“To everything, turn, turn, turn; there is a season, turn, turn, turn… .” —Pete Seeger
Now the mercury in the thermometer slips below 30 degrees, although the sun may shine bright in a bright blue sky. Leaves from the savanna float along on Willoway Brook, which winds through the Schulenberg prairie. It’s a time of transition. A time of reflection.
The first substantial snowfall arrived last night in the Chicago region. This morning, it turned the world blue and black in the dawn light.
The projects we’ve put off outdoors seem more urgent now. No more procrastinating.
Winter is on the way. And this morning, we feel it’s already here.
In the garden, the garlic cloves are tucked into their bed of soil with leaves mounded over them as protection against the cold. Next July, as I harvest the sturdy garlic bulbs and scapes, I’ll look back and think, “Where did the time go?” It seems after you turn sixty, the weeks and months just slip away.
I notice the hard freeze Sunday night has marked “paid” to the celery…
…and also to the bok choy I’ve let stand in the garden, hoping to harvest it over Thanksgiving.
Both will take a light frost and flourish in cooler temperatures. But, they didn’t survive the the dip into the 20s very well on Monday morning. I should have covered them! Ah, well. Too late, now. Although I clean up my vegetable garden beds, I leave most of the prairie plants in my yard standing through winter; little Airbnb’s for the native insects that call them home over the winter. The prairie seeds provide lunch for goldfinches and other birds. I think of last winter, and how the goldfinches and redpolls clustered at the thistle feeders while snow fell all around.
A few miles away on the Schulenberg Prairie, the tallgrass is full of seeds. The prairie tries to see how many variations on metallics it can conjure. Gold…
…dull aluminum and copper…
…all here, in the bleached grasses and wildflowers.
It’s a season on the brink. A turn away from those last surges of energy pumping out seeds to a long stretch of rest.
Look at those November skies! You can see change in the shift of weather. You can feel it in the cool nip of the wind.
On the Schulenberg Prairie, Willoway Brook still runs fast and clear. But it won’t be long now until it is limned with ice.
Transitions—even seasonal ones—bring with them a little tension. A need to reframe things.
There’s a sense of letting go. Walking away from some of the old…
…looking forward to something new.
Transitions wake us up. They force us to do things we’ve put off. They jolt us out of our complacency.
Transitions demand that we pay attention. Expend a little energy.
Sure, they can be rough.
But bring on the change.
Hello, snow. I’m ready for you.
The song “Turn, Turn, Turn!” was written by American folk singer Pete Seeger (1919-2014) and performed in the 1950s, then made popular by The Byrds in 1965. If you’re familiar with the Book of Ecclesiastes, in the old King James Version of the Bible, you’ll see the lyrics are almost verbatim from the third chapter, although in a different order. The Limeliters (1962), Pete Seeger (1962), Judy Collins (1966), Dolly Parton (1984), and others have also performed the song. According to Wikipedia, the Byrds version has the distinction in the United States of being the number one hit with the oldest lyrics, as the words are attributed to King Solomon from the 10th Century, BC.
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 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.
Watch for the annual “Reading the Prairie” book review round-up next week! Just in time for the holidays.
“All we have to do is turn off our phones, use our senses, and take note of the bewitching beauty that turns up on almost every walk, often in the smallest of things—lichen, moss, insects, raindrops. Anyone can cultivate the capacity to marvel.” — Annabel Streets
Freeze warning. Monday evening, I cover the newly-planted violas in light of the forecast. I bought a few six-packs in a fit of enthusiasm a month ago. They’ve given me joy on my sheltered front porch. Flowers! Color. I’ve brought them in most nights, keeping them from the worst of the bitter temperatures. This weekend, the thermometer hit 80 degrees and I planted out one of the six packs as well as some of my spring garden vegetables. Normally, the sugar snap peas, onion sets and other early veggies would have gone in two weeks ago. But it’s just been so darn dreary and cold.
