“Winter is an opportune season in which nature’s legions have time to ready themselves for a new debut come spring and beyond.“–Allen Young
February can’t make up her mind. Freezing temps and blustery winds? Hot sunshine and snowmelt? Every morning is a weather package to unwrap, full of surprises.
On a brutally cold afternoon with abundant sunshine this week, I trek through the snow on the Schulenberg Prairie. I’m a steward here so I’m excited to see the fence along the north edge of the prairie has been taken down. The new 18 acres purchased for natural areas is being cleared. It’s satisfying to see an overgrown area, full of buckthorn and honeysuckle, in the process of restoration.
Ten degrees. Five bluebirds hang around the edges of the prairie in the savanna, their sapphire plumage startling against the bright snow.
It’s our deepest snow of the year. Three inches? Four?
I’m glad for the fluffy stuff. Snow will help replenish the prairie’s groundwater.
I hang over the bridge railing. Yes, there is open water. But look at that ice!
So many winter patterns…
…and ice crystals.
How astonishing! I forget my frozen nose and fingers as I look for other marvels in the water. A fallen angel in the center of the stream, or a flying bird?
Reed canary grass conjures ice sculptures by the stream’s edges.
In other areas along the shoreline, the ice lays on the water surface like plastic wrap on Jell-O.
Wonder after wonder. I imagine the dragonfly and damselfly nymphs, waiting under the ice for spring. I think of them, and their bright colors aloft in only a few months.
Soon. Very soon.
I feel joy thinking of the dragonflies to come. And delight in the ice and snow of the prairie today. One prairie. Many facets over the seasons. Always something interesting going on.
Just think. I almost stayed home by the fireplace today, with my stack of library books and warm afghan. I would have missed all this.
However, the fireplace sounds good now, as my toes are frozen and my face chapped from the Arctic breezes blowing through the tallgrass.
I give the prairie a last look. Then shiver. Brrrr! Despite the sunshine, the wind is unstoppable. You can feel its bite and snap against exposed skin.
Time to head home.
I hike through the savanna to the parking lot. Will my car start? Fingers crossed.
Thankfully, it does. The heater full blast feels good, and as I sip hot peppermint tea from my thermos I begin to thaw. But what a joy it has been, to hike the prairie in February.
The prairie and its wonders are out there, waiting for you.
Why not go see?
The opening quote is from Allen M. Young from Small Creatures and Ordinary Places. These are thoughtful essays, celebrating katydids, butterflies, bats, odonates, cicadas, mice, hornets and more. I particularly enjoyed his passages on winter. Young also revised the “Golden Guide to Insects” for today’s readers—remember those little Golden Nature Guides you had as a kid? I still have one or two on my shelf. Young is the curator of zoology and vice-president of collections, research and public programs at the Milwaukee Public Museum. Check out Small Creatures here.
Winter Prairie Wonders — Tuesday, February 7, 10-11:30 a.m. Discover the wonders of the prairie in winter as you hear readings about the season. Enjoy stories of the animals who call the prairie home. Hosted by the Northbrook Garden Club in Northbrook, IL. Free to non-members, but you must register by contacting NBKgardenclub@gmail.com for more information.
Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Fliers –— Wednesday, February 8, noon-1:30 p.m. Hosted by Countryside Garden Club in Crystal Lake, IL. (Closed event for members)
The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Charm Shop— Thursday, February 9, 12:30-2 p.m. Hosted by Wheaton Garden Club in Wheaton, IL (closed event for members).
Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers— February 20, 7:15-8:45 p.m. Hosted by the Suburban Garden Club, Indian Head Park, IL. Free and open to non-members. For more information, contact Cindy through her website contact space at http://www.cindycrosby.com.
See Cindy’s website for March programs and classes.
Bell Bowl Prairie in Rockford, IL, needs your help! Find out more on saving this threatened prairie remnant at SaveBellBowlPrairie.
