Tag Archives: trails

Life in the Prairie Cold

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

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Seven degrees.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Until…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

*****

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

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

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

 

Prairie Epiphanies

“Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.” — John Milton

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Did you make a New Year’s resolution? One of mine is to visit nearby prairies and natural areas I’ve overlooked. Today, it’s Ferson Creek Fen Nature Preserve, in the western Chicago suburb of St. Charles.

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I have a soft spot for preserves with a mosaic of different habitats. Ferson Creek Fen ticks off a lot of boxes. Restored prairie.

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Floodplain forest.

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The Fox River.

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And yes—a namesake fen. What is a fen, you might ask? Here, think of low lands with peaty soil (usually alkaline—in this case—calcareous) that flood, brimming with wet-loving plants.

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A boardwalk stretches through part of the preserve, protecting the sensitive wetlands. You can see the Fox River as a sliver of light in the distance.

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It’s quiet in the 50-degree weather of this early January day. Our winter coats feel unnecessary.

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A gull flies upstream.

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Ice drifts in the current, not yet melted in the bright sun.

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Downstream, a few kayakers brave the frigid water. The wetlands are painted with freeze and frost in the shadows. Cold is relative, when the sun is shining unexpectedly and the air teasingly whispers “spring.”

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The warm planks of the boardwalk offer secure footing in the sunlight.

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A steady hum of traffic to the west, punctuated by the squeaky calls of a white-breasted nuthatch nearby, compose the soundtrack for our hike. In the distance, Jeff and I see half a dozen unknown birds roosting in a tree. We step off the boardwalk to investigate. Hoping for something unusual, we plunge ahead on the grassy trail and discover…

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…a tree full of….

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…common mourning doves.

Ah, well.

They fly up at our approach, and despite myself, I marvel at the gradation of pastel colors in their feathers, dotted with inky black. The pink feet. Their eyes like polished jet-black beads.  I remember my grandmother, a science teacher, teaching me the call of the mourning dove. It was the first bird call I ever learned.

It’s a good reminder for me. There is beauty in the ordinary.

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Complexity in everyday things.

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All we have to do to is look.  Take a moment to reflect. Remember.

And be grateful.

*****

John Milton (1608-1674) was a British poet and writer, best known  for his epic poem Paradise Lost.  He also wrote the speech, Areopagitica, in a time of political and religious unrest (1644), an argument for freedom of speech, of the press, and of expression. He eventually went blind (probably from untreated glaucoma) in his late forties, then was imprisoned by a hostile regime and forced to leave his home. His poetry and works on religion and politics continue to be read long after his death.

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby at Ferson Creek Fen Nature Preserve, St. Charles, IL (top to bottom) common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) with unknown aster seedheads; remains of an unknown sunflower; ice on duckweed (probably common duckweed Lemna minor, but could be greater duckweed Spirodela polyrhiza or star duckweed (Lemna trisulca) and cattail base (Typha, either common latifolia, narrow-leaved angustifolia or hybrid xglauca); floodplain forest; the Fox River in January; view from the boardwalk; boardwalk through the nature preserve; Fox River reflections in January; unidentified gull flying downstream on the Fox River;  ice floes on the Fox River; view from the boardwalk; probably a red oak (Quercus rubra) leaf on the boardwalk; grassy trail; mourning doves (Zenaida macroura) roosting in a tree; willow pinecone gall made by the gall midge (Rabdophaga strobiloides); cattails (Typha latifolia, angustifolia, or xglauca) backlit by the sunlight.

Thanks to John Heneghan and Tricia Lowery for telling us about the preserve!

Honk if You Love Prairie

“The petty entanglements of life are brushed aside (on the trail) like cobwebs”–Grandma Gatewood

*****

It’s August. Big bluestem is tassling out, waving its turkey-footed seedheads against the sky. You understand why we call our Midwestern grasslands  the “tallgrass prairies” after a summer like this one, filled with heat and rain. Everything on the prairie is lush.

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The butterflies are putting on a show this summer. Yellow swallowtails and  black swallowtails…

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…flock to the Joe Pye weed, now blooming cloud-like with pale Indian plantain under the oaks in the savanna.

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It’s hot on the prairie. Tempers are hot, too, in the suburbs where I live.  Earlier in the week, as I waited at an intersection for a light to change, the driver behind me laid on her horn. Honk! Honk! Honk! She wanted to turn right. My car, going straight ahead, blocked her way.  I made the mistake of looking in the rear view mirror and saw her red face. She was shouting. I quickly looked away and prayed for the light to change. Turned up my Paco de Lucia CD (yes, I still have a CD player in my old Honda) and hoped the chords of Paco’s guitar would drown out her honking.

Honk! Honk! Honk! Finally, an eternity later, the light turned green. My car moved through the intersection, and with a squeal of rubber, she turned right, still laying on her horn.

Honnnnnnnkkkkkkk!

I knew I needed a “prairie therapy” hike.

