Author Discusses the Joys of the Tallgrass Prairie

Willa Cather, one of my favorite authors, once described the Midwest (especially Nebraska) as a “Sea of Grass.” But farms, miles of pavement, and cities and suburbs have replaced much of this vast ecosystem. This is especially true in Illinois, which is misleadingly known as the “Prairie State.” Approximately 60 percent of Illinois, or about 22 million acres, once was prairie. Today, only about 2,300 acres of high-quality prairie remain.

Prairies are a special part of our natural world, and they’re sometimes overlooked amidst the forests of the Midwest, as well as our beautiful Great Lakes. But a walk in a prairie is a wonderful thing in any season. It is an antidote to the troubles of the modern world. My favorite prairie spot in Chicagoland is Visitation Prairie, which offers peace and solitude that can rival the remotest monastery; prairie grasses that grow as tall as LeBron James in the summer; and Evening Primrose, Goldenrod, Prairie Sunflower, New England Aster, and other striking wildflowers as beautiful as my wife. In fact, many call Visitation Prairie the most-isolated spot in Cook County (quite an achievement in a county with 5.2 million people). If you’d like to learn more about this special place, check out my story, Cap Sauers Holding Nature Preserve: The Wildest Place in Cook County.

But I’m just a prairie lover, not an expert, so the best thing that I can do to help you learn about tallgrass prairies and some excellent places to see them in Chicagoland is to share my interview with Cindy Crosby, the author of Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit, The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction, and Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural and Cultural History (forthcoming in 2020). Crosby also teaches natural history subjects, regularly speaks to conservation groups and other organizations, and is a steward at the 3,500-acre-plus Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, Illinois, and steward supervisor at the Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois.

Q. What is a tallgrass prairie, and what can visitors can expect to see, hear, and otherwise experience when they visit these areas?

A. Tallgrass prairies are incredibly diverse communities of living things, found only in North America. They are communities whose plants have adapted to fire. Grasses predominate. There are also many different species of colorful wildflowers, which bloom from spring to fall. Specific grassland birds (bobolink, Henslow’s sparrow), reptiles (Ornate box turtle), mammals (bison), and insects are residents you’ll find on a prairie.

If you took a walk with me on the prairie right now, the first thing you might notice is the prairie has been burned! Prescribed burns are going on all over the Chicago region at this time. This cycle of fire allows the prairie to survive and thrive. It replaces Mother Nature’s lightning strikes, which used to fire the tallgrass, as well as the actions of Native Americans, who set fire to the prairie for various reasons. Without fire, the prairie would potentially become woodland.

After the burn, walk the prairie and you’ll notice the first green shoots of grasses and wildflowers spearing through the ashy soil. In early spring, the first prairie wildflowers—light lavender pasque flower, some of the deep purple and blue violets, buttery yellow wood betony—will come into bloom. Listen as sandhill cranes fly over, their aerial calligraphy clearly visible in that big blue prairie sky and their calls reaching ears three miles away.

Shooting star wildflowers follow, clouds of pink across the bright green of the new growth. White wild indigo blooms. Grassland birds, like dickcissels with their namesake call, begin to be heard. Native bees buzz around the wildflowers, adding their sound and motion to the warming days.

Calico pennant dragonfly (female), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL

Summer is many people’s favorite time to stroll the tallgrass. Traditionally, the Fourth of July is when you see an explosion of wildflower color on the prairie.  Yellow coreopsis, pale purple coneflower, white airy flowering spurge—too many different wildflowers and colors to count! If you only go one time a year, make this your day. The grasses make their move, and in a good precipitation year, will top your shoulders by mid-August. Compass plant and prairie dock thrust their periscope-like yellow blooms over your head. The thwack of dragonfly wings, the hum of insect life, the plop of a turtle into a prairie stream—together, they create a mesmerizing soundtrack for your hike.

Compass plant at Fermilab prairie, Batavia, IL (copyright Cindy Crosby)

Fall brings a palette of metallics to the prairie: the steel flushed with red of big bluestem; the golds of switchgrass and Indian grass. The seedpods of white wild indigo rattle on windy days. A last flush of purple asters and goldenrod nourish migrating monarchs headed for Mexico. The look and sound of the tallgrass in the wind has been compared to the ocean, and rightfully so. It’s mesmerizing just to stand and watch the grasses rippling in the wind; see the diversity of seeds that promise new growth in the coming year.

