Tag Archives: Woolly Bear

Fire Season

Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.” -Gilda Radner

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The smell of smoke drifts through our open windows. A few miles away, a white plume rises.

Fire! Prescribed fire.

At the forest preserves, the Arboretum, and conservation sites, flames creep along the woodland floor. Embers smolder. A tree chain smokes.

It’s prescribed burn season in the woodlands, and even on a few prairies and wetlands. In the Chicago region, a stream of blessedly warm, dry days have made conditions right for fire.

Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.

Fall burns are a management tool stewards and site staff use to encourage healthy natural areas. Spring burns will follow in 2021. In late winter or early spring, we burn the tallgrass prairies.

Because of COVID in 2020, many prairie stewards and staff were unable to gather in large groups to use prescribed fire. For those of us used to seeing this predictable cycle of the prairie season, the unburned prairies—now tangled and tall—were one more curveball in an unpredictable year.

I missed the usual spring dance of fire and flammable grasses; the swept-clean slate of a newly-burned prairie this March. Early wildflowers were difficult to find, buried under the thatch of last-year’s Indian grass and big bluestem. The prairies, untouched by flame, seemed out of kilter all summer. Alien.

This spring, prairie willows flowered. For the first time in remembrance on one prairie where I volunteer, prairie roses put on second year growth. Now, in November, the willows are thick and tall. Bright rose hips are sprinkled through the brittle grasses.

Although I’m not working on the fire crews this season, I feel a rush of adrenaline when I see the tell-tale towers of smoke in the distance. They tell me life is back on track again. That there is some semblance of normality. Welcome back, prescribed fire.

Out with the old, in with the new. Sweep away this year. Let’s start over.

Fire can be a destructive force. But these fires are healing.

They bring the promise of rejuvenation. I know next spring and summer, the prairies, savannas, and woodlands will brim with color. Motion. New life.

As I hike the trails and drive through areas being burned, I watch the flames lick the ground clean of the remains of 2020. Hikers stop and gawk. Through the haze, cars move slowly. Driver’s rubberneck. A yellow-slickered volunteer talks to two walkers, waving her hands as she explains why they are torching the woodlands.

It’s a seeming grand finale for the plants on the woodland floor. But under the ashed soil, the roots of wildflowers and grasses wait for their encore. Spring.

Change is on the way.

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Last week, as Jeff and I hiked the prairie trails, we saw them. Woolly bear caterpillars! These forerunners of the Isabella tiger moths were a delightful appearance in the midst of a chaotic week; a sign that the regular rhythm of the seasons was in play. Their appearance was calming. I knew these woolly bears—or “woolly worms” as some southerners call them—were looking for an overwintering spot.The woolly bear’s stripes, according to folklore, predict the coming winter weather.

The small cinnamon stripe I saw on this one points to a severe winter. Hmmm.

Last autumn, the woolly bears I found had a larger cinnamon stripe than this season, indicating a mild winter. I riffled through the old digital records on Google and discovered that in 2019-2020, we had the fourth-warmest December through February period on record.

Way to predict the weather, woolly bear! Although science doesn’t put a lot of stock in these caterpillar forecasts, it’s a fun idea. It will be interesting to see how the 2020-2021 winter season shakes out, stripe-wise.

We like to know what’s coming. We want to know the future. Yet the past eight months, we’ve learned to live with ambiguity. Each day has brought its particular uncertainty—perhaps more than many of us have ever had—in one big gulp.

Life is full of ambiguity, even in the best of times. This year—when even simple rituals like meeting a friend for a morning at the coffee shop have been upended—it’s been draining. Fear and anxiety are constant companions for many of us. Some have lost loved ones. Others have grappled with an illness our medical professionals are still trying to get a handle on. And yes, even the comforting work we do on prairies and natural areas came to a stop for a while.

I’m grateful for the woolly bears, and the normal rhythm of life they represent. I’m also grateful for the fires I see, although for the 100-acre Schulenberg Prairie—like many other prairies—the prescribed burn will be set in the spring. But the mowed firebreaks are a foreshadowing of what’s to come.

New beginnings are ahead.