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Not that I need a reason to go to the prairie. But for 20 years now, I’ve found that an hour of walking a prairie trail or two siphons off built-up stress and alleviates a looming tension headache.  The song of the common yellowthroat that hangs out in a tree by the prairie savanna trail, singing his “wichety, wichety, wichety,” is enough to erase some of that miserable “Honk! Honk! Honk!” from the soundtrack playing in my mind.

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And, oh, that August sky on the prairie! I’m reminded that, just a few days ago, one of my six little grandkids asked me if I’d cloud-watch with him. We lay back on the grass and watched the sky change from moment to moment,  comparing clouds to other objects—a ship, a turtle—in the same way people have cloud-watched from time beyond memory. I think of this as I hike the prairie now, watching the cumulus clouds floating lazily overhead, casting shadows on the tallgrass.

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I stop on the bridge over Willoway Brook and look into the stream. The dragonflies and damselflies are in a frenzy of reproduction. Do they sense the downward seasonal slide toward autumn? Maybe. The American rubyspot damselflies hang low over Willoway Brook on blades of grass, waiting for potential mates. Such anticipation! Like speed dating.

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The grasses are slipping into their late summer colors. Switchgrass, big bluestem, and Indian grass ripple in the wind, with a sound like rustling silk. The flowering spurge mists the grasses with its delicate white blooms.

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High-pitched sounds overhead cause me to look up.

Honk! Honk! Honk!

 

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It’s the  Canada geese, flying to a 18-hole course nearby to terrorize the golfers. These are kind of “honks” that don’t raise my blood pressure.

As I pass the bench that overlooks the prairie trail, I see a pile of coins, mostly quarters. Doubtless, someone has paused to rest, and their change has spilled from a back pocket.  I leave the coins. Maybe they’ll realize their loss, and backtrack, looking for their cash.  Or perhaps some other hiker having a bad day will pocket the change, and feel a bit more cheerful.

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I don’t need a cash windfall to improve my mood. The prairie hike has already worked its magic . My day is transformed. My blood pressure is lowered, my perspective is more positive.

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All it took was a little prairie therapy.

*******

Emma “Grandma” Gatewood (1887-1973) lived a difficult life. After brutal abuse by her husband—and raising eleven children under tough circumstances—she decided to go for a walk at age 66 on the Appalachian Trail. She became the first woman to hike it solo in one season. By age 77, she had hiked the 2,000-miles-plus AT three times through, plus the Oregon Trail. She wore tennis shoes for most of her hikes. Gatewood was the quintessential ultralight backpacker, with a simple bag she sewed herself holding very few supplies. Gatewood often relied on the kindness of strangers, who sometimes fed and sheltered her for the night. But, she also spent time sleeping under a shower curtain (her tent) and picnic tables along the way. “After the hard life I lived, this trail isn’t so bad,” Gatewood told reporters. Ben Montgomery’s book, Grandma Gatewood’s Walk, is well worth the read to follow the grit and willpower of an inspirational woman.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL: Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum) and pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sky over Nachusa Grassland, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie Savanna trail, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; August skies on the prairie, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada geese (Branta canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cash on the bench, Schulenberg Prairie, the Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; the prairie in August, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

October on the Prairie

“The sea, the woods, the mountains, all suffer in comparison with the prairie…The prairie has a stronger hold upon the senses.”– – Albert Pike

When you think of October, what comes to mind?

Pumpkins?

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Spectacular changing leaves?

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The prairie, which has lost most of its blooms, isn’t on most people’s radar.

Perhaps it should be.

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A few blossoms persist in the tallgrass, magnets for insects.

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The flowers gone to seed may be as beautiful as the blooms.

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Colorful grasses are easily overlooked, but no less worth our attention.

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Plant structure has its own beauty.

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As do plant silhouettes.

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Although the prairie is outwardly in senescence, its sensory pleasures continue. The play of light on prairie dock.

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The smell of damp earth. Decaying leaves. The unexpected flight of a buckeye butterfly as you hike a trail.

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Soft puffs of seed clusters, which foreshadow the snowflakes, only weeks away.

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Unlike the flashy reds and oranges of the autumn woodlands, the prairie is nuanced.

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As the year wanes…

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…much of this prairie season will be forgotten, fleeting. A blur of colors, textures, fragrances, and sounds.

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So let’s walk the prairie trails.

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Experience what each day in October has to offer. Soak up every detail. And be grateful that we are here, present in this moment.

***

The opening quote is from Albert Pike’s Journeys in the Prairie ((1831-32). Pike (1809 –91) was a soldier, poet, newspaper journalist, and early explorer.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and are from the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, unless noted otherwise: pumpkin patch, Jonamac Orchard, Malta, IL; maple in October (Acer spp.), Sterling Pond, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sumac (Rhus glabra), grasses and forbes at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) with unknown bee and insect; non-native chicory (Cichorium intybus) with unknown pollinator;  compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica); pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; white snakeroot (Ageratina altissima); pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), little bluestem, Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); waning October moon; sumac out of focus (Rhus glabra); trail through the prairie in October.