Snow! At last. Bright sparks in what has been a predominantly gray week.
Snow quilts the Chicago suburbs, softening harsh edges, muffling sound.
It prompts joie de vivre for the holidays.
And where better to hike in the snow than the prairie?
Snow dusts crystals on the tallgrass wildflowers, gone to seed…
…sifts into milkweed pod seams…
….makes the unexceptional—astonishing.
Listen! The snow softens sounds in the tallgrass. Even the geese are uncharacteristically silent as they slide across the prairie pond.
A harsh wind blows the snow into em dashes.
The wind numbs my nose; sends a chill deep into my bones.
I keep hiking.
Who knows what the snow has transformed? What else is there to discover? I don’t want to miss a thing.
The sun has been a stranger this week. But Sunday and Monday, we had a short reprieve. Sunshine! Good sledding weather. I took a turn or two with a few of my grandkids, sliding down our small hill. Later, the day seesawed back and forth from sun back to that familiar silver-plated sky. But the brief hours of bright light were enough to lift our spirits.
But the light is coming. Each day we’ll see more of it, until these gray days are only a distant memory.
Despite the parade of mostly gloomy days, there is so much beauty all around.
Even a short hike like this one today unwraps so many gifts. The gift of quiet. The gift of paying attention. The gift of using our senses to fully enjoy the incredible world around us.
I want to linger longer.
Every step on the snowy prairie rekindles my sense of wonder.
More snow—perhaps more than we might like—is on the way in the Chicago Region. The sort of snow that keeps the weather forecasters happily occupied as they predict the coming blizzard apocalypse. As I type this, the forecast calls for 30 below zero wind chill at the end of the week; plus a foot of white stuff on the way. Time to head to the grocery store and lay in a few supplies.
It’s not just people watching the weather. Sunday, right before dusk, I hear an unmistakeable sound over the house. I look up…and… .
Sandhill cranes! On their way south. Perhaps they’ve sensed the forecast—and are putting as many miles between themselves and the coming snowstorm as possible. I watch them until they disappear over the horizon.
Safe travels, sandhills.
And safe travels to all of you, dear readers, during the Hanukkah and Christmas festivities.
The opening quote is from Joy Harjo’s Catching the Light. Harjo (1951-) is our current United States Poet Laureate, and the first Native American to be so. She is also a musician and playwright.
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.
Most people know Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, as a particle physics and accelerator laboratory. But today, I’m here for the prairie.
Fermilab is a protected government area, so a guard checks my driver’s license at the gate, then makes me a guest tag to stick on my coat. He smiles as he hands me a map and waves my car through the checkpoint. I’m off to the interpretive trail…
… to see what delights the December prairie has in store for me this morning.
You might wonder: What is tallgrass prairie doing at a place where phrases like “quantum gravity” and “traversable wormhole” are the norm?
So glad you asked! The prairie was the dream of Dr. Robert “Bob” Betz, a Northeastern Illinois biology professor who was dubbed by the Chicago Tribune as “a pioneer in prairie preservation.” In 1975, Betz heard that Fermilab’s then-director Dr. Robert Wilson was looking for ideas on how to plant its thousands of acres in the Chicago suburbs.
As Betz tells the story in his book, The Prairie of the Illinois Country (published in 2011 after his death), he enlisted the help of The Morton Arboretum’s legendary Ray Schulenberg and Cook County Forest Preserve’s David Blenz to go with him to meet with Dr. Wilson to pitch the prairie project.
Dr. Wilson, Betz said, listened to their ideas. He then proposed the interior of the accelerator ring for planting. “How long would it take to restore such a prairie?” Wilson asked the trio.
Betz admitted it might take five years. Ten. Twenty or more.
Betz writes that Dr. Wilson was quiet for a few seconds, “… and then he turned to us and said, ‘If that’s the case, I guess we should start this afternoon.’ “
What vision these men had! Their dream, coupled with the work of countless volunteers and staff, has birthed this restoration of Illinois’ native landscape across Fermilab’s vast campus today.
