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Reviewed by:
  • The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction by Cindy Crosby
  • Laura Jackson
Cindy Crosby, The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 2017. 128 pp. Paper, $19.95.

The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction is a small, inviting volume written for a first-time visitor to the prairie, a primer for the uninitiated, and a start-from-scratch guidebook for prairie volunteers. The author knows her audience: she is a longtime volunteer leader at the Morton Arboretum's famed Schulenberg Prairie and a land steward at the Nature Conservancy's immense Nachusa Grasslands, both in Illinois.

Chapter topics include

a sketch of the history of prairie in North America, where it was, and how it was mostly lost;

a collection of perspectives on what the prairie means to people and why they fall in love with it;

scientific plant names, why they are needed, and tips on how to remember them;

tantalizing tidbits on wild edible and medicinal plants;

prairie management—burning, invasive species control, and seed collection;

information on how to encounter prairie animals and use your senses to really engage with the prairie while understanding the sensitivity of the prairie to thoughtless digging or trampling;

tips for how to dress comfortably and deal with the heat, cold, ticks, and other bad ouchies that can ruin a good prairie encounter;

techniques for using prairie in your urban and suburban landscaping that avoid neighbor conflicts. [End Page 467]

A Glossary explains all the words in bold in the text.

A major strength of Crosby's book is that it doesn't assume any prior knowledge of or even affinity for prairie or natural areas. The reader could be just stepping out of a car in a parking lot, not sure what he or she is looking at or why it's there.

As one might expect, there is a judicious sprinkling of quotes from prominent botanists, early settlers, and founders of the movement to rediscover and restore the lost tallgrass prairie landscape. The topics are brought to life most effectively with brief stories from the author's experiences working with volunteers and visitors. Crosby works this to great advantage and conveys with clarity the care and affection she feels for the uninitiated.

A recurring idea motivating this little book is the meditative, spiritual reward of losing oneself, immersed in the sensory world of nature. A tricky business: countless nature writers have proselytized with mixed results. The satirist Oscar Wilde, living during a particularly effusive period of English nature writing, evidently rebelled: although I cannot locate the exact quote, he is said to have defined "nature" as a place where "birds fly around uncooked." Crosby's book certainly proselytizes, but the tone is genuine and ultimately beguiling. Botanically accurate artistic line drawings of prairie plants by Nancy S. Hart contribute to the overall effect.

Crosby's experiences are rooted in the Chicago region, where an admirable tradition of volunteerism has flourished for over thirty years. Other parts of the upper Midwest tallgrass prairie region need another model. The small towns are growing ever smaller, rural schools consolidating, and a desert of corn and soybeans separates people and prairies from one another. Yet the need has never been greater to introduce prairie to agricultural landowners, whether resident or absentee, and farm operators. This book, in message and style, provides inspiration. [End Page 468]

Laura Jackson
University of Northern Iowa


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pp. 467-468
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