A Blanket of Snow

Icicles on log cabin at Ryerson Woods. Photo by Luke Buckardt.
Icicles on log cabin at Ryerson Woods. Photo by Luke Buckardt.

It is December in northern Illinois, and that means the cold grip of winter is upon us.  With the change in temperature comes a certain change in precipitation.  Snow is here.  When Ryerson Woods conservation area is blanketed with a fresh snow, it is one of the most peaceful experiences.  Snow has a great impact on forest systems, and is a necessity to the natural cycle of the seasons.

Having a snow pack on the forest floor does assist in maintaining the health of an area.  Most importantly, it affects the soil.  The layer of snow acts as a blanket, keeping the soil insulated.  This insulation prevents the soil from actually freezing.   Warmer soil keeps root systems healthy and vibrant throughout the winter.  When snow is present, fine roots are able to stay healthy and maintain their productivity.  If snow is not present, these roots often die due to intense cold.  When roots are disrupted in the winter, they have an increased loss of carbon and nitrogen.

Sweeper ice on Des Plaines River. Photo by Luke Buckardt.
Sweeper ice on Des Plaines River. Photo by Luke Buckardt.

When there is no snow pack, the frozen soil cannot hold carbon.  This is a looming issue, as the eastern forest of North America absorb roughly 15 percent of the total carbon in the world.  If they continue to loss snow pack, the forests ability to be a carbon sink may be tested.  This is one of the main concerns of a global temperature change.  If our snow pack is continually lower than what it once was, we will lose large amounts of carbon to the air.  When snow melts in the warmer months, it is necessary water for the soil.   If we do not have snow, it can easily put forests into drought conditions before the growing season, slowing productivity.

Snow also plays a large role in the shaping of the forest canopy   Heavy snow and winds during winter storms affect the branch systems of many trees.  Dead branches, as well as some live ones, will inevitably break from this sitting snow.  The snow opens the canopy, and allows in more light.  This will regenerate certain tree growth.  By increasing the amount of light to the forest floor, these gaps in the canopy assist the overall productivity of the forest.

Black-capped Chickadee by Alain Wolf from Wikimedia Commons
Black-capped Chickadee by Alain Wolf from Wikimedia Commons

A snowy winter also affects the fauna within a forest.  When temperatures drop and ice freezes over most small lakes and rivers, it can be very difficult for animals to find drinking water.  Snow is an integral fix to this situation.  Many birds, such as Black-capped Chickadees, actually eat snow to gain water necessary for survival.  Also, snow acts as great cover for many smaller mammals.  If you walk in a fresh snow, you may see tubes burrowed into the snow.  Mice and voles often create intricate networks for tunnels throughout the snow, even making nests.  The snow gives protection from top predators, and also provides the small mammals with insulation.

Finally, snow is a great addition to the woods for anyone wanted to experience winter.  It is aesthetically pleasing and can be used for recreation.  Many people use the ski trails at Ryerson woods.  Cross-country skiing is a great way to get exercise and see lots of forest quickly.  Snowshoes are also a great way to play in the snow, but they usually require a very deep snow pack to be effective.  Visit Brushwood Center’s website for upcoming programs, such as Introduction to Snowshoeing (January 25, 2014) and Introduction to Cross-country Skiing (February 1, 2014).

Although it may make driving a hassle, snow in the wintertime is a wonderful thing that should welcomed.  The forest in northern Illinois have adapted for annual snow, and hopefully it will be present all winter, creating a more healthy forest.

luke buckardt 11.14.13This blog post was written by Luke Buckardt, who assists Brushwood Center with social media.  Luke graduated from Northland College in 2012 with a degree in biology.  He grew up in Riverwoods and has roamed Ryerson Woods since he was young, knowing the preserve intimately.

Poetry & Nature


To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee, 
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.
Emily Dickinson


Interested in learning more about haikus? What about idylls?* What about a deeper appreciation of classic American poets such as Wordsworth, Dickinson, Frost or Sandburg? Brushwood Center is delighted to offer a new seminar on Poetry & Nature.  Taught by Glenn Adelson, chair of the Environmental Studies Program at Lake Forest College, this course explores the long history of poetry and its relationship to the natural world, from its roots in Classical Asian and European poetry to its postmodern manifestations. Understanding the natural processes that served as inspiration and subject matter of nature poetry will enrich your understanding of the poem as work of literature and also the poetry-writing process.  Hope you will join us!

