Tag Archives: white wild indigo

Space and Place on the Prairie

 

“How long does it take to know a place?…Abstract knowledge about a place can be acquired in short order if one is diligent. The visual quality of an environment is quickly tallied if one has the artist’s eye. But the ‘feel’ of a place takes longer to acquire. It is made up of experiences, mostly fleeting and undramatic, repeated day after day and over the span of years. It is a unique blend of sights, sounds, and smells, a unique harmony of natural and artificial rhythms such as times of sunrise and sunset, of work and play. The feel of a place is registered in one’s muscles and bones… . Knowing a place, in the above senses, clearly takes time. It is a subconscious kind of knowing.”– Yi-Fu Tuan

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I have the good fortune to live next to a respected taxonomist, whose suburban yard overflows with hundreds of native plants. Once, I asked him the best way to go about increasing my own knowledge of the natural world. He thought for a moment, then said, “Look at your backyard, Cindy. Each day, learn a different plant you find there.”

Such simple advice. So difficult to take. Because of course, it requires…time.

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Dr. Yi-Fu Tuan, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of geography emeritus,  writes, “How long does it take to know a place? Modern man, he says, is so mobile “that he has not the time to establish roots; his experience and appreciation of place is superficial.”

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Time. We race around, doing things, going other places. Knowing where we live is one of the the casualties.  How often I have heard people say, “I wish I had more time… ” “I just don’t have enough time… ” “If only I had time to… ” “There aren’t enough hours in a day… ” “If only I didn’t have to sleep… .”  I’ve said most of the same things myself. With hours in such short supply, should we despair of ever finding time to really “know” where we live? Much less, even something as seemingly simple as the names of the plants in our backyards?

Yes, it takes time to know a place. But, as Tuan also writes, even “an intense experience of short duration…can alter our lives.”

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All of us may attest to the power of short but memorable outdoor experiences that helped us know a place. My list of those experiences might include memories as simple as a childhood playspace under a forsythia bush.

A particular sunset.

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The coyote on a prairie trail in the rain, going about her business, oblivious to me sitting a few feet away. Sandhill cranes unexpectedly landing all around me in a field. An unexpected cloud of ebony jewelwing damselflies arising from a stream bank. Finding a fawn.

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You soak these moments into your bones; they permeate your subconscious mind, they echo through your dreams. These intense experiences inform the way you feel about a place. You don’t forget.

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But, you have to be there to have the experiences.  You have to show up. Even if it is only to sit in your backyard to key out plants, a field guide in one hand, the unknown green leaf in the other. You set aside time to let those moments happen. Or, at the very least, you cultivate an awareness that allows you to be awake to those moments when they do happen. To stop and pay attention to the moment.

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These moments are often unscripted. One evening, more than a dozen years ago, I sat in my car in the high school parking lot, waiting for my children’s band lessons to end.  I turned the ignition off and rolled down the window. The parking lot was unusually quiet. I watched geese lift off the football field and pull together the scarf of the sunset with their black, bowling pin shaped bodies, on their way to Hidden Lake nearby.  A few clouds scrolled across the sky. The hot asphalt, the tic-tic-tic of the car cooling down, and drift of music from the band room were unlikely elements of anything special. The high school parking lot is a bland spot to have any intense experiences about place. But I can still frame that sky, those geese, that place in my memory, more than a decade later. There was an intensity of that moment, and one that was unplanned. It helped wake me up to where I lived at a time when I was struggling to pay attention to my life.

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Now, when I become cynical or jaded about the natural world, I’ll go looking for those moments intentionally. Usually, I head to my favorite prairie trail nearby, and take a walk.  If this fails to wake me up, I’ve found seeing the prairie with a child often often opens it to me in a new way again.

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If you’ve walked with a child, you know they don’t feel the press of time as we do. In summer, they are perfectly content to stop and watch bees work flowers for a good long while, or in winter, explore the holes prairie voles make in snow—look for the entrance and exit spots, mark them with sticks. A child thinks nothing of taking a net outside to catch butterflies in November. And why not? To a child, nothing is yet impossible.

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I need these reminders to slow down. To pay attention. To remember what it was like to be a child, to not use a calendar, to not have a to-do list. To feel time in the way a child does. Recapture that feeling that nothing is impossible, even in November.

I walk the prairie alone today—in November, yes, when much of what is going on in my life does seem impossible and completely unsolvable. This place, this prairie where I walk, is woven into my muscles and bones; it runs in my blood. I’ve walked it almost 20 years now. In my memory are the fires of prescribed burns I’ve helped set that have kept the tallgrass alive and vibrant.

