New book introduces readers to the prairie

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Cindy Crosby, author of “The Tallgrass Prairie,” leads a group through the Schulenberg Prairie. Image: Morton Arboretum

By Karen Hopper Usher

EAST LANSING — Cindy Crosby loves the prairie. But when she wanted to help new prairie fans learn more about the vanishing ecosystems, she couldn’t find a book that got the job done.

So she wrote one herself.

Crosby is a volunteer steward supervisor for the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois, where she answers new volunteers’ questions about removing invasive species like garlic mustard, planting new plants, cutting brush and doing prescribed burns on the prairie.

There are a few great books to which she can refer volunteers, Crosby said. But those books are more than 300 pages long, and people don’t want to read them.

Crosby’s book is less than half that length, and it’s physically small, like a field guide. It covers topics ranging from species identification to planting prairie plants in a home garden.

Megan Dunning, manager of adult learning programs at the arboretum, has been looking for years for a single book she can give to students.

“I think this might be the book,” said Dunning.

It’s not hard to get people interested in the prairie, Dunning said.

“The prairie is a very compelling landscape” that sparks the imagination, she said.

Crosby is a steward supervisor at the Morton Arboretum’s Schulenberg Prairie in Lisle, Illinois. Image: Morton Arboretum

But it’s also a disappearing landscape.

In Illinois, two-thirds of the state was once tallgrass prairie. But more than 99 percent of the tallgrass prairie is gone with just over 2,000 acres remaining.

Prairies were the first areas converted to agricultural purposes because of the rich soil, and the absence of trees meant settlers didn’t need to clear the land, said Ryan O’Connor, a conservation biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Prairies are rarer than tropical rainforests, O’Connor said. Prairies and savannas also support more rare species than any other habit type in the upper Midwest. Many of the species are “prairie specialists” that don’t live anywhere else.

Information that inspires and educates people about prairies is a great thing, O’Connor said.

“What we need most is for people to support prairie conservation however they can,” he said. That can include volunteering as stewards, funding conservation or supporting prairie management organizations.

One such organization is Tallgrass Ontario, which was formed in the 1990s because of a report by the World Wildlife Fund on the state of grasslands.

Outreach and education were important early in the group’s operations, said Graham Buck, a past president of Tallgrass Ontario’s board. But the group’s focus has shifted as the public has become more aware of tallgrass prairies.

Still, “a book directed toward the layman is very important,” because many of the books that do exist are about the shortgrass prairies which are more common closer to the Rocky Mountains, Buck said. Heavy rainfall farther east of the mountains allows the grasses to grow taller.

“A book is a great start” to learning about prairies, O’Connor said. “But I would recommend people get out and visit a prairie with a naturalist or a guide that can talk to them about the plants or animals.”

Crosby also recommends visiting a prairie.

Walk slowly, touch the plants and listen to the sounds, she said. “I guarantee you’ll get hooked.”

The Tallgrass Prairie” comes out on April 20 from Northwestern University Press and has a pre-order price of $19.95 on Amazon.com.

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