2013 Paul Gruchow Essay Contest Winner, Cindy Crosby

Cindy Crosby is the author of seven books, and contributor to eight others.  Her books have been reviewed by Publishers Weekly, The Chicago Sun Times, Orion, Chicago Wilderness, Chicagoland Gardening, and various other publications. Her second book, By Willoway Brook, (with a foreword by Paul Gruchow) was named as of Chicago Wilderness magazine’s “great reads” in 2006. Cindy has written more than five hundred articles, reviews, and poems for many periodicals and websites, and she reviewed books for Publishers Weekly for almost a decade.


Cindy is a docent and steward supervisor at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, where she develops nature programs, teaches natural history classes, and leads restoration group workdays on the tallgrass prairie. She is a former Isle Royale National Park Ranger and was an Artist in Residence at Isle Royale in 2005. Cindy and her husband, Jeff, owned an independent bookstore for a decade, and still believe in the power of a good book. When she’s not reading or writing, you can find Cindy hiking, kayaking, or working in her garden in Glen Ellyn, IL.


Cindy’s Artist Statement

As a long-time freelance writer and author, I have a passion for words, people, and the natural world. Fostering connections between these three gives me great joy.

I’m grateful for what Paul Gruchow taught me through his words, his vulnerability, his joy in the outdoors, and his life. It was his essay “Wild Isle” from “Boundary Waters: The Grace of the Wild,” that inspired me to backpack and kayak Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior, where I later became an Artist-in-Residence and then, a National Park Ranger. His “Journal of a Prairie Year,” and “Grass Roots: The Universe of Home,” have both been companions for my love affair with and restoration work and writing about the Illinois tallgrass prairie. His book, “Travels in Canoe Country” brings vividly to mind the anniversary canoe trip my husband surprised me with that took us to Quetico and the Boundary Waters. ” “The Necessity of Empty Places” continues to stir my imagination as I vicariously visit regions of our country I only know through Gruchow’s words on a page. I read Gruchow’s essays, close my eyes, and revisit or imagine these places.

It was Gruchow who mentioned the joys of freeze-dried ice cream in one of his backpacking essays, and caused me to try it for the first time on one of my backcountry trips. Since his death, I always purchase freeze-dried ice cream for my kayak and backpack adventures. As part of a trip, I remember him with gratitude as I enjoy this treat after a long paddle or hike in wilderness places.

I wish Paul Gruchow were still with us to write more words, and introduce us to new places. Since he is not, one of the best ways I feel I can honor his memory is by crafting words that invite others to experience the natural world, and to explore our place on the planet. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to do so through this essay, “Blowing Bubbles: Much Ado About Nothing.”

Cindy and Jeff Crosby at the Staring Lake Outdoor Center


Paul Gruchow Essay Contest


Blowing Bubbles: Much Ado About Nothing

–Cindy Crosby

I went to a 100-acre tallgrass prairie one afternoon to clear my head, to walk and to think. In my pocket was a bottle of soap bubbles that I’d purchased for visiting nieces and nephews. I found a comfortable position on the wooden bridge overlooking a brook, and then coaxed bubbles from the plastic wand. They caught the air currents and bounced over the tallgrass. Each sphere reflected an upside-down tiny prairie.


The bubbles flashed sunlight: blues, pinks and golds. Dragonflies dive-bombed the globes, guarding their airspace. After a while, I put down the bubble wand and lay on my back, watching the clouds sprawl across the sky. The tallgrass whispered in the wind, smelling of chlorophyll and wet earth. Below, the stream rippled on its way, the slosh sounds of water jostling rocks. Overhead, bluebirds flitted from walnut tree to bur oak; blue on blue sky. The anxieties of the day retreated.


In The Summer’s Day, poet Mary Oliver asks, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” That question haunts me. I don’t know exactly what I plan to do. But this much I know: I want to be here, present in the moment. I want to pay attention.


The more I pay attention to the natural world around me, the more I learn about myself. Paying attention to the natural world might include planting herbs in my backyard garden, backpacking in the wilderness, walking at a nearby arboretum, or sitting on the bridge here at this tallgrass prairie. Nature, wherever I find it, lets my soul breathe. It’s where I let go of some of my doing, and just be.


It’s not easy. Although there was a fine tradition of porch sitting and watching the world go by in generations past, today there is no virtue conferred on those who pause to enjoy a sunset, or spend an idle hour watching dragonflies, or walk for anything other than exercise. And, there is little affirmation for blowing bubbles.

I begin to pay attention to my life by paying attention to the place I live, using my five senses. My journal is filled with descriptions: the smell of decaying leaves, the prickly-softness of the saffron and black woolly bear caterpillar, the rasp of a grasshopper in the tallgrass, the cool taste of mountain mint leaves in my mouth.


These sensory observations draw me into my interior landscape. Sometimes, they prompt memories. When I discover tiny ruby strawberries half-hidden in the spring grass, then pop them into my mouth, my grandmother’s face comes unbidden to my mind. Grandma’s kitchen was filled with strawberry motifs on canisters, plates, teacups and dishtowels. The floor was laid in alternating green and red linoleum tiles and the walls were papered with a strawberry pattern. Grandma had a complete wardrobe — right down to jeweled earrings and a pair of shoes — based on the berry. I look, I taste and I remember her.


A mourning dove calls as I pull weeds in my backyard, and I think of how I learned its name. While other girls received Barbie dolls as gifts, my maternal grandma — a science teacher — gave me rock tumblers, a microscope and fishing trips on the lake. She taught me the names of the wildflowers, trees, and birds like this one. I listen to the dove and it all rushes back, right down to the taste of the sandwiches grandma packed for our lunch and the bluegill we caught and fried later in her kitchen.


Paying attention makes room for these memories. Not all of my memories of my grandmothers are pleasant. But memory has a way of opening doors of understanding about where I came from and who I have become. They remind me of how I was shaped; they help me reflect on where I’m going with my life. Memories offer context. They help me make course corrections on my journey.


If you don’t want to remember, stay busy. In her book, Death in Holy Orders, P.D. James writes that our memories are best held at bay by action. The television drowns out thoughts. The Internet distracts us. Sex provides temporary oblivion, and being with people diverts us. Even reading can shut out our memories. White noise keeps us from dealing with memories we’d rather shove to the bottom of our subconscious.


To be still without doing — to open up and pay attention in nature — is a risk. The memories will come. In all memory lies the prospect of pain.


A friend heard of a three-week solo backpack trip I was about to take to a lonely island in Lake Superior where wolves freely roam. “It’s not the wolves I’d be afraid of,” she mused. “It’s being alone with my thoughts so long.”  Fear of memories trumps wolves, hands down.


So instead of being in nature and opening ourselves up to what comes, we find substitutes that aren’t so frightening. We watch “Animal Planet,” put on dragonfly earrings, read a book about a backpacker’s epic hike, and shop at The Nature Store. We listen to bird songs online, then go to a meeting about global warming. These are all good things — but they are not the real things to pay attention to, and they are no substitute.


What are the real things? While browsing through the Sunday newspaper, I found an article about an exhibit of John James Audubon’s classic bird portraits.  I read on, intrigued. Then I came to this line: “Many of us will never see a great horned owl… but these representations more than suffice.”


Oh really?


The great horned owl is ubiquitous in my area. I’ve spent many happy evenings slipping through a grove of red pines on the city’s outskirts, listening to its “who – who – whooo-hoo-hoo” and enjoying the owl’s crisp silhouette on a treetop at dusk. When I walk in the springy duff under the pines, I find owl pellets that litter the ground. Picking the pellets apart, I discover feathers and bones and hair, all evidence of a late-night meal. Sometimes I spot owls in the daylight, mobbed by a band of crows.


These experiences of looking, paying attention and discovery on my walks are things that no artwork could ever replace. Not even Audubon’s spectacular paintings.


It’s more comfortable for us, less risky, to accept a representation of nature. Or, failing this, a sanitized version. At the arboretum where I walk, I regularly dodge cars that whiz by; windows rolled up tight and doors locked. Walkers pass me, pumping weights, glued to their cell phones, or listening to their iPods. Sometimes, they juggle all three. Few people come to the arboretum to hike in the winter; however, thousands flock to it for programs or special events indoors in the colder months. Having an unplanned agenda is anathema to many. We want to know what to do. And we want to “do it” in a place that is comfortable and demands little from us.


This disconnect was most evident for me several years ago with the advent of the 17-year-cicadas. Visitors to the arboretum were clueless about how to handle the sudden onslaught of insects, a veritable plague of biblical proportions. All of the tricks people use to isolate themselves from the more inconvenient aspects of nature were useless.


Questions, shouted over the ear-splitting drone of the bugs, came thick and fast: “Where are the cicada-free areas?” Others asked, “Where are the cicada viewing stations?” The cicadas, of course, didn’t fit into any neatly conceived program or box.  They weren’t corralled into a handy viewing station. They were flying everywhere; noisy, inescapable, smelly, and… beautiful, if you paid close enough attention.


Another early morning I ventured inside the arboretum’s visitor center for a cup of coffee. At the front desk, a mother with two young children was venting her wrath at a volunteer because the children’s garden play area didn’t open for another 30 minutes. As I walked past, she shouted, “Well, what am I supposed to do with these kids for the next half an hour?” The arboretum is a 1,700-acre area with a diversity of trees and shrubs; trails and wildlife; ponds and prairie. For this woman, free play or strolling aimlessly with her children wasn’t an option. She had an agenda. She couldn’t think outside of it.


Programs. Structure. Agendas. Comfort. Our desire for the orderly and the predictable often crowds out our ability to be spontaneous and to immerse ourselves in the moment. To pay attention. To remember. To embrace the mystery of the short time we have in this world. Waiting quietly or “doing nothing” — even blowing bubbles on a prairie on a lazy afternoon — offends our sense of being useful or of accomplishing something.


And yet. And yet.


When you pay attention, you prop the door of your soul ajar to welcome the unexpected and the uncontrolled. You do nothing. You stay open to receive. But receive what? You aren’t sure. You can’t access your interior landscape by banging down a closed door; you can’t pencil it in as an appointment on your calendar. Paying attention is a habit-forming mindset that comes with repetition and with intention. You give yourself permission to “do nothing.” You create quiet spaces. You open a door.


On my solo backpacking trips, my greatest fear is getting lost. In the worst places on the trails — or lack of trails — I look for piles of rocks called “cairns” left behind by other hikers that point me in the right direction. When you begin to learn to pay attention, there are many cairns — or gifts that are given — that tell you that you’re on the right path.


One cairn or gift we find that tells us we are paying attention is that we slow down. We breathe more deeply. Our minds stop whirling. The problems that seemed insurmountable are seen as relatively insignificant. We return to the demands of our day, refreshed and better able to cope. We’re more patient. We’re not so apt to snap at our loved ones.


Paying attention attunes us to wonder. We look around us and are astonished at the complexity of a leaf, the gymnastics of a squirrel, the grandeur of an approaching thunderstorm. We stand under the stars, marveling at the Milky Way Galaxy, splattered like raindrops across the black windshield of the universe. We notice a delicate, yet tensile-strong spider web glistening with dewdrops backlit by early light. We discover a maple tree in spring, dripping icicles of sweet sap, and we taste and take the very essence of tree inside of us. Each discovery is another cairn that tells us we are moving in the right direction.


With these observations of ordinary miracles comes awe, swiftly followed by gratitude. Our perspective shifts. Our glass moves from half empty to half full.


Paying attention also reminds us of the value of spontaneity. It helps us stop pressing our own agendas. We learn to listen. We learn to be flexible. We learn to let go. We don’t try so hard. It’s okay to let others call some of the shots. We don’t have to always be in charge, or the center of attention.


Paying attention reminds us of the vast diversity of the world. It pulls us out of our tight boxes and opens us up to new understandings. Nature gives us a sense of something bigger than ourselves, and a reminder of how much we don’t know or understand. We become more empathetic, more understanding, less judgmental. We relax into whatever place or circumstance in which we discover ourselves. We leave room for mystery.


Amazed and humbled, we crack the door of our souls open a little wider. We walk, and we watch, and we look for cairns to guide us. We aren’t afraid to do nothing and wait. Instead, we blow bubbles and enjoy the dragonflies. Open for whatever comes.