I feel my spirits lift, thinking about a fresh start. A new season.

I’m ready. Let’s go!

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The opening quote is from Gilda Radner (1946-1989) an original cast member of the comedy show “Saturday Night Live.” One of her best-quoted lines, “It’s always something.” She died from ovarian cancer.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby and are taken at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, unless otherwise indicated (top to bottom): smoke plume from prescribed burn, East Woods; video of prescribed burn, East Woods; tree on fire, East Woods; smoke in the East woods; ashes after prescribed burn, East Woods; Schulenberg Prairie prescribed burn (2013); Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie; New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Schulenberg Prairie; rose hips (Rosa carolina), Schulenberg Prairie; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Schulenberg Prairie; burned over prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) on the Schulenberg Prairie parking lot strip; Schulenberg Prairie Savanna in summer; prescribed burn in the East Woods; woolly bear (Pyrrharctia isabella), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; woolly bear (Pyrrharctia isabella) on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Schulenberg Prairie (2019); prescribed burn sign; mowed firebreak on the Schulenberg Prairie; bridge at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; possibly a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), West Side prairie planting.

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Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization–now booking talks for 2021. Email Cindy through http://www.cindycrosby.com.

Register for Cindy’s Literary Gardens Online: Friday, Dec.4, 1-2:30 p.m.CST– Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby from wherever you live in the world for a fun look at great (and not-so-great) gardens in literature and poetry. From Agatha Christie’s mystery series, to Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Goudge, Rumer Godden, May Sarton, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Gilbert, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, and Lewis Carroll–and many more! This class is online. Register here through The Morton Arboretum.

Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org, direct from Northwestern University Press (use coupon code NUP2020 for 25% off), or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during these unusual times.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (phrelanzer). Or visit her website at http://www.cindycrosby.com. See you there!

October Prairie Adventures

“What day is it?” asked Pooh. “It’s today,” squeaked Piglet. “My favorite day,” said Pooh. ― A.A. Milne

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The trees blushed into their autumn hues seemingly overnight, delighting leaf-peepers in the Chicago region. Under an onslaught of 35 mph wind gusts and chilly rain on Monday, these same trees gleefully tore loose their red, gold, and copper leaves, sifting them into the streets and sidewalks.

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The rain drizzled to a stop. Sunlight shafted through big-bellied clouds moving fast across the sky.  Light glinted in the swirling leaves, littering the road. It feels like fall at last.

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Suddenly, the birds nests we hunted for all summer are starkly visible. There is the oriole’s nest-purse! Right over my head! And  —So that’s where the squirrel built her drey! Tree branches stand out in start relief, some with miniature worlds to discover.

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In the 1942 book, We Took to the Woods, Louise Dickinson Rich tells of living deep in the Maine forest. She writes that she doesn’t mind the long hike to town to get the mail, as she anticipates visiting with friends. And then — “There are the woods themselves, which I like better in winter than in summer, because I like the type of design that emphasizes line rather than mass,” she writes. “The bare branches of the hardwood trees look exactly like etchings.” In autumn, I feel the same as the trees strip down to silhouettes.

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Woolly bear caterpillars are everywhere, it seems, especially if you have the focus to find them. A good way to “see” them is to take a child with you. I hiked the Schulenberg Prairie this week with my six-year-old grandson Tony looking for the last dragonflies. Only a lone green darner was hanging around, but he found eight Woolly Bears in under an hour.

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Until this October, I didn’t know Woolly Bears climb plants! Tony and I found this one  below, that had “slinky-ed” its way up into a stiff goldenrod plant.

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Later last week, I took a lovely group of women out to collect little bluestem and stiff goldenrod seeds.

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They found at least two more Woolly Bears clinging to the tops of prairie plants, again, mostly stiff goldenrod. Maybe Wilhelm and Rericha’s massive reference work,  Flora of the Chicago Region, will need to add this “insect association” to its list!

Interesting. The Woolly Bear is folklore-famous for its ability to forecast the weather. Of course, its all in fun, but I always like to see if the prediction matches the actual weather that follows. All the Woolly Bears on the Schulenberg Prairie this season seem to have predominately rust-colored bodies, with a bit of black.