“How utterly astonishing our instant here (a time scented with dim remembering).”—Stephen Rowe
It’s no coincidence that the weather has finally taken a turn and become, well, winter-like. In January, the prairie moves into its deep frosty mode. Hiking for the next eight weeks likely means cold hands, a less colorful landscape, more gray skies, and occasional brutal winds with few trees to block them.
No wonder a lot of us opt for a book about prairie and a hot mug of tea, sitting by the fireplace and eschewing any physical effort! But the joys of the winter prairie are worth getting up off your duff and hoofing it out to the trails.
Not convinced? Here are a four ideas to get us outside to appreciate the winter tallgrass prairie.
1. Think “subtle” rather than “eye-popping.” “There’s not much going on out at the prairie right now, right?” That was a question from a staff member where I volunteer as a prairie steward; asked when the wildflowers had long stopped blooming, and the prairie was settled in for the winter. Of course, I answered, “There’s always a lot going on out on the prairie!” Yet, to tune in to what’s happening in the winter is like fiddling with a fussy TV antenna. You do know what that is, right? Or maybe you have to be a certain age…. . The winter prairie takes patience, time, and the willingness to pay attention.
It’s long been said that the tallgrass prairie is a landscape that whispers rather than shouts. It doesn’t smack you in the face like the Rocky Mountains, or a Florida sunset. And yet. The tallgrass prairie is more than just a quick shot of postcard-type beauty. There is enchantment in the singular…
…and awe in the sweep of the prairie landscape.
The grace and loveliness of the prairie—-especially in winter–sneaks up on you as you walk the trails.
Look closely. This is no monochrome landscape.
Winter wildflower and grass structures have a charm that may be more compelling than their warm season forms.
There is a simplicity and rhythm that threads through even the most common of prairie plants.
A quick hike doesn’t always reveal these aspects of the winter prairie. It takes time.
Slow down. Pay attention. Who knows what you’ll discover?
2. Read the stories the prairie is trying to tell you. The writing is everywhere. Look down, around your hiking boots. What do you see?
Scan the grasses. What narratives do you read there?
Look up. There are chapters to be read in the tops of the trees along the prairie’s edges.
So many tales the tallgrass has to tell you! The prairie is waiting for you to read its stories. All you have to do is show up. Look. Listen. And let the stories unfold.
3. Take your cell phone. What? Yes, you heard that right. Winter prairie wildflowers and grasses may look completely different than their summer personas.
Load the free app iNaturalist on your phone before you go, and you’ll increase your knowledge of prairie plants in their January mystery guises.
If you hate the idea of a phone on your hike, take your camera. You can always snap a photo of mystery plants, load them on your laptop or desktop or tablet, and use iNaturalist to take a photo of your image when you are back home to ID them. I also made a resolution to do more eBirding in the new year, so I use my free mobile eBird app to tally the birds I see on my prairie hikes. Again, if you don’t want to take your phone for birding, you can note what you see on a piece of paper and log the data at home. Fun!
4.Prepare before you go. Dress for the weather. That means something to keep your head covered. Comfortable footwear. Warm socks to keep your feet warm. Mittens or gloves will keep your fingers toasty. I like fingerless gloves, as I’m tapping my phone app iNaturalist to check a plant ID, or (this year) keeping an eBird list of the feathered fliers I see as I hike. Sometimes, I tuck a “Hot Hands” pouch into my gloves, or a reusable heat cartridge in my pocket for extra warmth (there are many versions of these, I have the Zippo rechargeable hand warmers that were a wonderful gift from my family).
It’s worth the prep. If you are cold, wet and miserable, you’ll rush through your walk, unable to concentrate on what you see. Bundle up!
Before you leave home, make a thermos of something hot and delicious to enjoy when you are back in the car. Coffee, tea, or hot chocolate taste amazing when you have just come off the trail, rather than waiting for that hot drink until you are back home. I like to sit in the car for a bit, drink my coffee, and reflect on my hike as I defrost. Maybe you do, too.
What tips do you have for enjoying the winter prairie? I’d love to hear them in the comments section. Please share! The winter prairie is out there, waiting for you.
Ready to hike?
The opening quote is from Stephen Rowe (1945-), co-author with David Lubbers of Abiding: Landscape of the Soul. Rowe is a contemporary philosopher and educator.