In winter, the tracks of small members of the mammal community give us glimpses into prairie life we might not always see. Voles tunnel under snowbanks. The tunnels are often laced with coyote tracks, and sometimes a bit of fur tells you the age-old story of life and death. When an ice storm hits the prairie, as happened several times this winter in the Chicago region, the prairie is transformed into something glittering and other-worldly. In the early mornings or evenings, you might see “sundogs” on your hike; colorful prisms of light thrown by the ice crystals in the sky. The prairie gives you a front-row view of it all.

Every season on the prairie has its own astonishments. Why not go out and take a look?

Viceroy butterfly on Culver’s root, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL

Q. What captivates you about tallgrass prairies? 

A. What doesn’t captivate me? Well, maybe the mosquitoes! Seriously, the tallgrass prairie is a community so diverse, you could spend the rest of your life learning the names of all of its individuals—from plants to birds to insects—and still find something new to discover every day. The prairie changes from moment to moment. To see it at dawn is a different experience than at sunset. To walk it on a rainy day is to see it with different eyes than when you walk it in sunshine, or snow, or fog. Each discovery you make leads you to new discoveries. As an example: learning the prairie plants led me to a passion for dragonflies and damselflies that I saw hovering around the blooms and around the grasses. As I monitored dragonflies, I became infatuated with prairie moths. And so on…. There is no end to what will entrance and delight you on the Illinois tallgrass prairie.

Bison with babies, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL

Q. What are some of your favorite tallgrass prairies to visit in Chicagoland? 

A. I spend a lot of time hiking Belmont Prairie, a remnant prairie in Downers Grove, Illinois. Because I’m a steward at the 3,500-acre-plus Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, Illinois (close to Dixon), I shoot a lot of photos there and write about it at length. Nachusa is special because of its herd of genetically-pure bison, introduced in 2014, and it has more than 700 species of plants and approximately 200 species of birds. Nachusa has about 200-plus acres of remnant, as well as planted prairie. [Note from Andrew Morkes: Click here for more bison viewing spots in the Midwest.} I spend the most time at the Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois, just outside Chicago. Its 100 acres comprise the fourth-oldest planted prairie in the world. I’ve been the steward at the Schulenberg Prairie for eight years, and it was the first prairie I volunteered at when we moved to Illinois 20 years ago. It’s near and dear to my heart! I lead a group of volunteers there each week in the warmer months to care for that precious piece of land.

Each week, at Tuesdays in the Tallgrass, I blog about different prairies in the Chicago region and beyond. There is a great range of tallgrass prairies to visit, all of them unique, all of them interesting. Consider Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, which has some remaining remnant prairie and is in the process of being planted with new prairie. It will be approximately 20,000 acres. Wow! Compare this to St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, a prairie remnant adjacent to a small cemetery plot of two acres behind a concrete mixing plant in Carol Stream, Illinois. Very difficult to visit, and a world away from Midewin! The 55-acre Wolf Road Prairie is fascinating because of its history—you can see the sidewalks for the proposed housing development that never happened still half-hidden in the soil. Such different prairies! I also love hiking Fermilab’s prairies—such a vision Bob Betz and the prairie volunteers had for this site. Crazy to see prairie and particle accelerators rubbing shoulders. College of DuPage should be applauded for its fine prairie plantings, different from any above and accessible to a constant stream of Illinois students.

And of course, my little prairie patch in the backyard isn’t open for visitors, but I love watching it grow and change up close through the seasons. I’ve got about 25 species of native prairie plants, and am always trying to squeeze in more!

It’s tough to stop naming prairies! So many good ones I’ve left out here. But it is a start.

Prairie dock, Crosby’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL

Q. What is the status of tallgrass prairies in Chicagoland? What can people do to preserve and protect tallgrass prairies?

