“Life regularly persists through winter, the toughest, most demanding of seasons.” –Allen M. Young
It’s the Winter Solstice. Light-lovers, rejoice! Tomorrow, we begin the slow climb out of darkness.
There is still no significant snowfall here in the Chicago region. Jeff and I joke that we know the reason why. We’ve shoveled our driveway by hand the past 23 years, but after three back-to-back heavy snow events last winter we said, “No more!” This summer, we bought a small snowblower. We figured our purchase should guarantee a snow-free winter. (You’re welcome).
But…I miss the snow. Despite December 21st being the first official astronomical day of winter, the prairies and natural areas around me seem to say “autumn.” The upside? Without that blanket of white thrown over the prairies, there are so many visible wonders. Plant tendrils…
…and their swerves and curves.
Ice crystals captured in a shady river eddy.
The bridges we regularly hike across are geometry lessons in angles and lines.
There is life, even here. The lichens remind me of the tatted lace antimacassars so beloved by my great-grandmothers. It also reminds me I need to learn more lichen ID. Winter might be a good time to focus on that.
The soundtrack of the prairie in late December is the castanet rattle of White Wild Indigo pods…
…and the wind’s sizzle-hiss through the grasses. This December in the Midwest, wind has been a significant force. Harsh. Destructive. Here in the Chicago region, we’ve escaped most wind damage. Yet wind makes its presence known. When I’m hiking into it, my face goes numb. My eyes water. Brrrr. But I love the way it strokes and tunes the dry tallgrass, coaxing out a winter prairie tune.
I admire the seed-stripped sprays of crinkled switchgrass wands…
…the bright blue of a snow-less sky, feathered with clouds…
…the joy of spent winter wildflowers.
I spy the mallard and his mate.
Feel delight in the murmur of an ice-free stream.
The way December puts her mark on grasses, leaves and trees leaves me in awe… and happy.
All these wonders! All available for any hiker passing through the prairies or woodlands at this time of year—without a single snowflake in the repertoire.
Sure, I still check the forecast. Hoping to see snow on the radar. But who needs the white stuff when there are so many other surprises? What a treasure trove of delights December has on offer!
Need a New Year’s Resolution? Help Bell Bowl Prairie, one of Illinois’ last remaining native prairie remnants, which is about to be destroyed by the Chicago Rockford International Airport. Please go to www.savebellbowlprairie.org to discover easy ways your actions can make a difference.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to my readers! Thank you for (virtually) hiking with me in 2021.
“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.”—John Lubbock
Mid-August is a beautiful time of year in the tallgrass. Big bluestem and switchgrass jostle for position. Prairie wildflowers pour their energy into fireworks of color. You might see a blue heron fishing in the creek…
…or hear the twitter of goldfinches, plucking seeds. Let’s get out there and take a look.
Not convinced? Here are three more reasons to hike the August prairie.
1. August is about late summer wildflowers. And aren’t they stunning! Tick trefoil, both the showy version and the Illinois version, scatter their lavender flowers across the prairie. After a prairie work morning or hike, I peel the flat caterpillar-like seeds off my shirt and pants. Even the leaves stick like velcro! My laundry room is full of tick trefoil.
Look at that spotted horsemint! You may know it by its other common name, spotted bee balm. It’s in the mint family, like its kissing cousin wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). So many little pollinators swarm around it—and one biggie.
Deep in the tallgrass, the first gentians are in bloom.
After the cream gentians open, the blue gentians will soon follow. No sign of them yet. The low slant of light and the cooler morning temperatures seem to whisper: Anytime now. I think of the old poem, “Harvest Home,” by Arthur Guiterman:
The maples flare among the spruces, The bursting foxgrape spills its juices, The gentians lift their sapphire fringes On roadways rich with golden tenges, The waddling woodchucks fill their hampers, The deer mouse runs, the chipmunk scampers, The squirrels scurry, never stopping, For all they hear is apples dropping And walnuts plumping fast and faster; The bee weighs down the purple aster — Yes, hive your honey, little hummer, The woods are waving, “Farewell, Summer.”
I haunt the usual gentian spots, hoping for a glimpse of blue. What I see is purple, punctuating the prairie with its exclamation marks. Blazing star!
And these are only a few wildflowers in the mid-August prairie parade. What are you seeing? Leave me a note in the comments.
2. August is all about pollinators. Try this. Find a solid patch of prairie wildflowers. Sit down and get comfortable. Let your eyes tune in to the blooms. It’s amazing how many tiny insects are out and about, buzzing around the flowers. Wasps. Native bees and honeybees. Butterflies and skippers. I’ve exhausted my iNaturalist app, trying to put names to them. After a while, I put my phone away and just enjoy seeing them going about their work.
Pale Indian plantain is irresistible. Illinois Wildflowers tells us that in order to set fertile seed, the florets need insects like wasps, flies, and small bees to cross-pollinate them. Insects are rewarded with nectar and pollen.
Near the pale indian plantain is late figwort, swarming with bees, butterflies—and yes, even ruby-throated hummingbirds! The first time I saw a hummingbird nectaring on figwort, I questioned my eyesight. The blooms are so tiny! I’m not sure what this little insect is in the photo below (can you find it?), but it’s only got eyes for those last crazy little burgundy blooms, barely any left now as it goes to seed.
Figwort gets its name from its historical role as a medicinal use for “figs” (it’s old name) or what we call hemorrhoids today. The plant is toxic, so it’s not used much medicinally in contemporary times. One of my prairie volunteers told me figwort is also known by the name, “Carpenter’s Square.” Missouri Botanic Garden tells us the nickname comes from the grooved, square plant stems.