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Ahead months away, in my imagination, are the blooms and grasses of summer, those rather iconic stereotypical pale purple coneflowers and Culver’s root; bright orange butterfly weed and yellow coreopsis; all the colors and pageantry of a landscape gone wild and rich with buzz and bloom; diversity and joy.

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Today, in real time, I hike a more subdued November prairie, its life ebbing; someone seemingly stepping on the brakes; the winds tinted with chill; the sun slanted toward the horizon; blackened stalks stark against the color-drained grasses. And yes. Seedheads shattering into the promise of something new. At least I tell myself this. I believe it because I’ve been on this trail at this time in this place before. And I’ve seen the cycle happen, again and again.

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Time well spent.

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The opening quote is taken from Dr. Yi-Fu Tuan’s (1930-) Space and Place: The Perspective of Experiencewhich offers fascinating glimpses into our relationship with both the natural and built environment. His book never fails to provoke me to thinking more deeply about the places where I spend my time and how and why I spend it as I do.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): white wild indigo (Baptisia alba), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; two-track in spring, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreposis tripteris), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white-tailed fawn (Odocoileus virginianus) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; little wood duck (Aix sponsa), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; netting butterflies in the off season, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; summer on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Thorny Prairie Issues

“Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success.” –Pablo Picasso

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Although traditionally the New Year is when we set goals, October seems a good time to begin thinking about what’s next.

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This week finds me thinking about the management plan for the 100 acre prairie where I’m a steward supervisor. It’s a chance to work with the staff and consider what was accomplished or still needs finished as I wind things up in autumn.

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Much of the plan was made at the beginning of the year and concerns invasive plant removal—particularly, non-native plants. To name a few: sweet clover (Melilotus spp.), reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea), and garlic mustard (Alliara petiolata). There are others, of course.  But this trio comprises the chief invaders that threaten the diversity of this particular prairie.

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In the early years of stewarding, weeding out these three invaders pretty much comprised the whole of my management plan. But with the maturing of the prairie (55-plus years!) and the hard work over time by volunteers and staff, this season was different. No, we  didn’t conquer those three. But at last, they were knocked back enough that I could turn my eyes to some other problem plants that threatened the tallgrass.

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A “native plant” — one that evolved in Illinois—is usually thought of as a “good plant.” However, even good plants can go bad. Given our vigorous removal of non-natives over the years, a few native plants became bullies.  The extent of their rogue advancement across the prairie took me by surprise. It was so gradual, I hadn’t noticed.

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So. Out they came. Wild plum (Prunus americana).  Gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa). I discovered Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus Illinoensis) had conducted a stealth slide along the banks of Willoway Brook, then slithered across the stream. Once I noticed, I found a solid wave of ferny leaves. We attempted to slow this species down by defensive seed collection; stripping the plants so they couldn’t add to their numbers. We’ll find out next season just how successful our efforts were.

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Today, I’m wrestling with brambles. Wild raspberries and blackberries are native to this part of Illinois where I’m a prairie steward. Normally, they are not a big deal, just a prickly part of the prairie landscape. But in the past several years, they’ve sent cane tentacles across the tallgrass, spreading throughout an area previously full of diverse, high-quality plants and shading them out. In short, becoming undesirable.

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Removing native brambles is a difficult proposition. Because they are surrounded on this prairie by high-quality native prairie plants—butterflyweed, gentians, prairie sundrops— no collatoral damage is acceptable.

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So, our prairie volunteers cut each bramble cane by hand. An applicator then paints the raw cut on the cane with the minimum amount of herbicide to knock it back. Our goal is not to completely eliminate the brambles, rather, to halt their aggressive spread.

This opens up room for other prairie plants to grow.

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Work like this is always part of a bigger plan on a restored or reconstructed tallgrass prairie. Each season, stewards and staff evaluate the prairie community. Are we allowing a wide variety of plants to become established? How are our prescribed burns affecting the insect and bird community?

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Is there a particular invasive plant—native or non-native—on which we should focus our efforts? If so, can we accomplish its removal by hand weeding? Or do we need to consider other methods?

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These are the conundrums that will keep us flexible, constantly making adjustments in management as we care for a vanishing biological community. One that we hope to keep vigorous and healthy for future generations.

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Setting goals. Having a plan.

Reflecting on the past. Thinking about the future.

All good occupations for anyone in the month of October.