A. Before European settlement, Illinois had at least 22 million acres of tallgrass prairie that covered about two-thirds of the state. Today, we have only about 2,300 acres of high-quality, or “remnant” prairie left. Tallgrass prairie is only found in North America, and it is one of the most threatened ecosystems on Earth. Helping plant new prairies is a great way to foster appreciation for prairie in the “Prairie State.” Ensuring “remnant” prairies—those few, precious remaining tracts of original unplowed prairie—are not developed or destroyed is critical. A planted prairie is not the same as a remnant prairie, although planted prairies are amazing! Once our remnant prairie acres are gone, they are gone forever.

Prairies need people. Volunteering to care for a prairie in your community will help prairies stay healthy and free from weedy invasive plants and tree encroachment. Planting prairie plants in your backyard or local park will expose their beauty and diversity to a great number of people, and benefit pollinators. If you are an artist, musician, poet, novelist, dancer, metalsmith, textile worker—see what inspiration the prairie has for you! Then, share prairie in your own special way with others. Help them engage and connect with this beautiful, diverse landscape—our landscape of home in the Chicago region.

Q. Can you tell me about your books, Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit, The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction, and Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural and Cultural History

A. Each book celebrates a different aspect of the prairie.

The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction (Northwestern University Press, 2017) is written for those who have heard about or visited a prairie, but are unsure what it is, exactly! Why is it important? Why should they care? I wrote it based on my own experience of coming to the prairie 20 years ago without a science background, and struggling to make sense of what some of my friends called “a weedy mess.” It’s written for those who don’t have a lot of prairie experience, but want to learn more about these fascinating places. I recommend it for those just getting to know the prairie, those without a science background (all the terminology, like “native plants” or “mesic” are explained in the book), or those who love prairie and want to share it with friends and family who don’t understand why they spend so much time out there! Prairie volunteers are ideal readers of this book, as it tells you everything from what a prairie is to how to dress to go out there! My hope is prairie stewards will buy this book to share with their new and returning volunteers. It’s short, basic, the tone is friendly and warm, and the book fits in your pocket.

Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit (with co-author Thomas Dean, Ice Cube Press, April 2019) is a series of  writings with full-color photography on every page, designed to engage the hearts and minds of people who wonder “What’s so great about prairies?” The “conversations” between co-author Thomas Dean and myself—short readings—include what the prairie tells us about joy, loss, home, change, restoration, and more. We hope that it will encourage and inspire people who already love prairies, and also engage a whole new contingent of folks who didn’t realize prairie had anything to say to them—and they’ll be inspired to fall in love with prairie and protect and conserve it, too! This book had some great sponsors: The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Friends of Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge, The Center for Prairie Studies at Grinnell College, and The Tallgrass Prairie Center at the University of Northern Iowa. The full-color photography on every page is a direct result of their generous funding.

Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural and Cultural History (Northwestern University Press, Spring 2020) came out of the work I do on the prairie literally “chasing dragonflies.” I’ve been a monitor on the prairies for more than a dozen years at The Morton Arboretum, half a dozen years at Nachusa Grasslands, and now I help coordinate the programs on both sites. This is part memoir, part stories from the field, and part investigation into the many mysteries surrounding dragonflies. From some species migration, to a dragonfly’s bizarre sex life, to their symbolic movement from ugly denizen of the deep emerging to a creature of jeweled flight. I’m very excited about this book; I’m just finishing the draft of it this month. Dragonflies don’t get the press of their more glamorous kissing cousins, the butterflies, and they deserve a wider audience.

I’m always adding more about my speaking and teaching on prairies and dragonflies in the Chicago Region at www.cindycrosby.com. Please check it out!

Cindy Crosby holds copyright to her interview

Photos, copyright Cindy Crosby, used with permission

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4 thoughts on “Author Discusses the Joys of the Tallgrass Prairie

  1. A beautiful description of your love of prairies and interview with another person who shares your love. An interesting comment is I selected Willa Cather to write a paper in high school describing one of my favorite authors. I was consumed with writings of the Westward movement, plaines, prairie and open spaces. Sadly, I have little recall of the content of that paper but do remember the joy in what she wrote.

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    Liked by 1 person

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