Join Cindy for a Class or Program this Winter
Just a few tickets left! The Tallgrass Prairie in Popular Culture—Library Lecture, Friday, January 20, from 10-11:30 a.m. Explore the role the tallgrass prairie plays in literature, art, music—and more! Enjoy a hot beverage as you discover how Illinois’ “landscape of home” has shaped our culture, both in the past and today. This is an in-person program in the beautiful Sterling Morton Library; masks are optional but recommended. Offered by The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL; register here.
Nature Writing Workshop— Four Thursdays (February 2, 9, 16, and 23) from 6-8:30 p.m. Join a community of nature lovers as you develop and nurture your writing skills in person. Class size is limited. Masks are optional. For more information and to register visit here.
“Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” — Mary Oliver
The last week of the year is a good time for reflection. I’ve been thinking about all of you; the wonderful readers who have joined me on this virtual prairie hike adventure.
Eight years ago this week in December of 2014, I wrote the first post for Tuesdays in the Tallgrass. About 40 people joined me for that initial post, mostly family and close friends, who encouraged me by clicking “follow” and then, reading each week.
Thanks to so many of you who love prairie and the natural world, this week the “odometer” ticked over to 1,000 followers. In the world of social media, of course, that’s small potatoes. But not to me. Each of you are an important part of this virtual prairie community.
Each week, your readership reminds me of how many people love the natural world.
It’s also a reminder of how important it is, as the late poet Mary Oliver said, to “tell about it.” It’s not enough to enjoy the natural world and the prairie for ourselves. Sharing it with others—or as the remarkable Dr. Robert Betz once said—making “a real effort to educate the public about (the prairie’s) importance as a natural heritage and ecological treasure” is an ongoing necessity. If you and I don’t share the wonders of the natural world with others today, how will they make the personal connections that ensure the prairie’s survival in the future?
What a world of wonders the prairie offers us! When you count the Tuesdays over the past eight years, that’s 416 virtual hikes we’ve made together.
It’s a lot of stories; a lot of hikes. Yet, each week we barely scratch the surface of the diversity, complexity, and marvels of the tallgrass prairie and the natural world. There is so much to see!
Tuesdays came no matter where I found myself. So, we’ve dreamed about prairie together as I corresponded on my travels from far-flung Sicily…
… to the deserts of Arizona…
…. to the mangrove swamps in Florida.
But I’ve learned that I don’t need to travel the world to find marvels. The best adventures are waiting for us in our own backyards.
Most of our adventures together have been in the tallgrass, of course. Together, we’ve explored remnant tallgrass prairies, national prairie preserves, cemetery prairies, planted prairies in parks, and large tracts of Nature Conservancy prairies.
We’ve investigated birds on the prairie and at the backyard feeders…
….as well as turtles, snakes, butterflies, bunnies, bees, beetles, coyote, opossum, beavers, muskrats, and anything else that flies, buzzes, or hovers. As I’ve learned more about prairie pollinators and prairie plants, you’ve cheered me on, gently corrected my wrong ID’s, offered ideas on your own favorite places, and said an encouraging word or two at just the right time.
You’ve hiked with me through some difficult times, through my cancer diagnosis and recovery; through a new knee that got me back on the prairie trails again; and through a medical issue that sidelined me for several months this fall, unable to do much more than photograph the prairie plantings and the garden in my yard. Your encouragement and comments have been an important part of the healing process.
As a former bookseller, I couldn’t write about prairie here without also writing about the books I love. Over the years, we’ve rounded up a yearly list of favorite and new prairie books each season, a tradition I’ve come to enjoy (and I hope you have, too!). And, as I’ve penned this blog, I’ve written or co-authored three additional books, all of which took inspiration from the discipline of writing this weekly missive. Every one of you has played a role in my books, because your questions and comments informed and encouraged those writings.