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Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), whose quote opens this blog essay,  was a writer and artist from Spain. One of his many notable works is The Old Guitarist from his Blue Period, owned by The Art Institute of Chicago:  “… the image reflects the struggling twenty-two-year-old Picasso’s sympathy for the plight of the downtrodden; he knew what it was like to be poor, having been nearly penniless during all of 1902. ”

This week’s photos copyright Cindy Crosby all taken on the Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL  (top to bottom): common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); carrion flower (Smilax spp.) fruit; October on the Schulenberg Prairie; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); October on the Schulenberg Prairie; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) seedhead;  black raspberry cane (Rubus occindentalis); gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata); compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); white wild indigo seedpods (Baptisia alba macrophylla); two jagged assassin bugs (Phymata spp.) eating an unknown fly on a pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans);  little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium). 

A Thousand Prairie Details

” …few (if any) details are individually essential, while the details collectively are absolutely essential. What to include, what to leave out. Those thoughts are with you from the start.” –John McPhee

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“What to include, what to leave out?” How do you decide—when you try to describe September on the prairie?

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Look through the tallgrass kaleidoscope. Details change. From hour to hour; moment to moment.

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The prairie is a shape-shifter.

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Color and pattern maker.

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Each insect and plant outlined and highlighted.

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A few shocks of color. Burnt cherry.

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Pure purple.

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Other details, less colorful, still dazzle. Fizzy whites, knitted together by spiders; pearled by dew.

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Sheer numbers sometime disguise the finer elements.

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The particulars lost in a tangle. Taken out of context.

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The familiar becomes unfamiliar.

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The tiniest details create the sum of the whole. The autumn prairie.

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Dreamlike.

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Almost invisible at times. Camouflaged. But unforgettable.

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The magic of a thousand prairie details.

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They all add up to something extraordinary.

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The opening quote is from John McPhee’s Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process.  McPhee (1931-) is the author of more than 30 books, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for Annals of the Former World.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) at the end of a trail, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN;  white wild indigo leaves with spider silk, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN; September in the tallgrass, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN; three butterflies puddling (two male clouded sulphurs (Colias philodice) and an orange sulphur (Colias eurytheme)), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) with morning dew, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN;  yellow legged or autumn meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN;  unseasonal bloom on white wild indigo in September (Baptisia leucantha), Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN;  nodding bur marigold (Bidens cernua), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  bison (Bison bison) hair on the trail, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) with dewdrops, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN; early morning on the prairie, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN; fog over Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN; eastern tailed blue butterfly (Cupido comyentas), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Taltree Arboretum prairie, Valparaiso, IN.

A July Prairie Vocabulary

“I have come to understand that although place-words are being lost, they are also being created. Nature is dynamic, and so is language.” — Robert MacFarlane

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How can we fix a vanishing landscape like the tallgrass prairie in our minds and hearts?

It may start with words. Here are a few proposed vocabulary words for this hot July summer on the prairie.

Croakfloat:

A frog hanging out in a pond.

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Bumblebloom:

When two or more bees visit a flower.

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Petalrash: 

The splotches of color left behind when pale purple coneflower petals fade.

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Furflower:

What happens when a bison hybridizes with a compass plant.

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Powerpond:

When manmade meets prairie wetland.

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Monarchmagnet:

Any one of the native milkweeds (like this whorled milkweed) that provides life for monarch butterfly caterpillars.

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Bisondifference:

Being ignored by a small herd of bison.

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The July prairie season is in full swing.

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What new words will you add to our summer prairie vocabulary?

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Robert Macfarlane’s (1976-) opening quote is from his book Landmarks. In it he reminds us of the power of words, and lists many of the words that have been lost in describing the landscape of the British isles. Read what a New York Times reviewer said about it here.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): green frog (Lithobates clamitans), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; unknown bumblebees on white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) with bison (Bison bison) fur, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pond at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Nachusa Grasslands in July, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.SaveSave

A Prairie Wildflower Solstice

“How we spend our days, is, of course, how we spend our lives.” — Annie Dillard

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Tonight at 11:24 p.m.—not to put too fine a point on it—is the summer solstice. Simply put, it is the official date summer begins in Illinois. The solstice also marks the longest day and shortest night of the year for the northern hemisphere.

On the tallgrass prairie, the summer solstice means it’s time for wildflowers. Lots of them.

White wild indigo reaches for the clouds.

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The indigo is alive with pollinators, going about their buzzy business.

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Seemingly overnight, pale purple coneflowers open across the tallgrass. People who don’t think about prairie much at other times of the year stop and stare. Linger. How could you not? Coneflowers are the great ambassadors of the tallgrass; the welcome mat that compels us to step in and take a closer look.