I wonder what Dr. Betz would think if he could hike with me this morning, and see the array of tallgrass prairie plants that shimmer under the winter sky…
… which changes every few moments, kaleidoscoping from dark clouds to blue sky; contrails to sunshine.
Within view of the interpretative trail looms Wilson Hall, where the nation’s most intelligent scientists mingle and confer.
I think of these scientists as I hike the prairie. The future, meeting the past. I think of Dr. Betz, and his willingness to dream big.
The slogan for Fermilab is this: “We bring the world together to solve the mysteries of matter, energy, space and time.”
The tallgrass prairie is full of mysteries.
It’s a restoration, hearkening to the past, but also the landscape of our future, holding hope for a healthier, more diverse natural world. Because of the work of Dr. Betz and the people who took time to introduce him to prairie in a way that seeded in him a life-long passion for saving and restoring the tallgrass, we can continue to learn about our “landscape of home” here, even as science moves us into the future.
Thanks, Dr. Betz.
You made a difference.
Dr. Robert Betz (1923-2007) caught “prairie fever” after a nature outing with the also-legendary Floyd Swink (Plants of the Chicago Region, first edition 1969). Once Betz was hooked, he became a force of nature in Illinois for prairie conservation and restoration. At the end of his book, The Prairie of the Illinois Country, he writes: “Fortunately, in spite of all the tribulations the Prairie of the Illinois Country has undergone during the past 150 years, its remnants are still with us. But to continue the work that began decades ago to save, protect, restore, and enlarge these remnants, future generations must make a real effort to educate the public about their importance as a natural heritage and ecological treasure…. Hopefully, what this may mean in the future is there would be a plethora of people infected with the author’s ‘prairie fever.‘”
For more information on Dr. Betz’s work at Fermilab, check out Fermilab’s natural areas here, and Fermilab’s Batavia National Accelerator Laboratory here. Read more about Dr. Betz in his obituary here, or in this article by former Fermi staff member Ryan Campbell here. A tremendous thanks to all the stewards, staff, and volunteers who keep the Fermilab Natural Areas healthy and thriving. As Dr. Betz wrote, it is an “ecological treasure.”
Save Bell Bowl Prairie!
Bell Bowl Prairie at the Chicago-Rockford International Airport is once again under siege. Help save this important remnant prairie! See simple things you can do here. Thank you for keeping this ecological treasure intact.
“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.
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”—Yogi Berra
Autumn settles in for the long haul. Carmine and gold kiss the green-leaved trees overnight. Overhead, cerulean blue skies dotted with puffs signal mercurial weather.
We wake this weekend to a light, patchy frost.
It zaps my basil and okra in the garden, but the zinnias…
….and the kale don’t seem to mind too much.
The prairie planting shrugs it off.
What’s a little frost? No big deal. It’s all par for the season.
As the weather turns chilly, our hibernation instincts kick in. Put on a jacket and go for a walk? Or curl up with a book on the couch with a mug of hot chocolate? And yet, there are so many reasons to hike the tallgrass prairie in October. Here’s a little motivation to get us up off the couch and outside this week.
1. That color! The prairie draws with a full box of crayons in October, everything from blues…
…to golds that glow.
A dash of lime.
You might even discover autumn’s palette in a single leaf.
2. Flights of Fancy. Sure, the pollinator season is winding down. But the prairie still hums with life. Common eastern bumblebees lift off from every wildflower.
Late monarchs still cycle through the prairie and my garden. Hurry! Hurry.
Everything in the season says “It’s late!” An empty nest, invisible during the growing season, signals the transition. I think of an old poem by John Updike, “the year is old, the birds have flown… .” The prairie shifts gear from growth to senescence.
3. Stunning Seeds. Next year’s prairie floats on the breezes.
Other seeds wait to drop into the rich prairie soil.