The hot weather this weekend was a nice break from all the rain, rain, rain. Our backyard is wet in the best of times. With the recent rainfall it’s a quagmire. Our knee-high waterproof boots, caked with mud, stand at the ready by the door—necessary for any trip to the compost bin, or to check on the status of new backyard prairie plant shoots. On one trip outside, I pick a bouquet of daffodils and find a sleepy native miner bee snuggled into the flower folds, out of the rain.
My marsh marigolds are relishing the rainfall. When we moved to our tiny suburban yard 24 years ago, one of the first things we did was dig a small pond and plant one marsh marigold on the edge. Yup, just one plant. Two dozen years later, they have spread, a golden necklace that says “spring” to me each season.
Some folks, seeing how rambunctious these marsh marigolds are, are suspicious. “Are you sure they’re not fig buttercup?” they ask, referring to a pernicious invasive plant, sometimes known as “lesser celandine” or even, “pilewort.” Although some sources say this invasive plant isn’t in my Illinois county, we know better. A wet area in the subdivision across the street has a large spread of lesser celandine (Ficaria verna, or if you prefer the old name, Ranunculus ficaria). It looks a lot like my marsh marigolds from a distance, doesn’t it?
Take a closer look. One easy way to tell the invasive lesser celandine from the native marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) is to flip the blooms over.
See the (somewhat blurry) three green sepals on the back of the lesser celandine on the left (top image)? The back of the marsh marigolds on the right are a solid yellow. There are other differences as well in the leaves and the flowers, but this is a quick and easy method for distinguishing the two. If you want to become better acquainted, grow the marsh marigold in a swampy place in your yard. Their exuberant blooms will cheer you every spring, even in the throes of our exasperating Midwestern swings of weather.
As you hike the prairies and woodlands this week, look for the marsh marigold blooming in the wetter areas. And think of the other wildflowers you’ll see! Hepatica, an early spring woodland favorite, keeps its old leaves through the winter. You can spot their dark maroon and bright green lobed leaves in the lower left-hand side of this image below.
Close by, the new season’s furred hepatica leaves push up from the leaf litter.
Hepatica blooms in various hues of violet…
…and also, palest pearl.
Across the trail, mayapples unfurl emerald umbrellas against the rain.
False rue anemone trembles in April’s blustery weather.
Toothwort, with its jagged “toothy” leaves, carpets the woodlands this week in the Chicago region.
Spring beauties are in bud and in bloom. On a rainy day, they—like many spring woodland wildflowers—will close, or partially close.
The first leaves of wild ginger are a promise of blooms to come.
Jacob’s ladder is ready to burst into bloom any day now.
More wildflowers are in bloom, and many more are on the way. Who knows what else you might see? Daily, the blooms change as new species open and others decline.
As I hike, a burst of tangerine and black distracts me from the wildflowers.
It’s an eastern comma butterfly! It flutters across the woods, then lands in a patch of sunshine. Yes, I know it’s a common Illinois butterfly, but it’s my first butterfly sighting of the year. Delightful if only for this reason.
So many joys! So much to see.
Spring ephemerals, however, are just that….ephemeral. Blink! And they’ll be gone. Why not go for a hike this week and see them while you can? Who knows what marvels you might discover?
The opening quote for today’s blog is from Annabel Streets’“52 Ways to Walk: The Surprising Science of Walking for Wellness and Joy, One Week at a Time.” One of my favorite passages is this: “Seek out the work of naturalists and nature writers, who can alert us to the miraculous spots of sublimity we might not otherwise notice. Knowledge doesn’t counter mystery; it enlarges it.” Absolutely.
Join Cindy for a Spring Wildflower Walk at The Morton Arboretum! Learn some of the stories behind these fascinating spring flowers. April 28 (woodland) and May 6 (woods and prairie, sold out) (9-11 a.m.). In person. Register here.
May 3, 7-8:30 p.m.: Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Fliers, at the Winfield Area Gardening Club (Open to the public!), Winfield, IL. For more information, click here.
May 5, evening: 60 Years on the Schulenberg Prairie, Morton Arboretum Natural Resource Volunteer Event (closed to the public).
May 18, 12:30-2 p.m.: 100 Years Around the Arboretum (With Rita Hassert), Morton Arboretum Volunteer Zoom Event (Closed to the public).