As I write this note to you at the end of 2022, we continue to navigate a world-wide pandemic. Here in Illinois, during the holidays, we are experiencing a “triple-demic” of RSV, flu, and Covid-19. Another daunting aspect of life in 2022 is the lack of civility and care for each other that the news headlines trumpet daily. Sometimes, the world feels like a scary place. But whatever a week brings, I always feel the joy of knowing this little prairie community is here on Tuesday, ready to share with me in the excitement and delight of a virtual hike.
“To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience,” wrote the Irish poet and novelist Patrick Kavanagh. To know the tallgrass prairie—or even the small plantings in my suburban yard—would take several lifetimes. But what an adventure it is!
At the end of 2022 I want to say thank you. Thank you for reading. Thank you for giving me a bit of your time each Tuesday morning. Thank you for the constant stream of well-wishes; of “shares,” and “retweets” and Facebook reposts. Especially thank you to those who take time to click the comment button from time to time and say how much you love prairie, or if you enjoyed a particular post or photograph, or that you want to recommend a book title. Maybe you sent me a link to an interesting website, or you have an idea about how to get rid of buckthorn or honeysuckle, or you wanted to share a “prairie recipe” or tip. Thank you for being a community.
Most of all, thank you for getting outside. If you live in prairie country, thank you for hiking the prairies. For planting prairie in your gardens. For volunteering on a prairie, or dedicating your professional life to caring for prairie, or sharing prairie with a child. Thank you for photographing prairie and sharing prairie with your friends. If you live in a different part of the country, or the world, thank you for admiring prairie and for caring for the natural world, as I know some of my readers do from across the miles. My prairie may be your forest, or wetland, or river. We are all stewards of wherever we find ourselves.
As this year of prairie hikes comes to a close, thank you for caring. Knowing you are out there continues to be an inspiration to me, through the light and dark places as we hike the prairie trails, wade in the prairie streams looking for dragonflies and damselflies, watch for bison…
…and explore the natural world together.
As the poet Mary Oliver wrote, “Paying attention: This is our endless and proper work.”
What a joy that work can be! I can’t wait to hike the trails in 2023 together.
Happy New Year! See you next week on the prairie.
Mary Oliver (1935-2019), whose quote opens this last post of 2022, wrote compellingly about experiencing the natural world. In New and Selected Poems, she writes: “When it’s over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement.” Yes.
Join Cindy for a Class or Program this Winter
The Tallgrass Prairie in Popular Culture—Friday, January 20, from 10-11:30 a.m. Explore the role the tallgrass prairie plays in literature, art, music—and more! Enjoy a hot beverage as you discover how Illinois’ “landscape of home” has shaped our culture, both in the past and today. Offered by The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL; register here.
Nature Writing Workshop— Four Thursdays (February 2, 9, 16, and 23) from 6-8:30 p.m. Join a community of nature lovers as you develop and nurture your writing skills in person. For more information and to register visit here.
Illinois Prairie needs you! Visit Save Bell Bowl Prairie to learn about this special place—one of the last remaining gravel prairies in our state —and to find out what you can do to help.
***Note to readers: All undated photos were taken this week.
“It’s possible to understand the world from studying a leaf. You can comprehend the laws of aerodynamics, mathematics, poetry and biology through the complex beauty of such a perfect structure.” — Joy Harjo
We wake up to fire and ice.
Worn-out leaves are alight with dawn; brushed with frost.
The grass crackles with freeze as the rising sun illuminates each blade, sparks of light on a frigid morning. Swamp milkweed’s silk seed tufts are tattered almost beyond recognition by the night’s sharp whisper.
Joe Pye weed becomes nature’s chandelier.
Prairie cordgrass arcs across my prairie planting, stripped bare of seeds.
Our small suburban backyard, as familiar to me as my breath, is transformed into something mysterious.
Tallgrass prairie plant leaves, furred with frost, take on new personas.
Seedheads bow under the weight of the cold snap.
The ordinary becomes extraordinary.
What a wild weather ride you have taken us on!
What a month of wonders you’ve given us to be grateful for.
See you next year, November.