The late summer prairie wildflowers are caught in the transition; some in seed, some in bloom, some still somewhere in between.
So much change! So much to see. And that’s just a taste of what’s waiting for you…
…when you go for a hike on the October prairie.
The opening quote is from baseball great Yogi Berra (1925-2015), who was known for his “Yogi-isms.” Another one of my favorites: “You can observe a lot by watching.”
Join Cindy for a class or program this Autumn!
Tuesday, October 11, 2022 (7-8:30 p.m.)—The Tallgrass Prairie; An Introduction hosted by Twig & Bloom Garden Club, Glen Ellyn, IL. This is a closed event for members. For information on joining the club, visit their Facebook page here.
Friday, October 14, 2022 (10-11 a.m.)—-A Brief History of Trees in America. Discover the enchanting role trees have played in our nation’s history. Think about how trees are part of your personal history, and explore trees’ influence in American literature, music, and culture. Hosted by the Elgin Garden Club and the Gail Borden Public Library District, Main Branch, 270 North Grove Avenue, Meadows Community Rooms. In person. Free and open to the public, but you must register. Find more information here.
Thursday, October 20, 2022 (10:15-11:30a.m.)—The Garden’s Frequent Fliers: Dragonflies and Damselflies, Lincolnshire Garden Club, Vernon Hills, IL. This is a closed event for members only. For information on joining this club, please visit their website here.
Nature Writing II –Four Thursdays–October 27, November 3, 10, and 17, 2022, (9 to 11:30 a.m., in-person). Offered by The Morton Arboretum. Experiment with a variety of styles and techniques as you continue to develop your own voice. The same qualities of good writing apply to everything from blogs to books! No matter your background or interest, become the writer you always dreamt you could be. Register here.
Save Bell Bowl Prairie! Click here to see what you can do to help persuade airport officials to preserve this important Illinois prairie remnant.
Beautiful Schulenberg Prairie Photo Exhibit! Local friends—don’t miss the MAPS special exhibit: “Seasons of the Schulenberg Prairie”, commemorating its 60th year. Sponsored by The Morton Arboretum from October 12-16. Free with Arboretum admission. For details, click here.
“Ah summer! What power you have to make us suffer and like it.” — Russell Baker
Happy Summer Solstice! The longest day of the year.
And hello, first day of summer, astronomically speaking. We’re on track for one of the hottest days in the Chicago Region this year. Our local WGN weather bureau forecasts a high of 99 degrees and a heat index in the triple digits. Whew! Not a record, but close enough to make a little shade sound good.
We need rain. Despite this, the prairies overflow with flowers.
As I hike three prairies across two states this week, I chant the wildflower names to refresh my memory. Scurfy pea.
Bumblebees work the white wild indigo as the air hums with humidity.
Ants explore goat rue.
There are so many insects associated with these prairie wildflowers! So many insects unfamiliar to me. The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know.
I pause to admire a dragonfly, performing his balancing act.
I love the male twelve-spotted skimmer; one of the easiest dragonflies to remember. It looks just as you’d expect from the name. As I get older, and my recall is less reliable, I’ll take any low hanging fruit I can get.
And don’t get me started on the juvenile birds…
…which may look different than their parents.
I spot my first buckeye butterfly of the season. Those rich colors!
Then I puzzle over some wildflowers whose name I struggle to remember. I snap a photo with iNaturalist, my phone app.
Wild four o’clocks! A non-native in Illinois. And this one?
I have to look it up with my app, then revisit Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rericha’s Flora of the Chicago Region when I return home. Venus’ looking glass is a weedy native, but no less pretty for that.
Well, at least I can identify these mammals without an app. No problem with the scientific name, either.
I love the juxtaposition of the bison against the semis on the highway. A reminder of the power of restoration.
All these wonders under June skies.
So much waiting to be discovered.
Hello, summer. Welcome back!
Russell Baker (1925-2019) was a columnist for the New York Times who won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, Growing Up. He also followed Alistair Cooke as the host of Masterpiece Theater.