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And then, there are the oddly-named summer wildflowers you forget about until you come across them in bloom again. Scurfy pea. The name alone provokes smiles. It earns a 10—the highest possible score—in the Flora of the Chicago Region, but for most photographers and hikers in the tallgrass, its primary value is as a pretty backdrop for the coneflowers.

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The unpredictable juxtapositions of plants are a never-ending source of enjoyment on the prairie in June.  Like this daisy fleabane with lime-green carrion flower.

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As June progresses, the black-eyed Susans, white and purple prairie clover, lead plant, and flowering spurge open alongside the indigo and coneflowers. Such an outpouring of color! The prairie holds nothing back. What in the world will the tallgrass do for an encore?

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And then you glance up.

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Although the wildflowers take center stage in June—as do the skies—grasses bide their time. Soon they’ll be the stars of the tallgrass prairie. The grasses and sedges at this fen are already lush and hypnotic in the wind.

 

They are also alive with insects. Dragonflies pull themselves from the streams and ponds, clamber up grass blades; pump flight into their newly unfurled wings.  Like this Halloween pennant, cooling off on a hot day.

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Or this little damselfly, neon blue in the grasses. The name “bluet” is perfect, isn’t it?

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This day calls for reflection. How have I spent my time this week; this month; this year? Have I paid attention? Where have I focused my energy? What will I change about how I’m spending my days, if anything, in the upcoming weeks?

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The prairie is just beginning to work its magic.

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Will you be there to see what happens next?

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The opening quote from Annie Dillard (1945-) is from her Pulitzer Prize-winning book,  Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974). I read it every year; there’s always something new to think about.

All photos and the video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bumblebee (unknown species) on white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) duo, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; scurfy pea (Psoralidium tenuiflorum) with a single pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) and prairie dock leaf (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; carrion flower  (probably Smilax herbacea) and daisy fleabane (probably Erigeron philadelphicus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  mixed Schulenberg Prairie wildflowers at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; rainbow and storm clouds over the author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; grasses and sedges at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Halloween pennant (Celithemis eponina), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; familiar bluet (Enallagma civile) damselfly, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflowers (Echinacea pallida) under storm clouds, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; gravel two-track with great angelica (Angelica atropurpurea) at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

How to Speak Fluent Prairie

“Although place-words are being lost, they are also being created. Nature is dynamic, and so is language.” –Robert Macfarlane

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What’s in a name? The Oxford Junior Dictionary has eliminated some words from its children’s dictionary that name things.  Acorn. Willow. Buttercup. Kingfisher–and, other words that are about nature. Adults I encounter no longer seem to have a reference point for common names of plants and other members of the natural world.

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In an adult prairie ethnobotany class I taught this July, I casually mentioned the silky fluff or pappus of milkweed seeds in a pod. Several of my students exchanged blank looks. “You know,” I said, pointing to the milkweed plant in bloom. “The seed pod that comes after the flower.”

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A few people smiled and shook their heads.  I asked for a show of hands. “How many of you know what a milkweed pod is?” There were a few nods. But, almost one third of my class did not know what a milkweed pod was. Nor had they cracked one open to sail the canoe-like pod shells on a creek. They hadn’t blown the silky seeds into the wind and watched them float off toward the horizon. The words, “milkweed pod,” and “milkweed seeds” had no meaning for them.

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It got me thinking — if words  like “kingfisher”  are disappearing from our vocabulary in dictionaries and “milkweed pod” no longer conjures up a visual memory or experience for people, how can we return these words to use? Perhaps learning more specific words for the inhabitants of the natural world and sharing them with others in ordinary conversation is one way to keep our landscape full of rich and beautiful names.

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But –are there other words we need to imagine and create for the natural world?  Surely there are names we haven’t yet thought of yet. Can we meet this hemorrhage of word loss by contributing our own new words for things on the prairie –descriptions, perhaps, that have not been invented yet? Let’s try a few.

Is there a name for the sandpapered curve of a compass plant leaf in winter, dry and brittle?

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Or a term for the color of pink that flushes the sky in a frigid, December sunrise?  IMG_9021 (2).jpg

What might we call the sound of white wild indigo seed pods, rattling in the wind?

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Is there a name for the flotsam and jetsam that blows into a coneflower seed head in winter?

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Does the voice of a prairie stream, rushing through the ice and snow, beg for a new word to describe it?

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A group of coyotes is called a pack. But is there a name to describe a pair of them, picking their way through the snow and ice, moving toward me? Perhaps better yet — a word to describe how I feel at that moment?

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What do you call a clump of snow, caught in the stems of the figwort plant?

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“Arch” seems like the wrong word to describe the Canada wild rye seeds against a winter sky. An “apostrophe of rye seed”? An “eyebrow” of wild rye? A “bristle” of rye? Or?

