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The Art of Prairie Restoration

This world is but a canvas to our imagination.” — Henry David Thoreau

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Winter is wonderful. Usually.

But this past week has been a rollercoaster ride of temperature swings from high 50s plunging to near zero; sunshine and gloom, snow and rain. In other words, typical. Fog blew in and settled on the prairies, coloring everything gray. A drag on the spirits.

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One of my go-to cures for the January blues—or should I say grays—is The Art Institute of Chicago.

I wander in. Immediately there is a blast of color and light in the Impressionist Gallery. Ironically, even the canvas,”Paris Street: Rainy Day,”  seems bright and cheerful.

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The Monet waterlilies…

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…bring back memories of summer in the prairie wetlands.

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I soak up the primary hues of paintings in the Modern Wing.

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Thinking of hikes through the snow this month…

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In unlikely stairwells, I stumble across reminders of  blue skies, obscured by clouds this week.

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I  imagine the prairie skies, hidden for so long behind shrouds of fog and curtains of snow and rain.

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As I stroll the halls and gaze at the creations showcased in this iconic place, it’s a good reminder of the courage of those who strove, against all odds, to create something beautiful out of nothing. These painters, sculptors, and other artists who had a vision.

Like some other folks I know.

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Prairie restorationists and artists have a lot in common. We think of restoration as a science. But it’s also about creativity.

Prairie restoration begins with a vision.

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The dream of how the land might be healed, imagined in the mind of a steward or site manager.

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There’s a lot of trial and error. Preliminary sketching, if you will; a few rough drafts. Sometimes, you scrap everything and start over.

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There may be misunderstandings along the way. People who don’t get it. They look at your “project” and shake their head. They wonder out loud if you have wasted your time.

“Weeds. It’s just a bunch of weeds.”

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Bet you’ve heard that one before, haven’t you?

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But you keep on moving forward. You believe in what you are doing. You look for the breakthroughs.

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Without imagination—without creativity—without courage—the best prairie restorations don’t happen.

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The rewards don’t always come in your lifetime. But the work you do isn’t for yourself, although the tallgrass is gratifying in a thousand different ways. You work, knowing you leave a legacy for those who will come after you. You think of them, as you drip with sweat, freeze, or pull weeds; plant seeds.

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You can see the future in your mind. Envision it. That end result. And as artists and restorationists know, it’s worth the work. It’s worth the wait.

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Think about it.

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*******

The writer Henry David Thoreau, whose quote opens this essay, was a naturalist, philosopher, writer, transcendentalist, and social reformer. A favorite quote from Thoreau, “We can never have enough of nature.” His 1849 essay, “Civil Disobedience,” continues to stimulate thinking about human rights. His most famous book is “Walden.”

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): prairie plants in the fog at Saul Lake Bog Nature Preserve, Land Conservancy of West Michigan, Rockford, MI; “Paris Street: Rainy Day,” 1877, Gustave Caillebotte, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; “Waterlily Pond,” 1917-19, Claude Monet, European Painting and Sculpture, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; prairie pond, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Clear Creek, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; “Yellow Hickory Leaves with Daisy,” 1928, Georgia O’Keeffe, American Art Gallery, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; beech (Fagus sylvatica) leaves on snow, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; “Sky Above Clouds IV,” 1965, Georgia O’Keeffe, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; sky over Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, United States National Park Service, The Nature Conservancy, Strong City, KS; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) and volunteer weeding, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; volunteers collecting seed, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) seedpod, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; “A and the Carpenter “I”, Sam Gilliam, 1973, Modern and Contemporary Art, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; barb wire and Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; “Grayed Rainbow,” 1953, Jackson Pollock, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL;  ice and grasses, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; snowy trail through Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove, IL; pasque flowers (Anemone patens, sometimes Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; late summer on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; “The Thinker,” Auguste Rodin, Rodin Exhibition, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL (add to the conversation here). 

A Prairie Patchwork Quilt

“You have to keep taking the next necessary stitch, and the next one, and the next…you realize that the secret of life is patch patch patch. Thread your needle, make a knot, find one place on the other piece of torn cloth where you can make one stitch that will hold. And do it again. And again. And again. ” — Anne Lamott

***

It’s a ritual of autumn. The changing of our summer comforter to a heavy quilt, made for us by a friend. A few nights ago, as sleet tapped against the window, I slipped into bed and pulled the quilt close under my chin. Admired the patchwork. Taupe, rust, emerald, peach. Grass-green and olive. Pearl. Oyster.

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As he quilted, our friend incorporated the transient autumn colors of prairie grasses into the coverlet. I was nestled into the prairie itself. Deep under. I might go dormant. Sleep for several months. Awaken to a cleansing fire in February, and leaf out. Be fresher. Vibrant. Renewed.