Join Cindy for a Class or Program this Month
Wednesdays,June 22 and June 29: “100 Years Around the Morton Arboretum” –with Cindy and Library Collections Manager and Historian Rita Hassert at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL. Enjoy stories of the past that commemorate this very special centennial. Join us in person June 22 from 6:30-8:30 pm (special exhibits on view for 30 minutes before the talk) by registering here (only a few spots left!); join us on Zoom June 29, 7-8:30 p.m. by registering here. Masks required for the in-person presentation.
“Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder.” — E.B. White
Happy February! January 2022 has come and gone, and with it the realization that I haven’t set in motion some of my New Year’s resolutions. I thought I would have accomplished more of them by now.
But—I’ve been readingAtomic Habits, a new book about getting stuff done, and I’m a little less discouraged by what I haven’t accomplished yet. I’ve got a plan for February. There’s always tomorrow.
One habit that hasn’t been difficult to maintain is hiking, despite the cold. This weekend, Jeff and I headed for the Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, a remnant black soil prairie not far from our home.
I love the juxtaposition of city and tallgrass at this site. The sky seems so immense.
So much sunshine! So much snow. It almost calls for sunglasses. We shield our eyes with our hands instead.
The clouds look newly-laundered in the cold, fresh air. It’s a lovely day to be outside, despite the chilly temperature.
Wolf Road Prairie is crossed with sidewalks, the ghost skeleton of a subdivision that was almost built here in the 1920s. The Great Depression put an end to it. Jeff always loves scraping aside the snow to find the old walkways.
Because of the Save the Prairie Society, a group of people who saw the value of this remnant, Wolf Road Prairie was preserved instead of developed again in the 1970s. Rather than a subdivision, we have this wide-open space, with more than 360 species of native plants.
I don’t have anything against subdivisions. I live in one. But as I hike, I am grateful for the vision of those who recognized this high quality prairie remnant for the special place it was, and ensured it lives on. We have plenty of subdivisions in the Chicago region. Almost all our prairie remnants like this one are gone.
On our hike, we bump into Wyatt Widmer, the site steward, and a group of volunteers out cutting brush and herbiciding woody plants. It’s inspiring to see them caring for this 82-acre preserve; the prairie—and savanna and wetland—that has brought Jeff and me so much pleasure for so many years. People are an important part of prairie.
Seeing them working is a timely reminder that the prairies which seem so “natural” are kept healthy and vibrant today by dedicated staff and volunteers and the sweat equity they invest. Today, without people to put fire to the last of the prairies, weed and cut brush, and collect seeds and redistribute them, what’s left of our Illinois prairies would eventually disappear. Prairies need our help.
As I hike, I think about the prairie where I’m a steward. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to finish my management plan with my co-steward and the natural resources staff at the Arboretum where I volunteer. It feels a little overwhelming to get it done. Our 100-acre prairie has endless numbers of potential projects. What to tackle first?
After conducting a plant inventory in 2016, our group is anxious to replace some of the plants that have gone missing; get them back into circulation. But how to choose? Where to start? We also have a brush problem. A reed canary grass issue. And sumac? Don’t get me started.
Seeing these volunteers and the site steward working at Wolf Road Prairie prods me to finish that plan. February is a good time to dream, to make lists, and to be pro-active, rather than re-active. February is a good time to get things done.
I want to be intentional about how the new season on the prairie unfolds.
But of course…
…the prairie has a mind of its own.
No matter how many lists I make, plants I order, or projects I envision, Mother Nature will have a say in what happens this year. There will be random events; occurrences I can’t plan for.
Drought, windstorms, flooding, hungry mammals, and yes—Covid—may all play a role in our 2022 season. Even the best planning won’t ensure 100% execution and success.
But a plan is necessary. And part of my management plan is to be flexible.
To adapt to whatever comes in 2022. To remind myself that when my planning fails, there’s always next year. Keep moving forward. Step by step. Little by little.