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According to Farmer’s Almanac, this means a mild winter. Further reading says the Woolly Bear’s direction of travel is also a factor; if they are moving south, it means a cold winter; north is a mild winter.

No word on what it means when they crawl upwards.

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Jeff and I hiked Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve this weekend, and while we didn’t find any Woolly Bears, we did find some other fauna. Jeff was looking for a map…..

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When he opened the box, there were none. But some enterprising prairie fauna had moved in.

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Sweet! A map mouse house. We carefully closed the lid and left the tiny critters to their naps. The prairie is always full of unexpected surprises.

This was our first time hiking Westchester, Illinois’ Wolf Road Prairie in the autumn, and it was a delight. Entering from the south, you find the celebrated old sidewalks left from the subdivision that was platted and partially laid out, then abandoned back in the late 1920s during the Great Depression.  The savanna breaks into the open prairie, with the city as a backdrop. So many remnants now have this juxtaposition; the urban and suburban with the last pieces of tallgrass untouched by the plow. It’s a celebration of the determined people who saved these precious patches from development.

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As you hike, you’re reminded of the relentless reclamation of nature, when She is given the chance. The sidewalks, now almost 100 years old, are breaking up under the slow pursuit of the grasses and in one spot, the more aggressive roots of a lone cottonwood.

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Everywhere you follow the sidewalks, you see the hard-won efforts of prairie restoration stewards in the diversity of native prairie plants spread out in all directions.

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We stripped some Indian grass of its seeds and took a moment to admire them before scattering them into the prairie.

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The prairie dock leaves showed the transition between the seasons.

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The rusts of little bluestem colored the tallgrass; the late morning sun backlit the seedheads, throwing sparks of light.

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Overhead, a half-moon shadowed us as we hiked back through the savanna to our car.

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The prairie moves from wildflowers to wisps and puffs and kernels of seeds.

Trees transform themselves from welcome shady refuges with blurred edges to stripped down, sharp-cut “etchings.”

I’m embracing the change.

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Playwright and novelist A.A. Milne (1882-1956), whose quote opens this post, was a British author who penned the wildly popular Winnie the Pooh children’s books. He and his wife, Dorothy, had a son named Christopher Robin, who resented the Pooh books. The rift ended in his estrangement from his parents. The real-life Milnes are chronicled in the 2017 movie, Goodbye Christopher Robin.  Disney eventually acquired all rights for the Winnie the Pooh books and characters for $350 million in 2001. In 2005, Winnie the Pooh generated $6 billion dollars for Disney.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Unknown tree along the East Side route at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; road through the trees, East Side Route, Lisle, IL; mosses and fungi on an oak branch, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bison (Bison bison) at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (photo taken in 2017); chasing dragonflies, Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; woolly bear caterpillar (Pyrrharctia isabella) on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; seed collecting on the Schulenberg Prairie in October, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; woolly bear caterpillar (Pyrrharctia isabella), Schulenberg Prairie path, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; map box, Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; mouse family (maybe Peromyscus leucopus), Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; skyline behind the Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; sidewalk and eastern cottonwood tree (Populus deltoides), Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; blazing star (Liatris spp,), Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) seeds, Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; Jeff walks the sidewalks of the Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; half-moon over the savanna at Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

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Thanks to Robert Helfer for connecting me to the weather.gov article on Woolly Bears! I really enjoyed it.

Thanks to the Save the Prairie Society, who has worked so hard to care for the precious Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve community. What an accomplishment!

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Cindy’s upcoming classes and speaking events:

Saturday, December 7, 1:30-3 p.m.: Join Cindy and The Morton Arboretum’s library collections manager Rita Hassert for Sterling Stories from the Arboretum Stacks, at the Sterling Morton Library, Lisle, IL.  Register here. A lovely afternoon enjoying little known Arboretum’s stories, and a quiet respite from the holiday hustle and bustle.

Sunday, December 8, 2-3:30 p.m.: Tallgrass Conversations at Prairieview Education Center, 2112 Behan Road, Crystal Lake, IL 815-479-5779 Book signing after the talk! Free and open to the public.