When Cindy Crosby and her husband first moved to DuPage County in 1998, she was afraid there wouldn’t be much in the way of natural areas in the suburbs. To her delight, she discovered a wealth of natural resources to explore and enjoy in DuPage forest preserves and beyond.
Crosby is a freelance writer and a natural areas interpreter who speaks, teaches and writes about the Midwest. She’s also authored or contributed to more than 20 books, many about the natural world, which she calls her “habitat.”
She’s also a volunteer prairie steward and dragonfly monitor at The Morton Arboretum and coordinates the dragonfly monitoring program at Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL, a 4,000-acre Nature Conservancy site.
Cindy Crosby taking notes on wildflowers. Photo by Lonnie Morris courtesy of Cindy Crosby
After her son, Dustin, and daughter, Jennifer, married and left home, Crosby went back to school at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and earned her master’s degree in natural resources with a specialization in environmental interpretation in 2014. She speaks and teaches for natural areas, organizations and garden clubs in the Midwest, and her classes, programs, and blog are at cindycrosby.com.
“My husband, Jeff, is my forest preserve hiking buddy — one weekend every month, we try to choose a different forest preserve to explore,” Crosby said. “Two of our six grandchildren live in the area, and we also have many happy hours exploring the preserves with them.”
Here’s her story.
Catching the Nature Bug
I ordered my first seeds and made a garden when I was six, inspired by the Burpee seed catalog I found in my piano teacher’s magazine rack. When you plant a garden, you become an active participant in how the natural world works. You watch seeds sprout, flower, and set fruit.
Then the insects come. You learn what butterflies are interested in a particular species of flowers, and who’s going to chomp on your green beans. Then, you eat what you grew from a seed packet! You glimpse the cyclical nature of the seasons. It was all wonder and awe for me, from the “Heavenly Blue” morning glories that twined on the fence, to the tomatoes that seemed to take forever to ripen.
I grew up with a big backyard and a mother who sent me and my two younger siblings outdoors to play all day. My mom also let us raise tadpoles on the kitchen counter in an old aquarium, and clutter shelves with rock collections and other items gleaned from outdoor explorations. At night, I was allowed to climb on top of the shed roof and watch the night sky, learning a few of the major constellations. We caught lightning bugs and named cloud shapes. Such a happy childhood! I feel lucky to have had this.
My maternal grandmother was a science teacher who taught me to name things: violets, redbud trees, and what made the “whoo – whooo-whooo-whoo” call (a mourning dove). As I grew older, she made sure I had a microscope to see the tiny worlds otherwise invisible to me.
My paternal grandmother was always frustrated that I was usually dirty, sweaty, and not interested in things like dressing well or having neatly combed hair. She taught me about homemaking and cooking, which I’ll always be grateful for. Hours spent outdoors playing baseball, riding my bicycle, and fishing with my grandfather also shaped a childhood immersed in the natural world.
Discovering DuPage Forest Preserves
When we moved from a rural area to DuPage County for my husband’s work, I wasn’t very happy about living in the Chicago suburbs. Little did I know what a wealth of natural resources were here to discover. We found the forest preserves of DuPage County, and with our two teenagers, began to explore them. I launched my kayak at Blackwell’s Silver Lake, wondering at the diversity of dragonflies that glittered across the surface of the water.
A calico pennant dragonfly at Schulenberg Prairie at Morton Arboretum. Photo by Cindy Crosby
I walked my collie around Hidden Lake at sunset, where we’d sit and watch the geese and waterfowl fly in for the night. Gradually, the delights of living in the Chicago suburbs unfolded for me through the forest preserves.
Favorite Preserve and Time to Visit
Hmmm… it’s so difficult to choose! Hidden Lake Forest Preserve is the closest one to my home and the preserve where I’ve spent the most time. I’ve hiked Hidden Lake when the prairie grasses glitter with hoarfrost in the winter, and when the woolly bear caterpillars make their determined trek across the trails in the autumn.
In the spring, it’s a wonderful place to watch for migrating waterfowl and other birds — I was excited to see my first northern shoveler there. Now, I enjoy taking my grandkids there to fish in the summer, or to walk with my husband there in all weather. I love evenings at Hidden Lake when the moon rises over the high-rise buildings to the east and the clouds are colored by sunset in the west. Magic!
Blackwell Forest Preserve is where I take my kayak for a few hours of peaceful paddling. On the water, I can enjoy the play of insects, the reflections of sky and clouds, and the consolations of “alone time.” It’s also the place I’ve taken two of my grandchildren for their first kayak trip. The joy on their faces as they experienced kayaking for the first time is something I’ll never forget.
Cindy Crosby and one of her grandchildren kayaking at Blackwell Forest Preserve's Silver Lake. Photo by Jenny Crosby courtesy of Cindy Crosby
We’ve had family picnics at Silver Lake, and District ecologist Andres Ortega took me on a tour of the Hine’s emerald dragonfly raceways at the Urban Stream Research Center, which became part of my new book, Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History (Northwestern University Press, 2020).