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It’s a heavy quilt, made from denims and corduroys; a quilt that—like the Midwestern prairies—looks tough and ready to handle anything the future might throw at it. A quilt for the ages.

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As I slipped off to sleep, I thought of the thousands of tiny stitches in this quilt and the prairie it reflects.  The time and the care that one person put into one quilt. And the time and the care — all the “stitches” that have been put into the care and repair of the grasslands which have been lost to us in the Midwest.

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How will the grasslands “quilt” be patched back together?

We need the conservationist in the field, who is bringing back the bison. One stitch.

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We need the research student, who is trying to understand why the bison make a difference to the upland sandpipers and prairie vole and the dung beetle. Stitch. Stitch. Stitch.

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We need the steward who cares for the remnant where the new bison are browsing, and reconstructs new prairie plantings close by. She knows these new plantings won’t exactly replicate the old, but she hopes, she hopes… .

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The activist at the state capital, who has ridden the bus and marched with a sign, and spent the day pleading the case of the natural world to the legislators. Stitch.

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We need the poet who sees  little bluestem, red and wet under November rains, rippling in the wind, and wrestles with just the right words to share what she sees on paper. More stitches.

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Or the textile artist, the photographer, or the painter…

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…creating images that share prairie in ways that open doors of understanding to those who may not have experienced prairie before. Stitch.

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The gardeners, who make their backyards their painter’s palettes. They plant prairie patches that swirl and glimmer with color and motion. A neighbor pauses. Asks a question. A spark is kindled. Another stitch.

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Or people like my friend the quilter, who took up his needle and created something beautiful.

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Each person who places each stitch—one carefully thought-out restoration, one painstakingly done research study on hands and knees in the cold and rain—each photograph, wall hanging, poem, book, song, painting, quilt—

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—adds another stitch to the patches of the prairie patchwork quilt. Brings us closer to the beautiful whole of the Midwestern tallgrass that once was complete, and now is lost.

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Keep hoping.

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Keep stitching.

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Sweet dreams.

***

The opening quote is from Anne Lamott’s (1954-) Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair. Read some highlights of her book here.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: prairie patchwork quilt by Lynn Johnson; prescribed burn on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, United States Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy, Wilmington, IL;  volunteer collecting seed, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL, compass plant  (Silphium laciniatum) with water droplets, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL , purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea) on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; clouds over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; grasses in the rain at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  photographer at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Flint Hills prairie, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, U. S. National Park Service, The Nature Conservancy, Strong City, KS; fences at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, United States Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy, Wilmington, IL; savanna at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, United States Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy, Wilmington, IL;  Willoway Brook, The Schulenberg Prairie Savanna at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; harvesting big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, United States Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy, Wilmington, IL; fall at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; mouse tracks in the snow at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Franklin Grove, IL.

And with ongoing thanks to my friend Lynn Johnson, whose beautiful prairie patchwork quilt warms me and my husband Jeff each winter.  Kudos, my friend.

Prairie in Unlikely Places

“It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.”–Arthur Conan Doyle

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When you think of “nature,” do you picture large, sprawling preserves or national parks in other regions, filled with wildlife and unusual plants?

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Yes, these are beautiful destinations. But, the most inspirational places in the natural world aren’t always parks and preserves in other parts of the country. Sometimes, it’s the little places where people are caring for nature that move us the most.

You never know where you’re going to find a small patch of planted or remnant prairie. Like these tallgrass plants, hanging out by a graffitied underpass in Bloomington, Indiana.

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Or prairie plants scattered along old railroad tracks, like these grasses in northern Indiana.

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Recently, I visited the St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie in Carol Stream, Illinois; a tiny prairie remnant off the beaten path. It took me three tries to find it. The view around the prairie might be a clue as to why. Not exactly “pristine” or “untrammeled” nature, is it?

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The forbidding entrance — a gravel road through a cement plant, the road lined with buckthorn — echoed the fortress-like feel of the cemetery. Because of vandalism, the cemetery is surrounded by a high, chain-link fence lined with barbed wire.

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When you look through it, you can see the prairie. Like the cemetery, it’s also surrounded by a high, chain-link fence.

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Bob Jacobsen, the 85-year-old volunteer caretaker for the prairie and cemetery, offered me a short introduction to the tallgrass here. The two acres, he said, were originally purchased and intended to be part of an 1852 German Catholic Church’s cemetery expansion. The cemetery stayed small. The little piece of expansion ground, full of prairie plants, escaped the plow that destroyed most of Illinois prairies when this portion of the state was settled.