Good reminders, for the prairie and for myself. We’ll see how it goes.
The opening quote is from E. B. White (1899-1985), who was the author of several beloved children’s books including Charlotte’s Web.Writers also know him as the co-author of The Elements of Style. Early in his newspaper career, he was fired by The Seattle Times, and later went to Alaska to work on a fireboat. When he eventually joined the staff of The New Yorker, he was painfully shy, and would only come into the office on Thursdays. There, he met his eventual wife Katharine, the magazine’s literary editor, whose son Roger Angell from her first marriage is the baseball writer and fiction editor at The New Yorker today. In the introduction to Charlotte’s Web, White is quoted as saying “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” It showed.
Join Cindy for a class or program this winter!
February 8-March 1 (Three evenings, 6:30-9pm): The Foundations of Nature Writing Online —Learn the nuts and bolts of excellent nature writing and improve your wordsmithing skills in this online course from The Morton Arboretum. Over the course of four weeks, you will complete three self-paced e-learning modules and attend weekly scheduled Zoom sessions with your instructor and classmates. Whether you’re a blogger, a novelist, a poet, or simply enjoy keeping a personal journal, writing is a fun and meaningful way to deepen your connection to the natural world. February 8, noon Central time: Access self-paced materials online. February 15, 22, and March 1, 6:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Central time: Attend live. Register here.
March 3–Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online –online class with assignments over 60 days; one live Zoom together. Digitally explore the intricacies of the tallgrass prairie landscape and learn how to restore these signature American ecosystems. Look at the history of this particular type of grassland from the descent of glaciers over the Midwest millions of years ago to the introduction of John Deere’s famous plow to where we are today. We will examine different types of prairie, explore the plant and animal communities of the prairie, and discuss strategies specific to restoring prairies in this engaging online course. Come away with a better understanding of prairies and key insights into how to restore their beauty. You will have 60 days to access the materials. 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.
“Mornings were cooler and crisper than before. The ever-lengthening shapes of afternoon shadows seemed drawn more irresistibly into the night. Fields were rough and tweedy, as though an old brown woolen jacket had been thrown over them to ward off the chill.” — Vincent G. Dethier
Oh, wow, October. The prairie is stunning. Although it’s not to everyone’s taste.
“No flowers,” say some of my friends. Yes, the blooming flowers now are few. Goldenrods. Asters.
They melt into the grasses, slowly becoming invisible. Going. Going. Gone—to seed.
Most prairie wildflowers have closed shop for the season.
They surrender to the inevitable with elegance.
Ravenous insects glean whatever is left for the taking.
So many insects.
They make themselves at home in the prairie wildflower remains.
Autumn trickles through my fingers.
Each day seems over before I’ve fully woken up. I remind myself, “Pay attention!” But—the prairie is beginning to blur. I rub my eyes and try to focus. So many seeds. So much grass.
It’s all about the grass.
Loops and whoops and swoops of grass.
Even my old enemy, the invasive reed canary grass on the prairie, shimmers in the morning dew.
The wind sighs as it sifts the grasses. The coda is near.
What new wonders will unfold?
I only know this: The wonders will be more nuanced. Less easily available as immediate eye candy than when in the growing season. But no less remarkable.
We’ll have to pause. Think. Absorb. Take time to look. To really look.
Why not go for a hike and see? Now. Before the snow flies?
The prairie is waiting.
Vincent G. Dethier (1915-1993) was an entomologist and physiologist, and the author of Crickets and Katydids, Concerts and Solos from which the opening blog post quote was taken. This is a delightful book and accessible to anyone who loves natural history, or who has found joy in the grasshoppers, crickets and katydids of the tallgrass prairie. It takes a little extra work to find the book at your library. Well worth the effort.
Thanks to Nature Revisited Podcast for their interview with Cindy about dragonflies and prairie! Click here to listen to it on Youtube.
