’re just beginning your journey to know and understand the prairie? These three books are a good place to start.  The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction assumes no prior knowledge of the prairie and invites the reader to explore, engage with, and build a relationship to this amazing landscape of home. I wrote it for my new prairie volunteers, prairie visitors, and friends and family members that were intrigued by the prairie, but didn’t want a long or complex read. Like longer books? Richard Manning’s engrossing Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics and Promise of the American Prairie is a satisfyingly deep dive into the subject, as is the poetic and beautifully written Where the Sky Began by the late John Madson.

For the prairie steward, restoration landowner, or prairie volunteer in your life who is serious about restoration and management techniques, check out these three books: The Tallgrass Prairie Center Guide to Prairie Restoration in the Upper Midwest (Daryl Smith, Dave Williams, Greg Houseal, and Kirk Henderson) is one of my go-to guides when I’m trying to figure out what to plant, herbicide, burn, or collect next. The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States is a terrific guide from the generous and inimitable blogger (The Prairie Ecologist) and Nature Conservancy’s Director of Science in Nebraska, Chris Helzer.  I learn a lot from Chris! Stephen Packard’s and Cornelia Mutel’s edited volume of essays, The Tallgrass Restoration Handbook is a classic, and one of the first books I purchased on prairie almost 20 years ago (there’s a newer edition available now) .

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There are beautiful prairie books for young readers.

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I confess I enjoy reading them myself. I love Carol Lerner’s out-of-print Seasons of the Tallgrass Prairie, which has solid information for elementary aged kids and up. Look at the page on deep roots, as one example.

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Claudia McGehee’s A Tallgrass Prairie Alphabet, (a beautiful Bur Oak book shown next to Carol’s book on the left),  is not just for kids. Check out this entry for the letter “X.” Wow.

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Any children’s book that has a sphinx moth and eastern prairie fringed orchid on the same page has my heart. ♥

*****

These are just a few of the books I turn to in order to deepen my relationship with native plants and the tallgrass prairie. These books have been mentors, friends, and companions in the field. They are a way to connect with prairie when the cold winds and weather keep me inside with a hot beverage and a warm afghan. They remind me that others are musing over the same questions I have about prairie ID and prairie stewardship; they help me feel companionship as I hike the prairies and reflect on how others have experienced them over time.

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This list is not exhaustive by any stretch of the imagination. Rather, it is presented here for your enjoyment and discovery. Maybe some will end up on your bookshelves!

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What prairie books do you reach for? Drop me a note here so we can share book recommendations.

Wahoo!   Books are so much fun…

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…especially on a cold December day. Don’t you think?

Happy reading!

*****

The opening quote is from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Although her most famous line is likely “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” I prefer her quote about books. Read more about Jane Austen here.

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All non-book photos copyright Cindy Crosby and listed here (some photos appeared previously): unknown seedhead, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  road to Thelma Carpenter Prairie, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; Carolina saddlebags in May (Tramea carolina), Ware Field, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Wolf Road Prairie, Westchester, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Will County, IL; wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus), Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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Please join me for these upcoming classes and talks!

Sunday, December 8, 2-3:30 p.m.: Tallgrass Conversations at Prairieview Education Center, 2112 Behan Road, Crystal Lake, IL 815-479-5779 Book signing after the talk! $5 per person, registration recommended, details here.

Saturday, February 22 —Writing and Art Nature Retreat — at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Details and registration information here.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online wraps up this month! Watch for the next online course in March. Register here.

Nature Writing Workshop: on-line and in-person begins March 3, 2020. Register here.

Find more at www.cindycrosby.com  

2018 Holiday Prairie Reading List

“A truly good book…teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint…What I began by reading, I must commence by acting.” —Henry David Thoreau

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Mornings dawn on the prairie, cold and wet. After the blizzard that dropped eight inches of snow on the tallgrass last week in the Chicago region…GEbckyardpr1118WM.jpg

…the weather suddenly vacillates. Tentative, indecisive. We go to sleep to the pyrotechnics of thunderstorms and tornado warnings; wake to snowmelt in flood.

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A downpour and high winds chase the heavy snow cover into memory. The grasses are soggy. Pummeled into submission.

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Light dustings of snow follow, turning the Midwest magical.

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The sun suddenly illuminates the prairie. Snow melts. Again. All this in the course of a week.

Best way to cope with all this weather indecision?

Time to curl up in your favorite chair with something hot to drink, an afghan, and a good book. What book, you may ask? Read on, and discover some prairie recommendations that will engage your mind and expand your heart.

2018 Tallgrass Prairie Holiday Reading List

As a former indie bookseller, one of my greatest joys was matching the right book with the right reader. Years later, I can’t resist the impulse to recommend a book. Here are a few from my bookshelves to consider for gift-giving or for personal indulgence.