Joy Harjo (1951-) is our 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States. A writer of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, her words are often autobiographical, and incorporate myths and folklore. Her poetry makes you think (“I could hear my abandoned dreams making a racket in my soul”). Her books include Catching the Light, Poet Warrior, Crazy Brave, and An American Sunrise. I love this line from Secrets from the Center of the World where she writes, “I can hear the sizzle of newborn stars… .”
Join Cindy for her last program of 2022!
Wednesday, December 7, 2022 (6:30-8:30 p.m.) 100 Years Around the Arboretum. Join Cindy and award-winning Library Collections Manager Rita Hassert for a fun-filled evening and a celebratory cocktail as we toast the closing month of The Morton Arboretum’s centennial year. In-person. Register here.
“We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on there.” –Annie Dillard
Welcome to the Tuesdays in the Tallgrass annual “Tallgrass Prairie Book Roundup.” With wind chills in the single digits here in the Chicago region and the fireplace going nonstop this week, curling up with a book and a mug of something hot and delicious has never sounded better.
For this roundup, I looked for books I’ve not featured before in the past seven years. It was a daunting task. I’ve previously shown some of the more noteworthy prairie reads, such as John Madson’s Where the Sky Began or Chris Helzer’s charming small format Hidden Prairie, or Paul Gruchow’s eloquent Grass Roots: The Universe of Home and other must-reads. This year, for help with some lesser-known and a few out-of-print books, I turned to my local library in Glen Ellyn and the Sterling Morton Library at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL. These libraries never disappoint. Along the way, I also encountered some prairie books geared toward older elementary and middle-school kids, and a fantastic DVD about prairies.
Whether you’re a prairie steward or volunteer, an avid hiker, an armchair naturalist, or someone who loves to read and learn about the natural world, I believe there’s a book here for you! (Can you tell I used to own a bookstore?) Let’s go for a hike through the world of prairie books, and see what we might find.
If you’re interested in Native Americans and a more scholarly understanding of how they managed prairie, the first essay in the edited volume City of Lake and Prairie: Chicago’s Environmental History (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020) is not to be missed. “Native Peoples in the Tallgrass Prairies of Illinois” by Robert Morrissey argues that “…the primary agents in shaping the midwestern landscape since the ice age were people, the architects of prairie… .” Morrissey adds that “Native peoples of the Midwest did not simply use the nonhuman environment as they found it… .” This turns upside down the idea that indigenous people moved through the prairie, but left no impact.
Anyone who desires to understand prairie history needs to read this essay. I know it expands my view of Native American management and its role in the prairie seen today, and informs the way I teach prairie ecology. Morrisey’s primary sources, included as notes at the end of the book, are additional rabbit trails that will fill your winter reading hours. Plus, there’s an excellent essay in the book on educator and prairie advocate May T. Watts.
And speaking of scholarly…check out Harold W. Gardener’s technical manual Tallgrass Prairie Restoration in the Midwestern and Eastern United States: A Hands-On Guide (Springer, 2011). Gardner organized the “Prairie Dawgs” volunteers near Peoria, IL, and he and his his wife purchased half a mile of the right of way of Burlington Northern Railroad near Brimfield, IL, a prairie remnant that had become degraded, working to improve the health of the prairie. He later moved to Carlisle, PA, where he maintained seed beds for about 150 species.
Dr. Gardner described more than 200 species of prairie plants, their preferred soils and planting conditions, and seed germination and seed collection strategies, as well as a seed collection time table. He included some of his own experiences with the plants (for example, “This author has found it difficult to restore Queen-of-the-Prairie from seed.”) I particularly enjoyed his writing on “Fire Management” and what can go wrong; as he wrote of one prescribed fire— “An additional lesson was learned; roads are not always reliable firebreaks.” I also appreciated some of his frustrated asides. In one section on “Control of Alien Plants” he wrote “It is difficult to refrain from adding editorial remarks about the USDA bureaucracy.” For most of us, the $170-plus price tag for this book puts it out of reach. So I extend my gratitude to the Sterling Morton Library for shelving it so I could access it without cost.