Thanks to Benedictine University for airing:Conservation: The Power of Storywith Cindy as part of their Jurica-Suchy Nature Museum “Science Speaker Series.” See it on Youtube here.
Thank you to Mark and Jess Paulson for their tour of the Great Western Prairie this week. I was so grateful to see it through your eyes!
Join Cindy for a Program or Class!
Tallgrass Prairie Ecology: Opens online Monday, Nov.1 –Are you a prairie steward or volunteer who wants to learn more about the tallgrass? Do you love hiking the prairie, but don’t know much about it? Enjoy a self-paced curriculum with suggested assignments and due dates as you interact with other like-minded prairie lovers on the discussion boards. Then, join Cindy for a live Zoom Friday, November 12, noon to 1 p.m. CST. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. See more details here.
Winter Prairie Wonders: Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass!Dec. 3 (Friday) 10-11:30 am (CST): Make yourself a cup of hot tea, snuggle under a warm afghan, and join prairie steward and writer Cindy Crosby virtually for this interactive online immersion into the tallgrass prairie in winter. See the aesthetic beauty of the snow-covered grasses and wildflowers in cold weather through colorful images of winter on the prairies. Follow animal tracks to see what creatures are out and about, and see how many you can identify. Learn how birds, pollinators, and mammals use winter prairie plants; the seeds for nourishment and the grasses and spent wildflowers for overwintering, protection, and cover. Then, listen as Cindy shares brief readings about the prairie in winter that will engage your creativity and nourish your soul. This is scheduled as a Zoom event through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.
Save Bell Bowl Prairie!
Please visit www.savebellbowlprairie.org to learn about the planned destruction of a special gravel prairie remnant by the Chicago-Rockford Airport in Rockford, IL. Ask them to reroute their construction. Discover how you can help save this home of the federally-endangered Rusty Patched Bumble Bee. The remnant is slated for bulldozing on November 1. Every small action by those who love prairies will help!
“There is another alphabet, whispering from every leaf, singing from every river, shimmering from every sky.”–Dejan Stojanovic
Do you know your August prairie ABC’s? Let’s go for a hike in the tallgrass together and take a look at a few.
A is for Ashy Sunflower, a harbinger of late summer.
B is for Big Bluestem, Illinois’ state grass; Missouri’s as well.
C is for TallCoreopsis, in full bloom at a prairie near you. Collecting seeds from this plant in October is an exercise in smelly hands. Such a pretty plant; such stinky seeds.
D is for Dragonfly, those glints of glowing color across the grasses.
E is for Echinacea, the purple coneflower, attracting pollinators. Its sister plant, the pale purple coneflower, is more likely to be found on prairies in my area.
F is for Flowering Spurge, Euphorbia corollata, in the same genus as poinsettia.
G is for Gaura, one of the few August pinks.
H is for Hawk, which spirals on thermals high overhead. Sometimes, a little reminder floats down into the tallgrass.
I is for Indigo, now going to black-podded seed. Will the weevils save any seeds for us? Difficult to know. This pod has been ransacked.
J is for Joe Pye Weed, that butterfly magnet on the prairie’s edges.
K is for Kankakee Sands, where bison roam.
L is for Liatris, in full purple splendor this month.
M is for Monarch, the Midwest’s poster child for pollination and conservation. Glad they are having such a good year in Illinois.
N is for New England Aster; the first blooms are all the buzz on the prairie.
O is for Oenothera biennis, the common evening primrose, that staple of every farm lane and roadside wildflower stand. It’s native and occurs in every county of Illinois.
P is for Prairie Dropseed. Love the smell? Or hate it? People are divided! I’m a fan.
Q is for Queen Anne’s Lace, that pretty invasive that is celebrated in a Mary Oliver poem and the impetus for many volunteer workdays on the prairie.
