“Observation is a great joy.” –Elizabeth Bishop
Riiiiiiiinnnnnnggggg! It’s time for recess at the elementary school down the street from our house. The bell echoes in an empty playground, roped off with yellow hazard tape. No one sits at the desks inside. No games of hopscotch and tetherball. No lines of cars with parents, waiting to pick up little ones.
Jeff and I are walking the neighborhood, something we’ve done more of in 2020 than in the 22 years previous. As the pandemic has gradually closed off everyone’s normal routines of work, school, play, shopping and eating out over the past two months, we’ve become a bit hardened to some of our losses. But the school bell, ringing endlessly over an empty playground, caught us off guard.
Unexpectedly, my eyes fill with tears.
Time to go for a prairie hike.
Evening has come to Belmont Prairie Preserve.
This 10-acre remnant in Downer’s Grove, IL, is one of my favorite local prairies to hike, yet we’ve avoided it since early April because of the crowds of people on its narrow trails. I’ve found myself thinking about Belmont since our last hike there. A lot. I miss it. Why not go see if it’s less congested? We can always turn around and go home. I argue with myself. It’s getting late. Why not, indeed?
We get in the car and go.
A crescent moon glimmers high over the prairie.
The parking lot is empty. Cheers and fist bumps! We still have an hour before sunset, although the grasses are backlit with the lowering light.
Belmont Prairie Preserve at the end of April 2020 is a different prairie to the eye than when I’ve seen it in previous years. Without prescribed fire, to the casual observer the it looks similar to the tallgrass in fall or winter. Until you walk the trails and look closely.
There! Wild strawberries are in bloom.
There’s the old husks of rattlesnake master…
…juxtaposed with its new spring growth. I’m not sure I’ve seen this in such profusion before. Most of the prairies I hike in the spring have been fire-washed of their past year’s finery.
It’s a new perspective.
Overhead, the crescent moon scythes its path through the darkening sky. I notice Venus—a chipped crystal—barely visible in the deepening twilight, seemingly falling in synchronization with the moon toward the horizon.
In the gathering dark, the prairie seems dreamlike.
Along the path, shoots of tall coreopsis leaf out…
…otherworldly in the dusk.
It almost looks like it’s underwater; its graceful leaves lightly swaying in the wind currents. Or maybe it’s the illusion of this half-light.
Golden Alexanders is up; its leaves, even in the dimness, standing out against the ruined grasses.
Everywhere, sprouts of new life mingle in random groups; to sort them out would be the delightful work of several hours…
Some identifiable in the dusk, like the bastard toadflax…
…or the meadow rue…
…and, that prairie denizen, the familiar bee balm.
Here and there are a few undesirables, like yellow rocket…
..and the ubiquitous garlic mustard. I crush a leaf and sniff it. I have known neighbors to carefully mow around patches of this in suburban yards, mistaking it for a wildflower.
As I walk, I yank whatever garlic mustard I can see. It’s a ritual of spring on the prairies where I’m a steward—now closed for that activity. Such deep satisfaction to make a small difference here in the health of a prairie that’s given me so much!
Not far from the garlic mustard is another plant. Look! Is it the prairie violet? Or the birdfoot violet? Difficult to tell in the fading light. Violets are so variable.
Jeff holds the half-closed bloom open so I can examine the throat.
Prairie violet, it appears as I puzzle over it, then pore over my field guides. The flower looks correct, but the leaves look…wrong. Finally, I take the photos and my question to the Illinois Botany Facebook page. Yes. It is.
Or what about this one, in the wetter areas? A buttercup….”small-flowered buttercup”? The buttercups, like the violets, are difficult. I can barely make out the bloom.
Small-flowered buttercup, I decide, with iNaturalist offering support for the ID. I double-check it with Illinois Wildflowers on my return home later. Looks good. Every spring, I’m aware of how much I need to re-learn and remember. Makes me grateful for good ID tools both in the field and at home.
I pause in my ID conundrums to look around me. A red-winged blackbird calls. Oka-leee! The stream is bright in last light.
I walk alongside it for a bit, watching my step.
…then turn back to the path. The dusk pixels everything; the air itself seems grainy. Then, the grasses light up…
…the last glints of sundown sparking the dry, brittle leaves and stalks.