A few years ago, my husband and I celebrated our anniversary by taking lawn chairs, books and snacks to Blackwell and spending a quiet afternoon enjoying the lake. That’s our kind of celebration!
A twelve-spotted skimmer dragonfly. Photo by Cindy Crosby
What Brings Her Back Time and Time Again
Hiking the forest preserves with their many prairie restorations is a wonderful way to keep in touch with Illinois’ “landscape of home.” In The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction (Northwestern University Press, 2016), I walked many of the prairies at the preserves as well as the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum. These prairies helped inform the way I framed the book, and provided images and inspiration that helped me write and photograph the book, Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit, co-authored with Thomas Dean (Ice Cube Press, 2019).
Nature offers solace and a chance to disconnect from the stresses and anxieties of work and the pressures of living in a fast-paced area like DuPage County. As the pandemic continues, walking outdoors is also a low-risk activity that gives Jeff and me a reprieve from being at home. In the DuPage forest preserves, there are opportunities to take a deep breath, recalibrate, re-energize, and find equilibrium again.
Of course, now that I have grandchildren, we love to take them places like Fullersburg Woods, hand them a journal, and follow them around to see what catches their interest. They have such curiosity! Such delight in everything they see. We get muddy and wet and have a fantastic time just seeing the preserves through their eyes. If you want to reinvigorate your love of nature, hike with a child.
I don’t understand it when people say they are bored, or that they are “killing time.” Time is so precious. Nature is all around us, no matter where we live. Look at the sky! A million things are happening from moment to moment. Sun haloes. Sandhill crane migrations. Clouds shape-shifting. Paying attention to the natural world engages your curiosity and sense of wonder. There is awe in the way a leaf grows; beauty in lady’s mantle leaves with drops of dew on them, each holding their particular reflection of the world. How could we ever be bored?
Cindy Crosby leads a group on a spring wildflower walk at Morton Arboretum. Photo courtesy of Morton Arboretum
Favorite Thing to Do in the Preserves
Hiking, hands down. There is a connection between walking and writing that has always been important for me. When I can’t find words, I hike. The words always come. I love to take photographs there, and journal. I’ve written a weekly blog, Tuesdays in the Tallgrass, with photos of prairies, dragonflies, and my backyard, for almost seven years. I’ve never missed a week. Sometimes I wonder if I have anything left to say! And then, a walk in the forest preserves or even a few hours in the garden reminds me there are endless marvels to write about.
I also love chasing dragonflies in the preserves. One of my first introductions to dragonfly monitoring was through the DuPage forest preserves, when I regularly monitored the back area of Herrick Lake Forest Preserve. It was wild and big and gave me a sense of all the creatures that inhabit suburban natural areas.
That experience helped spark my passion for dragonflies, which continues to this day. My most recent book, Chasing Dragonflies, is the result of the intersection of my cancer diagnosis and recovery and what these amazing insects have to offer us. I never get tired of them.
Cindy Crosby hikes at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve in Darien. Photo by Jeff Crosby courtesy of Cindy Crosby
How Nature Inspires
My life is spent engaging and connecting other people with the natural world through words, images, and experiences. As a writer, I find the natural world is the launching pad for understanding myself, my family, and the community I live in. The subtitle of my blog is “exploring exterior and interior landscapes.” Both inform each other.
If I find myself feeling weary or uninspired, going to a natural area like the DuPage forest preserves is rejuvenating and energizing. I take a deep breath, soak up the colors and sounds and textures and fragrances of a particular place, and I’m restored. Then I can go back to writing. I teach online tallgrass prairie ecology, and the DuPage forest preserve prairies offer endless opportunities to learn more about the tallgrass prairie, “Illinois’ original garden.”
I’m always delighted to have some forest preserve volunteers and stewards in my classes —they are so enthusiastic and passionate about prairies! On my hikes in the preserves, I see prairies in many different stages of restoration. I always come away inspired.
Favorite Nature Quote
The late poet Mary Oliver writes, “Paying attention — this is our endless and proper work.” How easy it is, as the writer Diane Ackerman wrote, to let our lives pass in a “comfortable blur.” How quickly the years go by!
I can’t think of a better way to spend my time than learning to pay attention. I’m convinced if you learn to do this you’ll never grow jaded and cynical. There’s beauty all around us, even when things are grim, as they have been this past year. So much to delight in!
A photo of a blue dasher dragonfly by Cindy Crosby.
Advice to Others
I’ll quote Mary Oliver again: “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” These are the words I spend my time thinking about, and the way I frame everything I do in my personal life and my work. If you resolve to pay attention, the rest will follow. Keep your curiosity and sense of wonder alive! Never let that spark go out.