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This little remnant is hanging on — but just barely. Jacobsen reminisced about the dilapidated state of the prairie during the 1970s. Moped riders and motorcyclists used the prairie as a racetrack, he told me. The fence he put up offers protection from people who don’t recognize the prairie’s value.

He has a vision for this little two-acre remnant.

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That it might hang on, despite the build-up all around it. That it will continue, despite the odds. He burns it, weeds it, and hopes for others to carry on the legacy of caring for this little prairie patch in an unlikely place.

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“Nature” — and tallgrass prairie remnants like this one– don’t always have the wow factor of a large, protected refuge, vast open spaces, and innumerable wildlife inhabitants.

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But sometimes, it’s the small, carefully-protected tiny remnants or surprising mini-restorations in someone’s backyard that give me the most hope. They are a spark in the dark. A match, which may strike interest, then kindle love and appreciation for the prairie in those who don’t know it well. Learning to understand and nurture the small places are a stepping stone to greater appreciation and care for the big tracts of land we need in our world that are also irreplaceable.

These small patches are unlikely survivors in a harsh environment. Light, in the darkness.

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Long may those like Bob Jacobsen continue to do their best to keep these small places with original prairie alive and flourishing. And may these remnants and other little prairie reconstructions continue to inspire us to continue our work with prairie. To prompt us to  care for the natural world in the large scenic places. To care for those nooks and crannies full of “nature” in our communities. And, perhaps most importantly, to care for the natural world in our own neighborhoods and backyards, no matter how small they may seem. Paying attention. Making a difference.

***

The opening quote is by Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), the author who created the  Sherlock Holmes detective series.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): snow geese and sandhill cranes, Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, San Antonio, New Mexico; prairie plants and graffiti, Bloomington, IN:  prairie plants along the railroad tracks, northwestern Indiana; cement plant, Carol Stream, IL; warning sign, St. Stephen’s Cemetery, Carol Stream, IL; St. Stephen’s Cemetery tombstones with prairie in the background, Carol Stream, IL; Indian hemp or dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum), St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; wild asparagus seed (Asparagus officinalis), St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; sunset, Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, San Antonio, New Mexico; unknown aster, St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL.

Seeing Prairie

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I took a friend of mine, a professor, to see the tallgrass prairie where I volunteer as a steward. He listened as I enthusiastically chattered about the amazing array of plants, the value of diversity, the use of prescribed fire, and the excitement of preserving and restoring native landscape. As I spoke, he was silent. Finally, I quit talking and waited to hear what he thought.

“Weeds, Cindy. It’s nothing but weeds.”

How do you see prairie?

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For Native Americans, the prairie was a grocery store, full of good things to eat. Bastard toadflax seeds were a tasty snack, the young shoots of many prairie plants tasted like asparagus. It was also a pharmacy, with plants that were believed to have potential to heal anything that ailed you, from snakebite to colic. The prairie contained roots used as  love charms and fire-starters; leaves to smoke during ceremonies or — if you knew their secrets — plants you could use in concoctions to eliminate your worst enemy.

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Early settlers saw the prairie as a place to conquer. The deep, interlocking root system of prairie plants, which evolved to withstand drought, were almost impenetrable to farmers until the invention of the John Deere plow in 1837.

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For those who had made the long trek out to Illinois from the woodlands of the east, the Midwestern tallgrass prairie seemed lonely and barren. James Monroe, our fifth president, reported in 1786 on what is now Illinois with these words, “A great part of the territory is miserably poor… .”

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Others, like pioneer Eliza Steele, saw the Illinois prairie and were instantly enchanted. They had imagination to see the beauty of the treeless tallgrass that stretched from horizon to horizon.

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Developers or farmers might look at a prairie today and see wasted land — land that is a bare canvas, waiting for something useful to be done with it. They see potential. And dollar signs.

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Others, like myself, see the prairie through a kaleidoscope lens. It’s a place to preserve for the future through maintaining a vanishing landscape of plants, animals, insects, birds, and amphibians.  It’s a place of perspiration — we invest in it through the sweat equity we build when we pull weeds, cut brush, collect seeds, and set prescribed burns. It’s a place of inspiration: for poetry, art, photography, and music.

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Some people argue the prairie has only the value we assign to it; that it has no intrinsic value of its own. I believe there is inherent value in the prairie, no matter what value we assign to it for ourselves.

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But unless we take time to really look at prairie, spend time on prairie, and attempt to understand what makes prairie something different and special, we’ll see the tallgrass as my friend the professor did.

Nothing but weeds.

(All photos by Cindy Crosby. Top to bottom: Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; whitetail deer, SP; white prairie clover (Dalea candida), SP; halloween pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina), SP; autumn, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; summer, SP; autumn, NG; volunteer, SP; obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), SP.)