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There’s no better introduction to the literature of the tallgrass prairie than The Tallgrass Prairie Reader. In this edited collection of essays from John T. Price, spanning the 19th through 21st Centuries and organized by those time periods, you’ll encounter writings from Charles Dickens who toured the prairies (and wasn’t impressed) to Mark Twain to more contemporary writers such as Benjamin Vogt and Steven Apfelbaum; Mary Swander, Lisa Knopp, and Thomas Dean.  Price’s volume includes Louise Erdrich’s essay, “Big Grass,” which is one of the finest lyrical essays written on tallgrass prairie. The Tallgrass Prairie Reader also serves as a springboard to investigating some of the longer works sampled here, such as John Madson’s “Where the Sky Began,” and William Least Heat Moon’s “PrairyErth. History buffs, as well as prairie aficionados, will enjoy this read.

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My go-to prairie writer is the late Paul Gruchow. His essays on the rural life and the prairie are a solid introduction to the tallgrass for anyone who enjoys excellent, thoughtful literature or just a darn good read. In Grass Roots: The Universe of Home, Gruchow reminds us of the emptiness of power and money and the power of paying attention.

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In another of his books, Journal of a Prairie Year, Gruchow takes us on walks through the tallgrass, month by month, mixing observation with personal reflection. If you enjoy reading observational writing of the seasonal variety, this little book will wear well. I re-read it every year.

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One of the most down-to-earth, enjoyable reads about prairie in the past decade is Steven Apfelbaum’s Nature’s Second Chance: Restoring the Ecology of Stone Prairie Farm. Set in Wisconsin, Apfelbaum tells the story of his efforts to restore 80 acres of old farmland to prairie, wetland, and savanna. Don’t miss Chapter 10, “Getting to Know Your Neighbors,” which chronicles a hilarious encounter between the author and a farmer, who wants to rent some of Apfelbaum’s “weedy mess” which he sees as fallow fields. Apfelbaum is principal ecologist and chairman of Applied Ecological Services, a design, consulting, and restoration firm in the Chicago region, so there’s good restoration information throughout, as well as lovely memoir. Warm, personal, and well-written, this is highly recommended. You can see my copy is pretty worn out!

Nature's Second Chance

More inspiration: If you live in the Midwest, and enjoy biographies of prairie and natural resource restoration heroes, you’ll find Arthur Melville Pearson’s Force of Nature a powerful read. I had no idea who George Fell, the founder of the Nature Conservancy, was, nor did I know the critical role he played in saving natural areas, especially in Illinois. Critical reading for Midwestern restorationists, or for those who like to immerse themselves in a fascinating biography. Illuminating!

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Pearson, a volunteer at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, is currently writing a book about Midewin and his experiences there, which should be a welcome addition to prairie literature.  He’s also an excellent speaker and blogger. You can find out more about Pearson here.

And—speaking of Midewin—although The Way of Coyote by Gavin Van Horn is not a book about prairie per se, it includes a lovely essay, “Desire Lines,” about Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL, and Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and the author’s experiences there.  Van Horn is the Director of Cultures of Conservation at The Center for Humans & Nature, where he writes compelling about finding beauty in urban landscapes. Hot off the press.

The Way of Coyote

Looking for something different? A unique approach to tallgrass prairie are these booklets by comic artist and PhD student Liz Anna Kozik. A welcome entree in restoration literature, and a great avenue to see prairie in new ways.

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Although Kozik concentrates much of her work in Madison, WI, anyone interested in tallgrass prairie restoration will find a treasure trove of information in these slender volumes. Delightful illustrations! Check out more about Liz and her work here.

As a prairie steward, I’m constantly looking for books to help me with specific restoration issues on the prairie. My go-to book is this comprehensive guide from The Tallgrass Prairie Center Guide to Prairie Restoration in the Upper Midwest by Daryl Smith (et al).  If you are planting prairie at home, volunteering on a prairie, managing a restoration site, or just want to understand how prairie restoration is done, you can’t do better than this thorough, extensive treatment of tallgrass prairie. The Tallgrass Prairie Center also has some fabulous short downloadable technical guides that should be in every prairie steward’s toolbox. They span topics such as seed collecting to propagating native plants to evaluating stand establishment. Check them out here.Prairie Read 4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At 120 pages, its companion guide, the slim but equally lengthy-titled The Tallgrass Prairie Center Guide to Seed and Seedling Identification in the Upper Midwest has helped me navigate the mysterious world of prairie seedlings and seeds and their ID—invaluable in the early spring, when prairie plants are coming up, or in the late autumn, after seed collecting. I’m not gonna lie: when those early prairie grasses are first emerging, I still struggle with distinguishing big bluestem from switchgrass. This book is helping me work on strengthening my grass seedling ID. Fingers crossed.