While at the Sterling Morton Arboretum this week, the always-awesome library collections manager Rita Hassert showed me this book by the influential prairie restorationist pioneer Dr. Robert Betz (1923-2007), architect of the FermiLab prairie in Batavia, IL, in 1975. I had no idea this book existed! Self-published posthumously by his wife Eleanor, there are limited number of copies in circulation in the Chicago Region; the Sterling Morton has a copy for in-library use only as the binding is fragile. In the short time I was able to spend with the book, I was fascinated by this slice of prairie restoration history and the roll call of people who helped influence restoration in the Chicago Region (shout-out Floyd Swink and Ray Schulenberg, to name just two).
I can’t wait to return to the library to spend a long afternoon at one of the reading tables, finishing the book and taking copious notes. And who knows—maybe a copy will turn up at a used bookstore in the future! I’ve had no luck finding this book for purchase, used or otherwise. But that’s an excuse to spend more time in the beautiful Sterling Morton library this winter.
Better luck: locating this out-of print book, Tallgrass Prairie: The Inland Sea (Lowell Press, 1975). I found a kindred spirit in author, naturalist, and photographer Patricia Duncan, whose words will resonate with any prairie aficionado. There is very little written about the tallgrass prairie in winter, so I was delighted to discover a few paragraphs and photos of the season. She wrote, “On the coldest days, I will trudge through the deep path worn by motorcyclists, and I barely get a dozen steps along before I must stop for a picture of the light coming through the ice-covered stems of big bluestem… .”
The cover of the library book I received had lost its dust jacket over the years since it was published in 1979, and the interior photographs also show its age. My, oh my, how photography has improved in books! That said, the photos are a slice of a time now past; a “remnant” of almost half a century ago. The grandeur of the prairie, almost half a century later, shines through the despite the limitations of photography and the publishing process of the time.
When Duncan began with a quote from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (the same quote which kicks off this blog post), I was hooked. After three pages, a used copy of this book was on the way to my house. It’s fairly easy to find online. Duncan’s book is a little slice of prairie history. I can’t wait to take a deeper dive into her book over the holidays.
How often have you looked at a prairie plant at this time of year and wondered which part was the actual seed? At a recent presentation on native plant gardening I gave to the Antioch Garden Club, one of its members enthusiastically recommended The Prairie in Seed. I was delighted to find it at my Glen Ellyn Library, and have already put it on my Christmas list.
Although I have featured other books on seed collection in this roundup before, I appreciated the detailed information on seed readiness and seed size and appearance here that is a valuable resource for any prairie steward, prairie volunteer, seed saver, or native plant gardener. The silhouette of the seed stalk is also helpful for identification for collection.
University of Iowa’s Bur Oak Books series is full of good reads like this one, and as a prairie steward and native plant gardener, I’m excited to add it to my Christmas list.
A prairie wildflower guide I’ve missed in my previous round-ups is Don Kurz’s Falcon Guide Prairie Wildflowers (2019). Many of us have the older Falcon Guide by Doug Ladd (there were at least two editions, and I own both) that have happily seen us through learning prairie plants over the years. This one is touted as its “spiritual successor.”
Although I was surprised by some of the color assignments in the book (pasque flowers, for example, are only under found under “white” and not listed under lavender or purple), it’s a lovely guide that will help introduce prairie wildflowers to a new generation of readers. I need to add it to my library as I have prairie ecology students who buy it as an initial introduction to their prairie experience. I’m glad Falcon continues to keep variations of the Prairie Wildflowers field guides in print.
What about younger readers? For elementary and middle schoolers, there are some beautiful and informative books on prairie available. In The Prairie Builders: Reconstructing America’s Lost Grasslands, Sneed Collard introduces kids (and adults, too!) to how a prairie restoration happens from vision to implementation, using Iowa’s Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge as the centerpiece of the story.
I especially enjoyed the stories of stewards working to protect and cherish our tallgrass prairies. The book’s photographs feature plenty of people as well as tallgrass plants and critters. I especially enjoyed the photos and essays on the reintroduction of the rare regal fritillary butterfly, a species I’ve only seen at Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL. Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge is on my bucket list!
