Monday, May 15, 2023

Enjoying those Early Bloomers

Wood Betony
I recently had the opportunity to visit Nachusa Grasslands, located east of Dixon. This Nature Conservancy area has been on my bucket list for quite some time. It was an amazing place to visit, with its beautifully restored remnant prairies, along with a wetland and savanna, not to mention bison grazing on the prairies. Normally at this time of year I am still snooping around in the woodlands looking for spring ephemerals, but now I am also starting to venture into the prairie to see some early bloomers.

Wild Lupine
Many of the seed mixes we prescribe through our office for the Conservation Reserve Program and found in other restored prairies contain more common species and not many early blooming species. The mixes usually consist of summer forbs and later summer grass species. Even though mixes are starting to get more diverse—especially for the pollinator mixes—seeing the rarer early bloomers is a special treat for me.

It takes less than an hour to reach Nachusa from my house, so I know I will be visiting again. Since I had not taken time to do much research online before I left, I missed seeing many of the natural areas on this more than 4,000 acre site. However, what I did see impressed me, with one of the highlights, seeing six “new-to-me” wildflower species. I wandered around the prairie at the Visitor Center, an open air display area, looking at the spring species popping up in the recently burned acreage. Shooting Stars, Blue-eyed Grass, Wild Lupine, Golden Alexander, Violet Wood Sorrel, Wood Betony, Arrow-Leaved Violet, Kittentails, and Pussytoes were some beautiful and interesting wildflowers in bloom. Because the area had been freshly burned, these low to the ground forbs were easy to spot.

Once done with that portion, I turned to the north and ventured closer to where the bison were grazing and walking near the pond. Even from the distance I could watch them lumber around, graceful in their gait for such large bovines, and I could hear their sounds. Even though I have seen bison before in parks out west, it was a delight to see them in a natural setting in our Prairie State.
Violet Wood Sorrel

Pussy Toes
Once I’d seen some of the prairie, I ventured into the savanna area. Even though I thought I knew what to expect, it was much more than that. Having over a hundred acres to myself as I wandered along the trail and jumping off trail for a few photo opportunities, I was mesmerized not only by the plants I saw, but also by the plants I didn’t see. There were no maple trees choking out the oaks and hickories and no garlic mustard plants choking out the native wildflowers. It felt strange to see the same Shooting Stars I’d seen in the open prairie growing in a more shaded and wooded area. It also felt odd to see Mayapples, Wild Geraniums, and other woodland species growing in full sun. I loved the overall peaceful atmosphere of the more open woodland.
Shooting Star

I thought it was interesting to see a large culvert that acted as a travel tunnel underneath the road for bison to use when crossing from a north pasture to one to the south. I plan to revisit Nachusa to hike the wetland loop near the savanna loop. There are also hundreds of other prairie acres to explore to the north. Maybe they contain the same species I experienced near the visitor center, but I’m guessing there are many more. Since there are a total of more than 700 plant species on the Nachusa site, there is definitely another adventure or two waiting to happen in my future. I encourage you to visit this area to view plants and animals we don’t normally have a chance to see in a natural setting that more closely resembles Illinois in the past, before our rich prairie soils were converted to other uses. They don’t call Illinois the Prairie State for nothing.

Shagbark Hickory

Saturday, May 6, 2023

Friendships Across the Miles and Over the Decades

April was a wonderful whirlwind of activity for me. Not only is it a busy time at work and home, but the release of the eighth book in the Nature Station Mystery Series, April Showers, made for an even busier month. However, I enjoyed every minute of it!

I normally schedule one book event per month, sometimes two, but rarely three! April kicked off with the Bishop Hill Book Fair on April 1st. Not only was I an author participating in this event, but I was one of the organizers. Severe storms rolled through the night before, making last minute preparations a little tricky, as we made trips to the basement, and electricity flickered. As I drove to Bishop Hill in the strong winds, cool temperatures, and various forms of precipitation, looking at the devastation the storms had caused, I wondered how the turnout would be. Fortunately, book lovers don’t seem to mind venturing out in the elements to chat with local authors. I enjoyed not only networking with some of my favorite author friends, but also visiting with the loyal friends and family who stopped by to say hello and show their support and made new many new acquaintances as well.  

The next event was a much warmer and sunnier day and was held at the Wordsmith Bookshoppe in Galesburg. I’d spent the morning baking for Easter, so I had to “book it” to make it to Galesburg in time. Luckily the owner, Teri, had everything set up, and I breezed in and had a great afternoon chatting with past teachers, co-workers, dear friends of the family, local author friends, and others. It was a fun and rewarding afternoon. Teri is so supportive of local authors and does a wonderful job with her customers as well. 

My third event was held at Peck Farm Park in Geneva, a park district property. This was an Earth Day celebration and one that is well attended. The rain, sleet, snow, grappa, ice, and other precipitation forms may have prevented some people from attending, but I enjoyed visiting with those who stopped by to chat and to purchase books. I read aloud from “Rachel and Sammy Visit the Prairie,” since this property boasts a beautifully restored prairie, in addition to original outbuildings and an Italianate style house. I brought along an order of Rachel and Sammy books that will be stocked at the park’s gift shop.

While all that was wonderful, it was the meetups that took place that day that really made things shine. The night before I received a message from my college suite-mate, Heidi, telling me she lived within walking distance of the venue. She came to visit while I was setting up, and it was great to see her after several years. I had already arranged to meet my mom’s cousin, Mary, afterwards for a late lunch. Mary arrived in time to help me pack up my goods. It was fun to catch up with Mary and her husband while she showed me some local sites, and we ate a delicious lunch together.

Earlier that morning I had discovered that my friend, Matteo, from Italy was visiting his brother and family in Chicago. It didn’t work out to meet that day, but even better, we made arrangements to meet a few days later. We spent a fun day of hiking at Matthiessen and Starved Rock State Parks and catching up on thirty years of news. We had originally met at an environmental work camp in East Germany in 1990. Later that week I heard from a mutual friend from that same camp, who lives in Denmark. Pia and I had a great conversation--sharing photos and catching up on our daily lives. Ah, the wonders of technology that allow us to stay in touch across the miles. I have been blessed to be able to visit both my friends in their respective countries, as well as when they have visited the U.S.  

I also enjoyed chatting with shop owners when delivering my new releases in April. I have been doing business with some of them since my first book was published in 2010. With all these wonderful social interactions throughout the month we promised to stay in touch and meet up down the road. These are not empty promises on my part. My circle of friends is not huge, but it is long-lasting and loyal. While I am not always in the mood to be social, book events are the exception. Some authors prefer to bypass local events, but I always enjoy them. What perfect opportunities not only to showcase my work, but to also strengthen existing relationships and form new ones. 

The world is a big and scary place, but it is smaller and friendlier when you know there are people who are there for you—across the miles and throughout the decades.

Pictures taken at Matthiessen State Park