Gradually, the prairie grasses lose the light and become silhouettes…
…as the sun free-falls through the cloudless sky.
Jeff has made his way to the car. I can’t help but linger. This opportunity to be here—so longed for—is difficult to bring to a close. This hour—this concentration on prairie, instead of the news—has been a consolation.
I notice a kite, stuck in the treetops.
I imagine how that person must have felt to see it aloft, then, their dismay as they watched it plummet into the tree. The end of something free and wild.
My absence from Belmont Prairie these past weeks makes this visit so much the sweeter. With the dusk, however, comes melancholy. When will I find this prairie so uncrowded again? I think of the prairie where I am a steward, closed. Did the painted skimmer dragonfly return this spring? Are the killdeers nesting in their usual spots? In Illinois, our shelter-in-pace has extended to the end of May. The weeks stretch ahead, uncertain.
I think of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “One Art:”
I’m becoming more intimate with losses, big and small, as the weeks go on. In some ways, the pandemic has seemed like a dream. Surely, we’ll wake up and turn to our partner and say–wow–you won’t believe the nightmare I just had…
… but we wake, and we remember. For now, there is no end in sight.
Darkness is falling fast. A great-horned owl calls in last light.
The sunset tats the tree branches into lace.
Good night, Belmont Prairie Preserve.
Later that night, right before bed, I step onto my front porch. The darkness is absolute, except for a few lights in the windows along our street. And—that sky! Deep in the west, falling to the horizon, the crescent moon holds steady with bright Venus in alignment. Tuesday, Venus will be at its brightest for the year.
I watch for a while, until the cold drives me back inside.
I made it through the past 24 hours. Tomorrow, I’ll get up and pay attention to whatever the day brings. There will be prairie walks, and work in my backyard prairie patch and garden, and plant ID’s to reacquaint myself with since last year and new ones to learn. I’ll pore over my field guides. Then, I’ll call my loved ones to see if they are well.
The peace and promise of the spring prairie has calmed and centered me today. Now, sleep beckons.
Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) was an award-winning poet who overcame a tragic childhood of losses to give us beautiful poems. Her father died when she was in infancy; her mother was committed to a mental institution when she was five and never recovered. Virtually orphaned, she was then shuttled between relatives, some abusive. She lost several loved ones—including her partner of many years—to suicide. Bishop’s poetry collection Poems: North & South/A Cold Spring (1955) won the Pulitzer Prize. Haven’t read her? Start with “The Fish” , or “One Art.”
All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve in Downer’s Grove, IL, unless marked otherwise (top to bottom): school, Glen Ellyn, IL; empty playground, Glen Ellyn, IL; path through Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve; crescent moon over the prairie; path through the prairie; wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium); crescent moon and Venus; the prairie at sundown; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); possibly heart-leaved golden Alexanders (Zizia aptera); mixed prairie plants; bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata); one of the meadow rues (uncertain which species); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); non-native yellow rocket (Barbarea vulgaris arcuata); garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata); prairie violet (Viola pedatifida); prairie violet (Viola pedatifida); small-flowered buttercup (Ranunculus abortivus); Belmont Prairie creek; Belmont Prairie creek; sunset and grasses; sunset and grasses; sunset and grasses; bench at Belmont Prairie; kite in a tree at sunset; grasses at Belmont Prairie; trees and sunset; trees and sunset; trees and sunset; Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve sign; Venus and a young moon in alignment, Glen Ellyn, IL.
Thank you to Kathleen Marie Garness and the Illinois Botany Facebook page for help with variable violet ID’s! Check out her work for the Field Museum on the awesome violet family and guides to other common families of the Chicago region here.
Join me for “Enchanting Spring Prairie Wildflowers,” an online webinar, Friday, May 8 1-2:30 p.m. CST, through The Morton Arboretum. Click here to register.
The next “Tallgrass Prairie Ecology” class online begins May 4 through The Morton Arboretum. Take 60 days to complete the course! See more information and registration here.
Several of Cindy’s classes have moved online! For updates on classes and events, please go to http://www.cindycrosby.com.
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.