Any adult who wants a basic overview of how prairies are managed and how restorations are done will also enjoy this book. I especially appreciate Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge as its “Friends” group it is one of the sponsors of Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit,a book I co-authored with Tom Dean. Thank you, Friends of Neal Smith!
Older elementary or middle school kids who are science-minded or who have to write a book report will find Life in a Grassland (2003, Twenty-First-Century Books) jam-packed with classroom-type information on the grassland ecosystem. It would also make a good homeschool science text. While it doesn’t specify that it is about “tallgrass” prairie, it does offer a wealth of ideas about North American grasslands that will be of help to any adults who want to understand how a prairie works.
The interior pages brought back memories from my own early science classes (Consumers! Producers! Decomposers!). It’s a good refresher for adult prairie volunteers, and a nice introduction to anyone who is new to the tallgrass prairie.
On a more literary note, I was excited to find an essay on tallgrass prairie sandwiched among the coral reefs and jungles in Greek writer Julian Hoffman’s book, Irreplaceable, a look at the wild places and creatures disappearing around the globe.
Hoffman visits Konza Prairie in Kansas, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Illinois, and a Native American resource center in Chicago as research for the book. It’s helpful to see how he places the loss of tallgrass prairie in the context of other ecosystem and species losses enumerated in the book, and a reminder to prairie volunteers, stewards, and staff why we do the work we do.
Too tired to read?
Although it’s not a book, Jeff and I recently checked out “America’s Landscape” (2005, Bullfrog Films) from the library on DVD. Both of us were riveted to this documentary, which includes an interesting selection of extra scenes not to be missed. Wes Jackson, Daryl Smith (Tallgrass Prairie Center), Dayton Duncan, Nina Leopold, and many others speak on camera in juxtaposition with luscious prairie cinematography.
If the wind chill temperatures are too frigid for you to think about an actual prairie hike this winter, this might be a nice alternative. Or, if you have a prairie steward group whose workday is cancelled due to inclement weather, you won’t go wrong hosting a screening of this fascinating film.
There are a few new prairie books on the horizon as well as these older ones. I’m anticipating Benjamin Vogt’s Prairie Up: An Introduction to Natural Garden Design, which is slated for release in late January of 2023. I’ve featured Vogt’s previous book A New Garden Ethicin previous round-ups. If you garden with natives at home, you’ll want to take a look. And of course, I hope you’ll check out my books—all five of which include stories about prairie—as you make your Christmas lists this year. Find or order them from your favorite independent bookseller.
Want more tallgrass prairie book recommendations? Explore a few of the previous “Tuesdays in the Tallgrass” books featured at these links for more reading and gift-giving ideas:
The vast tracts of original tallgrass prairie are gone, but we continue to work to restore what is left. We plant prairies in our forest preserves, our arboretums, and our yards. But what about the tallgrass prairie books? John T. Price, the editor of “The Tallgrass Prairie Reader” tells us that “the relative absence of prairie literature and writers in the American canon…is another kind of extinction.” How can we ensure the stories of the tallgrass prairie continue to be told? By reading and supporting books that celebrate and introduce people to the tallgrass prairie, whether through your local library or purchasing them and adding them to your bookshelves. Or sharing them with friends and family!
What prairie book has made a difference in your life? Which are your favorite reads? Please add yours in the comments section below. I’m a pushover for a tallgrass book recommendation. And—other than hiking the prairie in winter, I can’t think of a better way to spend the season.
Here’s to prairie…may its stories live on.
The opening quote is by Annie Dillard, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Pilgrim of Tinker Creek, one of my top ten books of all time. This quote is also included in the opening of Patricia Duncan’s lovely book, Tallgrass Prairie: The Inland Sea, included in the book round-up above.
Join Cindy for her last program of 2022!
Wednesday, December 7, 2022 (6:30-8:30 p.m.) 100 Years Around the Arboretum. Join Cindy and Award-winning Library Collections Manager Rita Hassert for a fun-filled evening and a celebratory cocktail as we toast the closing month of the Arboretum’s centennial year. In-person. Register here.
“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.