R is for Ragweed, an unwelcome native. Poor, innocent goldenrod! It often takes the rap for ragweed’s allergy-producing pollen. Aaaahhhhhh-choo! Although goldenrod isn’t completely innocent. It’s a take-over specialist on the tallgrass prairie.
S is forSilphiums; the cup plant, prairie dock, compass plant, and rosin weed. They are having a banner year in my part of prairie country.
T is for prairie Trails, that lead to adventure.
U is for Underground, where prairie roots plunge 15 or more feet deep, sequestering carbon. Like an upside-down forest.
V is for Vervain, both blue and hoary.
W is for Waterways; the ponds, streams, and rivers that cradle life on the prairies.
X is for sphinXmoths, which pollinate rare plants like the eastern prairie fringed orchid. Here’s one enjoying a wild bergamot bloom.
Y is for Yellow. The prairie is sprinkled with gold this month.
Z is for the Zip and Zag of black swallowtail butterflies, fluttering from flower to flower.
Now you know my August ABC’s. How many of these plants and prairie critters can you find on a prairie near you? What favorites would you add to my August prairie alphabet? Leave me a comment below, and let me know. Then go for a hike and see them for yourself.
Dejan Stojanovic (1959-), whose quote opens this blog post, is a Serbian poet.
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 and Covid protocol.
New to the prairie? Want to introduce a friend or family member to the tallgrass? Check out The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction (Northwestern University Press). No jargon, no technical terms — just a fun guide to navigating prairie hikes and developing a deeper relationship with the beautiful grasslands that make the Midwest special.
“The month of June trembled like a butterfly.” —Pablo Neruda
Mother Nature ushered in the summer solstice Sunday with plenty of drama; severe drought here in my part of Illinois, followed later that night by wicked thunderstorms and a tornado touchdown nine miles from our house. If it was March, we’d say the solstice “came in like a lion.” Our hearts go out to those affected by the storm.
Weather aside, it’s been a week full of wonders in the tallgrass.
While chasing dragonflies at Nachusa Grasslands, I spotted a dozen or so regal fritillary butterflies, flying through the pale purple coneflowers, prairie coreopsis, and white wild indigo.
And almost always—a dragonfly. Seeing them is often the stated motivation for so many of my summer prairie hikes.
But even when I’m monitoring, clipboard in hand, my prairie hikes are about so much more than counting dragonflies. I go for the solace I feel under a wide-open prairie sky.
The joy of discovery. The delight of the unexpected.
My body is tuned to “prairie time.” The signs of summer are there to be read in the opening of wildflowers, the arrival of birds, the explosion of insects, the shifts of weather. The prairie tells us we are closing in on the Fourth of July. How? Lead plant lights its floral fireworks.
The orderly unfolding of summer on the prairie is a reassurance in a time where we crave normalcy. The tallgrass is a spendthrift; it keeps on giving. Brimming with bugs, overflowing with wildflowers.
There is so much to take in.
So much to be grateful for.
The opening quote is from the poem “The Month of June” by Chilean poet and politician Pablo Neruda (1904-1973). Neruda won the Nobel Prize for Literature (1971) and is known for his passionate love poems.
Join Cindy for a program or class this summer!
Beginning Dragonfly and Damselfly ID: online Monday, July 12 and Wednesday, July 14 (two-part class) 10-11:30 am. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. The first session is an introduction to the natural history of the dragonfly, with beautiful images and recommended tools and techniques for identification of species commonly found in northern and central Illinois. You will then put your skills to work outside on your own during the following week in any local preserve, park, or your own backyard. The second session will help you with your field questions and offer more advanced identification skills. To conclude, enjoy an overview of the cultural history of the dragonfly—its place in art, literature, music, and even cuisine! You’ll never see dragonflies in the same way again. To register, click here.
Virtual Summer Prairie Wildflower Walk: Offered through The Morton Arboretum. No matter where you live, join us on Zoom to see the amazing summer tallgrass prairie wildflowers and hear their stories of uses in medicine, folklore, poetry, and even as love charms! 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.