This tiny butterfly nectars at the vervain flowers.
I love the scientific name for vervain: Verbena hastata. It makes me want to break into song (listen here). Just substitute Verbena hastata for hakuna matata. “It means no worries… for the rest of your days… .” Doesn’t that sound comforting this week, when every news headline seems to spell some sort of disaster?
Leatherwings, sometimes called golden soldier beetles, seem to be having a banner year on the prairies I hike.
I watch them clamber over prairie wildflowers of all different species. Leatherwings are excellent pollinators, and eat lots of aphids. Two reasons to love this insect. I think it looks cool, too.
So much going on, right under our noses. Now, look up.
What do you see? Keep your eyes to the skies, and you might discover…
3. August is the beginning of dragonfly migration in Illinois. I spot them massing over my head on my prairie hikes—10, 20, 70 on one trip. Circling and diving.
In my backyard, I find a common green darner, fresh and likely emerged only a few hours before.
This last generation of green darners will begin the trek south, traveling thousands of miles to the Gulf Coast and beyond. In the spring, one of this dragonfly’s progeny will begin the long trek back to Illinois. No single darner will make the round trip. Other migrant species in Illinois include the wandering glider…
…the variegated meadowhawk, and the black saddlebags.
I see them too, along with the green darners, but in lesser numbers. What about you? Look for swarms of mixed migrating species on the prairie, moving south, through mid-September.
August is such an adventure! Every tallgrass hike offers us something new.
You won’t want to miss a single day of hiking the prairie in August. Who knows what you’ll see?
The opening quote is from John Lubbock, the 1st Baron Avebury (1834-1913). He was a polymath and and scientist. Lubbock helped establish archeology as a scientific discipline. The poem about the gentians, Harvest Home, is by Arthur Guiterman (1871-1943). Guiterman was co-founder of the Poetry Society of America in 1910.
Join Cindy for a class or program!
August 17, 7pm-8:30 pm —in person —“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Bloomingdale Garden Club, Bloomingdale, IL. Please visit http://www.bloomingdalegardenclub.org/events-new/ for more information and Covid safety protocol for the event, and for current event updates.
September 9, 9:30-11 am– in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Oswego Hilltoppers Garden Club, Oswego Public Library. Please visit the club’s Facebook page for guest information, event updates pending Covid positivity in Illinois, and Covid protocol.
“There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.”—Barry Lopez
And so we come to the last days of 2020. Hope glimmers dimly on the horizon, but the darkness is still with us.
As we step through the shadows into 2021…
…we’re reassured by the orderly progression of the seasons. On the prairie, little bluestem paints patches of red and rust.
I think of the novelist Willa Cather’s words: “I wanted to walk straight on through the red grass and over the edge of the world, which could not be very far away.”
We marvel at ordinary pleasures as simple as sunlight bright on an ice-filled stream.
We welcome back the longer daylight hours—more of an idea now than a reality, but gradually becoming noticeable.
No matter what twists and turns lie ahead…
…there is solace in the beauty of the natural world.
As we hike the prairie for the last time together in 2020, I wish you good health.
Freedom from fear and anxiety.
A long-awaited reunion with friends and family—-when it’s safe to do so.
And—a renewed capacity for joy and wonder. No matter the circumstances. No matter what is in the news each day. Despite the challenges the new year will bring.
Keep paying attention.
Happy New Year!
The opening quote is by author Barry Lopez (1945-2020), who passed away on Christmas Day. If you’ve not read his books, a good one to begin with this winter is Arctic Dreams, which won the National Book Award in 1986. He wrote compellingly about wolves and wilderness. Read more about him here.
Please note: As of this week, I’ve moved all photo identifications and locations to captions under the images. Enjoy!
Join Cindy in 2021 for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a complete list of virtual offerings.All classes and programs with Cindy this winter and spring are offered online only.
January 14-February 4 (Four Thursdays) 6:30-8:30 pm CST Nature Writing II Online. Deepen your connection to nature and your writing skills in this intermediate online workshop from The Morton Arboretum. This interactive class is the next step for those who’ve completed the Nature Writing Workshop (N095), or for those with some foundational writing experience looking to further their expertise within a supportive community of fellow nature writers. Over the course of four live, online sessions, your instructor will present readings, lessons, writing assignments, and sharing opportunities. You’ll have the chance to hear a variety of voices, styles, and techniques as you continue to develop your own unique style. Work on assignments between classes and share your work with classmates for constructive critiques that will strengthen your skill as a writer. Ask your questions, take risks, and explore in this fun and supportive, small-group environment. Register here.
February 24, 7-8:30 CST: The Prairie in Art and Literature Online. The tallgrass prairie is usually thought of for its diverse community of plants, animals, and insects. Yet, it is also an inspiration for a creative community! In this interactive online talk, natural history author and prairie steward Cindy Crosby will explore historical and contemporary writers and artists, musicians, and other creatives working in the prairie genre: from Neil Young to Willa Cather to graphic comic artists and jewelers expressing the prairie through their work. See the prairie in a new light! Come away inspired to appreciate and express your love of the tallgrass as you enjoy learning about this prairie “community.” Offered by The Morton Arboretum: “Register here.
Cindy Crosby is the author, compiler, or contributor to more than 20 books. Her most recent is "Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History" (Northwestern University Press, 2020). She teaches prairie ecology, nature writing, and natural history classes, and is a prairie steward who has volunteered countless hours in prairie restoration. See Cindy's upcoming online speaking events and classes at www.cindycrosby.com.