Time is running out for our prairie remnants in Illinois. Save Bell Bowl Prairie! Find out what you can do to help at www.savebellbowlprairie.org .
“Gardens console us, welcome us, connect us. They humble. They teach… . Couldn’t prairies exist in our backyards in some meaningful form?” — Benjamin Vogt
Snow. 70 degrees and sunshine. Sleet. 75 mph wind gusts.
It is March in the Midwest, full of twists and turns…and wonder. We wake up, not knowing if we’ll put on sweaters and boots or shorts and sandals. Each day offers surprises, like crocus suddenly in bloom.
The first daffodils and hyacinths spear green shoots through the prairie dropseed in my backyard. Welcome back!
Redpolls cluster at the feeder, seemingly loath to begin their trip to their Arctic breeding grounds. They remind me of myself getting ready to go somewhere. “Hold on—let me do one more thing before we go… .”
A male redpoll feeds a female redpoll some thistle. Is this courting behavior? I’m not sure. This was our first year to have redpolls at our backyard feeders in Illinois and I know very little about them. What an unexpected delight! Who knows if we’ll see them again? I’ll miss the redpolls when they are gone. They’ve left us with some beautiful memories, and the reminder that life is full of these unexpected amazements —-if we pay attention.
There will be other birds to enjoy. The female downy woodpeckers hang around all year…
…and so do the males, with their bright scarlet splash of color.
Our backyard prairie, lank and leaning after months of weather, gets a facelift with the falling snow. Magical!
Even the pawpaw tree—though leafless—is lovely with its snow-piled limbs.
Temperatures hover around freezing, but our pond remains thawed from Saturday’s wild 70-degree temperature binge.
Gently, I bend the fall-planted buttonbush shoots near the pond. They feel supple, rather than brittle. Tiny buds. A flush of color. It has survived the winter. Last summer, with its drought and weather swings, was a tough year for newly-planted perennials.
My New Jersey tea hasn’t done as well. Under the eaves, close to the house, this native shrub gets plenty of warmth but not as much moisture and sun as it would in the bigger prairie planting. Should it be moved this year? Hmmm.
It’s a stick! Not much to write home about, is it? Every spring I think I’ve lost this shrub, and each spring New Jersey tea surprises me. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.
Other natives like prairie smoke….
…and prairie alum root still hold some green. They look alive and ready for the growing season.
We’re one week into the month of March.
A week of blustery wind and snow. A week of warmth and rain. A week of good news, as Covid numbers recede. A week of terrifying events on the other side of the world.
A week of wondering. What’s Mother Nature going to throw at us next?
As the snow falls and ices the prairie with wonder, I remind myself: There’s a lot to look forward to in the new year. Plenty of astonishments and delights ahead that we can’t even imagine.
I can’t wait.
The opening quote is by Benjamin Vogt (1976-) from his book, A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion for an Uncertain Future, which calls us to reconsider lawns, and plant our gardens thoughtfully. Read more about Vogt here.
More than 300 species of plants and animals are found here. We go to see what emerges in the warmer temperatures of mid-March. At a glance, the prairie looks much as it did all winter. No prescribed burn has touched it yet.
But look closely. The first weedy black mustard’s emerald leaf florets lie flat against the prairie soil. An insect flies low and slow. Too quick for me to slap an ID on. Blue flag iris spears through the muddy waterway that winds through the dry grass and spent wildflowers. Signs of spring.
I browse online to find more about the prairie and encounter this on the Downers Grove Park District’s site: “… in April of 1970, Alfred and Margaret Dupree presented a photograph of a rare prairie wildflower to an expert at the Morton Arboretum, as they were interested if it represented possible remnants of a native prairie. Upon inspection, it was found that the field had numerous native prairie species, and with the help of The Nature Conservancy, the owners were tracked down and the land was purchased. After officially becoming a part of the Park District, it was named an Illinois Nature Preserve in March, 1994.” I love it that two people paid attention to this remnant—and took time to investigate. It makes me wonder what we’ll see, if we look closely.