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When wild quinine turns silver in the frost, but still emits its clean, fresh scent, what word describes it?

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What do you call the sun, when it attempts to break through the wintry sky? And –is there a word for the green of plants persisting under snow? Or for a single tree, punctuating a prairie landscape?

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What do you think?

To express the beauty of the prairie–and the natural world– in all its sensory appeal, we may require a new vocabulary. Let’s put one together. I have my words for all of the above. What are yours?  Think of compiling this list as a good occupation for a cold winter’s afternoon. Or try this — the next time you hike the prairie, what new word descriptions would you add to the prairie’s dictionary and thesaurus?

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Learn some new names for plants, birds, insects, and animals on the prairie. Keep names from becoming lost. Make up your own descriptions for specific things when you can’t find them. Use them. We need these new words –and–we need the existing words we are losing. They help us notice the details. They remind us of the splendor of the natural world. When we use specific words and names, we invite others to appreciate the rich diversity found in tallgrass prairie.

Ready? Let’s get started.

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British writer Robert Macfarlane’s (1976-) opening quote in this essay is from  Landmarks, in which he seeks to re-wild language with specific names for what we discover in the natural world. MacFarlane’s work can be dense, but like all good things, benefits from a second look and a close paying of attention. He believes that if we lose the names for things in the natural world, we may also lose those very places and plants, critters, and landscapes that are named through a gradual lack of interest and care. Worth thinking about.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Nachusa Grasslands in December (Thelma Carpenter Unit), The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; common milkweed pod (Asclepias syriaca);  white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis), author’s birdfeeders by her prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant (Silphium lacinatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; December sunrise, author’s prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) seed pods, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) , Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; two coyotes (Canis latrans), Hidden Lake, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL figwort (Scrophularia marilandica) with snow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; December at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  Thelma Carpenter Unit, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Resurrecting Prairie Ghosts

“O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again. “–Thomas Wolfe

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Pulling sweet clover and giant ragweed from the prairie on hot June mornings can seem endless. On one workday, sweating and tired, a volunteer turned to me and sighed. “Tell me again–why are we doing this?”

I can’t remember exactly what I said. But this is what I wish I’d said.

Just a few hundred years ago, more than half of Illinois was prairie.

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Settlers moved in,  looking for adventure and a better life. Agriculture and the John Deere plow soon turned prairies into acres of corn and soybeans. There was good in this–we need places to live, and food to eat. But we didn’t remember to pay attention to what we were losing.

And when we forget to pay attention, our losses can be irreplaceable.

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For a while, it looked as if the prairie would become nothing more than a ghost. A distant memory.

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But, just as the tallgrass had all but vanished, a few people woke up to what we had. They panicked when they saw how little of the Illinois prairie was left…

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Then, they sounded an alarm to save those few thousand acres of original tallgrass that remained.

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They persuaded others to reconstruct prairies where they had disappeared, and to restore degraded prairies back to vibrant health. Soon, prairie wildflowers and their associated insects returned. Purple milkweed and bees…

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Wild quinine and tiny bugs…

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…the prairie’s roses and crab spiders…

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The drain tiles that piped the wet prairies dry were broken up.  The land remembered what it once was.

Dragonflies returned and patrolled the tallgrass.

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The rare glade mallow raised her blooms again in the marshy areas, with a critter or two hidden in her petals.

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These reconstructed and restored prairies are different, of course. Bison roam…

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…but within fenced units. Power lines and jet contrails scar the skies that were once marked only with birds and clouds. Today, you may see houses along the edges, where once the tallgrass stretched from horizon to horizon.

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It’s not perfect. But when we made a promise to future generations to bring back the prairies for them, we crossed a bridge of sorts.

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We put aside our own instant gratification.

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Every weed we pull; every seed we collect and plant, is in hopes that the Illinois prairie won’t be a ghost to the children who grow up in Illinois in the future.

Rather, it will be the landscape they love and call home.

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Photos (top to bottom): bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; old barns, Flagg Township, Ogle County, IL; moon rising over Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Scribner’s panic grass (Dicanthelium oligosanthes), The Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white wild indigo or false indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) and pale purple coneflowers (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasture rose (Rosa carolina) with a crab spider, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; female calico pennant (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; glade mallow (Napaea dioica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; child crossing the bridge, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie ragwort (Packera plattensis) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, I; sunset over Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

The introductory quote is from Look Homeward Angel, by Thomas Wolfe, an American novelist in the early 20th Century. This quote is used to describe the lost prairie by John Madson in his seminal book on tallgrass, Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie.