The best books to open your eyes to the beauty of tallgrass prairie

Fred Delcomyn and James L. Ellis Author Of A Backyard Prairie: The Hidden Beauty of Tallgrass and Wildflowers
By Fred Delcomyn and James L. Ellis

Who are we?

The short answer is, a retired university professor (Fred) and the coordinator of Natural Areas for the University of Illinois (James). That answer, however, doesn’t give a clue as to how we came to write our book. Fred and his wife established a small three-acre prairie on their land in 2003. They then enlisted James and Grand Prairie Friends, the local conservation organization he headed at the time, to help manage the prairie. Eventually, Fred, who had photographically documented the growth of the prairie and the beauty to be found therein, proposed that he and James describe the prairie with photos so that others could also learn to enjoy it. The rest, as they say, is history.


We wrote...

A Backyard Prairie: The Hidden Beauty of Tallgrass and Wildflowers

By Fred Delcomyn, James L. Ellis,

Book cover of A Backyard Prairie: The Hidden Beauty of Tallgrass and Wildflowers

What is our book about?

“Anybody can love the mountains, but it takes a soul to love the prairie.” This pithy quote, attributed to the writer Willa Cather, encapsulates the challenge of getting people to appreciate the wide-open native grasslands that for thousands of years covered the land from the Great Lakes to the Rocky Mountains. Prairie is beautiful. Prairie is wondrous. Prairie is unique. Prairie is also mostly gone now and the few remnants are vanishing at an alarming rate; further, it is underappreciated to an equal degree. 

In this book, we celebrate the beauty and wonders of a small tallgrass prairie recreated from agricultural land.

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The books we picked & why

Book cover of The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction

Why did I love this book?

Don’t know anything about prairie but want to learn? This slim volume is the perfect introduction.  And Cindy Crosby is the perfect person to do the introducing. She is a steward supervisor for the Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum, near Chicago, Illinois. In the course of her job, she has become a writer and teacher on the prairie. In this engaging volume, Crosby describes what the tallgrass prairie is, how it originated, how people have interacted with it over the millennia, and what you can find in a prairie.

By Cindy Crosby,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Tallgrass Prairie as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

More than a region on a map, North America's vast grasslands are an enduring place in the American heart. Unfolding along and beyond the Mississippi River, the tallgrass prairie has entranced and inspired its natives and newcomers as well as American artists and writers from Willa Cather to Mark Twain. The Tallgrass Prairie is a new introduction to the astonishing beauty and biodiversity of these iconic American spaces.

Like a walking tour with a literate friend and expert, Cindy Crosby's Tallgrass Prairie prepares travelers and armchair travelers for an adventure in the tallgrass. Crosby's engaging gateway assumes no prior knowledge…


Book cover of The Emerald Horizon: The History of Nature in Iowa

Why did I love this book?

A more detailed and scholarly book than Crosby’s, this book is a description of the origin, character, and fate of the tallgrass prairie in Iowa. It is essential reading for those who wish to understand what the Iowa prairie (and by extension the prairie of neighboring states as well) was like before being settled by Euro-Americans and converted to agricultural use in the 19th century, what is left of that prairie today, and conservation and restoration efforts to replace some of what was lost.

By Cornelia F. Mutel,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Emerald Horizon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In ""The Emerald Horizon"", Cornelia Mutel combines lyrical writing with meticulous scientific research to portray the environmental past, present, and future of Iowa. In doing so, she ties all of Iowa's natural features into one comprehensive whole.Since so much of the tallgrass state has been transformed into an agricultural landscape, Mutel focuses on understanding today's natural environment by understanding yesterday's changes. After summarizing the geological, archaeological, and ecological features that shaped Iowa's modern landscape, she recreates the once-wild native communities that existed prior to Euroamerican settlement. Next she examines the dramatic changes that overtook native plant and animal communities as…


Tallgrass Prairie

By John Madson, Frank Oberle (photographer),

Book cover of Tallgrass Prairie

Why did I love this book?

A beautiful and lyrical book, this sumptuous display of wonderful photographs by Frank Oberle is supplemented by text by John Madson. Madson describes in lyrical prose the reactions of early French explorers when they encountered prairie for the first time, and then recounts the subsequent settlement and plowing of the prairie. It is not really possible to get a true sense of what an open prairie must have been like 300 years ago, but this book will give readers a bit of its flavor.

By John Madson, Frank Oberle (photographer),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Tallgrass Prairie as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Tallgrass Prairie is an inspired tribute to a uniquely American landscape. John Madson's elegant text blends history and natural science with observations drawn from a lifetime on the prairie. Noted photographer Frank Oberle's remarkable images are alive with the prairie's timeless grace-its yearly pageant of wildflowers, vast skies, wildlife, and wind-swept seas of grass. Tallgrass Prairie was published in partnership with The Nature Conservancy, for years a leader in efforts to preserve and restore native prairies. It includes a directory to the best remaining examples of tallgrass prairie throughout the country.


The Prairie Peninsula

By Gary Meszaros, Guy L. Denny,

Book cover of The Prairie Peninsula

Why did I love this book?

This is another sumptuous book of photographs and text that describes tallgrass prairie. Whereas the Madson and Oberle book mainly talks about the places where prairie was and where it can still be found today, the Meszaros and Denny book pays much more attention to what is found in prairies – the grasses, flowers, and animals big and small that inhabit them and the ecological interactions among them. The lively text is amply supplemented with superb photographs that hint at what has been lost to the plow.

By Gary Meszaros, Guy L. Denny,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Prairie Peninsula as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The prairie grassland biome covers the heartland of North America with an eastward extension called the Prairie Peninsula. Primarily composed of tallgrass prairie, this biome lies between the shortgrass prairies of the west and the eastern deciduous forest region and includes the states of Illinois, Indiana, southeastern Wisconsin, and Ohio.

With text by coauthors Gary Meszaros and Guy L. Denny and striking photographs by Meszaros, The Prairie Peninsula examines the many prairie types, floristic composition, and animals that are part of this ecosystem. It took only 50 years for 150 million acres of tallgrass prairie to disappear under the steel…


Book cover of Prairie: A Natural History of the Heart of North America

Why did I love this book?

The most scholarly and detailed book of our five choices, this book by Candice Savage, now in a revised edition, considers in depth not just the tallgrass prairie, but the entire sweep of North American grasslands. Savage recounts details that most people will never have thought of – such as how the bison were an integral part of the prairie ecosystem by creating buffalo wallows that persisted for years and provided shallow and temporary wetlands in what, to the west, was an otherwise dry environment. Start your exploration of prairie with this book or finish with it, but do not skip it. Its overview of the entire region puts the information in the other books into context.

By Candace Savage,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Prairie as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Candace Savage's acclaimed and beautifully written guide to the ecology of the prairies, now revised and updated.

Praise for the previous edition of Prairie:
"Impelled with its sense of the miraculous in nature."-Globe and Mail

This revised edition of Prairie features a new preface along with updated research on the effects of climate change on an increasingly vulnerable landscape.

It also offers new information on:
* conservation of threatened species, including the black-tailed prairie dog and farmland birds;
* grassland loss and conservation;
* the health of rivers and the water table;
* the effects of neonicotinoid insecticides on prairie…


5 book lists we think you will like!

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