So much to discover under our feet. But today, the real action is over our heads. The clouds sail fast across the horizon.
A breeze ruffles my hair. The melancholy whistle and the clickity-clack, clickity-clack, clickity-clack of a nearby train fills the air. But there’s another sound vying with the wind, train, and traffic noise. A high pitched babble. Look! There they are.
Riding on the winds above us are the sandhill cranes. Thousands and thousands of sandhills. Chasing a memory of somewhere north where they have urgent business to conduct. Each wave seems louder than the next. They are high—so high—in the sky.
The sun is merciless; so bright, we often lose them in its glare. The cranes wheel and pirouette; now flashes of silver overhead, now vanished.
All the obligatory words rise to my lips: Prehistoric. Ballet. Choreography. Dance. None seemed sufficient for this performance in the theater of the sky. The cranes assemble into a “V”, then slip into a sloppy “S”. Now they kettle, swirling and twirling. I’m reminded of my old “Mr. Doodleface” drawing board from childhood, where I dragged a magnet across black shavings to put hair and a beard on a picture of a man. The cranes seem like black shavings pulled through the sky in intricate patterns. Circles and lines and angles and scrawls. Changing from moment to moment. But always, that heart-breaking cry.
At home, I page through my field guides and bird books, then check online for more about cranes. I read that they are about four feet tall, the size of a first grader, with a wingspan of more than six feet.
The newer scientific name since 2010 for sandhill cranes is Antigone canadensis. My birding guides, all a dozen years or more old, still have the previous genus name, Grus. The common name “sandhill” refers to this bird’s stopover in the Nebraska Sandhills, a staging area for the birds.
The sandhills mate for life, or until one of the pair dies. Then, the remaining crane seeks a new partner.
Although gray, the sandhill crane has a rusty-colored wash on its feathers, caused by the bird rubbing itself with iron-rich mud. The birds have a distinctive scarlet patch on their foreheads.
The form of the crane is one of the first origami shapes many of us learned to make. According to a Japanese legend, if you make a thousand origami cranes the gods will grant you a wish. As I watch them fly over Belmont Prairie, it’s easy to think of what to wish for in the coming year.
As we leave, I find a single bird feather, caught in the tallgrass.
A crane’s? Probably not. But a reminder of the connection of birds to this prairie remnant.
Later that afternoon, we hang my hammock on the back porch and I swing there with a book, pausing each time to look as the cranes pass overhead.
Magical! How does anyone ever say they are bored when there are clouds, and cranes…and marvels all around us?
The thousands and thousands of sandhills migrating this weekend were barely ahead of Monday’s winter storm.
Snow powdered the prairie with fat flakes and turned our world to white.
I wonder if the cranes knew the storm was coming? Prescient sandhills. Smart birds.
Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) is best known for A Sand County Almanac, from which the quote that kicks off this post was taken. His book was published shortly after his death and has sold more than two million copies. If you visit New Mexico, you can drive through the miles of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness in the Gila National Forest, named for him in 1980. Driving it, you’re aware of the solace of vast and empty spaces, and the importance of conservation. Find out more about Leopold here.
A Brief History of Trees in AmericaWednesday,April 28, 7-8 p.m. Sponsored by Friends of the Green Bay Trail and the Glencoe Public Library. From oaks to sugar maples to the American chestnut: trees changed the course of American history. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation as you remember and celebrate the trees influential in your personal history and your garden. Registration here.
Virtual Wildflower Walks Online: Section A: Friday, April 9, 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. CST Woodland Wildflowers, Section B: Thursday, May 6, 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. CST Woodland and Prairie Wildflowers. Wander through the ever-changing array of blooms in our woodlands and prairies in this virtual walk. Learn how to identify spring wildflowers, and hear about their folklore. In April, the woodlands begin to blossom with ephemerals, and weeks later, the prairie joins in the fun! Each session will cover what’s blooming in our local woodlands and prairies as the spring unfolds. Enjoy this fleeting spring pleasure, with new flowers revealing themselves each week. Register here.
Plant A Backyard Prairie:Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm. CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. 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.