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More than two decades old—but still packed with excellent restoration information—is another technical guide edited by Chicago region restoration guru Stephen Packard and Cornelia Mutel. The book takes you through the nuts and bolts of planning a prairie restoration,  monitoring wildlife, and conducting controlled burns, plus much more. This classic  belongs on every prairie steward’s bookshelf.

Packard

If you want to dig deep into just one aspect of prairie, woodland, and savannas–such as the world of sedges—it’s difficult to do better than Dr. Andrew Hipp’s Field Guide to Wisconsin Sedges: An Introduction to the Genus Carex. Filled with Hipp’s approachable writing and Rachel Davis’ excellent drawings, it’s been invaluable to me as I’ve navigated the confusing world of sedges with my prairie volunteers this past summer. The sedges are difficult. This book makes learning sedge ID seem feasible.

Sedges

If you’re looking for an overview of the tallgrass prairie: its history, its ecology, and its management, the seminal book to read is John Madson’s “Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie.” It was the first book I read on the tallgrass prairie that grounded me in understanding what a precious landscape it is. From glaciers to fire to Madson’s beautiful reflections, this is an enduring read. Prairie Read 14

 

 

 

 

 

 

At more than 350 pages, Madson’s book is a deep dive into prairie, which delights some of us, but is a barrier from those who are time-crunched. With this in mind, I wrote The Tallgrass Prairie Reader: An Introduction specifically for those new to prairie, or those who wanted a book they might give a friend or family member who didn’t understand why they were so excited about the whole “prairie thing.”

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At about 140 pages, it’s a quick window into understanding what a prairie is, and why it matters. It’s also been a good starting point for new volunteers, or those who move to the Midwest and are unfamiliar with prairie and want to understand its importance, or achieve a basic grasp of prairie restoration vocabulary.

There are some good regional books which are of interest, no matter where you live, in broadening our view of the tallgrass. This autumn, Joel Sheesley, Artist in Residence for The Conservation Foundation in Illinois, has published a stunning collection of his plein air paintings and essays on the Fox River and the prairies, wetlands, and woodlands that surround it.

Fox River Testimony

This would be a superb gift for that hard to buy for person who lives in the Chicago Region. A visual treat, as well as a thoughtful read.

And a little further to the north, co-authors Ryan O’Conner, Michael Cost, and Joshua Cohen’s Prairies and Savannas in Michigan: Rediscovering our Natural Heritage, combines lovely photography and thoughtful essays on some of Michigan’s beautiful natural areas.

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Want a more exhaustive regional volume? Joel Greenberg’s 500-plus page A Natural History of the Chicago Region covers everything from prairies to wetlands; mussels to bison; glaciation to fire. It’s a must-read for anyone who lives in the Chicago region. Warning: Greeenberg’s book, with its extensive overview of so many natural history subjects, will send you on rabbit trails of additional reading as well as sparking myriad trips to prairies, beaches, and woodlands in the region.

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And of course, if you want to make a prairie restoration fan’s holiday memorable—or treat yourself—dig deep into your pocketbook and splurge on Dr. Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rericha’s Flora of the Chicago Region (about 1400 pages, color and b&w illustrations, $125). As a prairie steward, I find it’s an invaluable reference in understanding the plants of my region and their insect associations.

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It would be difficult to talk about prairies in the Midwest without mentioning bison. One of the most fascinating books on this topic is Dan O’Brien’s “Buffalo for the Broken Heart: Restoring Life to  a Black Hills Ranch. Vegetarian warning: O’Brien came to bison by way of cattle ranching, and his dream is to blend conservation and a viable ranching business. A poignant, thoughtful read! Find out more about O’Brien’s conservation efforts and bison ranching here.

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It’s difficult to stop! But-but-but–What about the prairie field guides? Books on prairie ethnobotany? And—Cindy—you didn’t  mention the large format prairie coffee table books?  Children’s books?

As the old saying goes, “So many books…. so little time.” I’ll leave the rest on my bookshelves for now for a future post, as well as the  books on my Christmas wish list, such as Benjamin Vogt’s A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion for an Uncertain Future.  This holiday, season, please support your local bookstores by putting a few of these prairie and natural history books on your bookshelf–or someone else’s bookshelf—for the new year. It’s a gift that you can open again and again!

Still looking for just the right prairie book and didn’t see it here? Have a prairie book to recommend? Please leave a note in the comment section at the end of this post so we can all enjoy more prairie book recommendations and learn from each other.

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May your holidays be happier for finding a new book or two to enjoy or to give. Happy reading!

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Henry David Thoreau (1817-62) was a leading transcendentalist, philosopher, poet, essayist, and abolitionist. He’s best known for his book, Walden, and his natural history writings.  One memorable quote from Walden: “Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.” He is also famous for his essay known as Civil Disobedience. You can read more about Thoreau here.

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All landscape photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): blizzard hits the prairie patch, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; snowmelt on the prairie pond, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; flattened prairie patch, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; rural Illinois farm with a light snow cover next to Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL;  sunset, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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