​WHEN:    Tuesdays, January 21 to February 11 (Four sessions), 6:30 – 8:45 p.m.

WHERE:  Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods, 21850 N. Riverwoods Rd., Riverwoods, IL                   60015

COST:    $250 ($225 Brushwood Center members)

Registration required. Click here to register, or for member discount call 847.968.3321.

* a short poem, descriptive of rustic life, written in the style of Theocritus’ short pastoral poems, the Idylls, according to Wikipedia.
*  *  *

WHAT TO READ: Sharing Nature with Children

children readingBrushwood Center at Ryerson Woods nurtures art, nature and discovery. One of our favorite ways to do this is through great books. As the holiday season approaches, many of us are seeking quality gifts for children. In this post, our good friend and book expert, Sue Boucher, recommends children’s books that cultivate a love of nature and of learning.


Sharing Nature with Children

by Sue Boucher

Many years ago, before I had children, I was a Girl Scout leader for girls in middle school.  Our troop met a wizened older woman who knew every spring wild flower and became so excited about seeing a Jack-in-the-Pulpit for the first time that year.  Many years later I am that woman (not wizened I hope).  I am thrilled to find the Jack-in-the-Pulpit in the same place every year in the forest preserve near my home.

During that time I was introduced to the book The Sense of Wonder by Rachel Carson, a lovely book about Rachel sharing her love of nature with her young nephew, Roger. This book really made me think about the importance of sharing my love of nature with children and has served as a guide for me.

As Rachel Carson says it’s not really about identifying everything.

“It is possible to compile extensive lists of creatures seen and identified without ever once having caught a breath-taking glimpse of the wonder of life.”

She goes on to say:

If a child asked me a question that suggested even a faint awareness of the mystery behind the arrival of a migrant sandpiper on the beach of an August morning, I would be far more pleased than by the mere fact that he knew it was a sandpiper and not a plover.

Here is a picture of my old copy that was published by Harper and Row in 1956.

Sue - sense of wonderThe quote on the front says:

Words and pictures to help you keep alive your child’s inborn sense of wonder, and renew your own delight in the mysteries of earth, sea and sky.

While that version is out of print there is a beautiful newly illustrated edition.

The Sense of Wonder


Here are some new picture books about nature for children:

Tap the Magic TreeTap the Magic Tree

By Christie Mathison

Greenwillow $15.99

An innovative, refreshing debut picture book about the changing seasons and the magic and true interactivity of turning a page. Matheson invites the reader to tap, rub, touch, and wiggle illustrations to make an apple tree bloom, produce fruit, and lose its leaves.



Ellie’s Log: Exploring the Forest Where the Great Tree Fell

By Judith Li, illustrated by M.L. Hering

Oregon State University Press  $16.95

With help from her parents, a forest manager and a wildlife biologist, and in the company of new friend Ricky, eleven-year-old Ellie Homesly fills a field notebook with sketches and notes about nature in the woods near her home. Includes suggestions on how to keep a field notebook.


once upon a northern nightOnce Upon a Northern Night

By Jean Penziwol, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault

Groundwood  $17.95

In this exquisite lullaby, a parent paints a picture of a northern winter night for their sleeping child, describing the beauty of a snowfall, the wild animals that appear in the garden, the twinkling stars, the gentle rhythm of the northern lights and the etchings of frost on the window pane.


fall walkFall Walk

By Virginia Brimhall Snow

Gibbs Smith  $16.99

Beautifully illustrated and with rhyming narrative, the storybook teaches children to identify 24 different kinds of leaves by their shapes and fall colors. From maple to mulberry and peach to pecan, kids will have fun learning about common and fascinating trees and their leaves. And at the end of the day, they learn how to press the gathered leaves in a book and make a leaf rubbing.


TREELADYcoverTree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever

By H. Joseph Hopkins, illustrated by Jill McElmurray

Beach Lane  $16.99

Unearth the true story of green-thumbed pioneer and activist Kate Sessions, who helped San Diego grow from a dry desert town into a lush, leafy city known for its gorgeous parks and gardens.


And some older ones that I love:

over and under the snowOver and Under the Snow

By Kate Messner, illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal

Chronicle  $16.99

A little girl, out cross-country skiing with her father, thinks about the various ways familiar animals survive the harsh winter weather.


in the snowIn the Snow: Who’s Been Here?

By Lindsay Barrett George

Greenwillow  $7.99

The woods are cold and desolate as Cammy and William hike through the snow, yet signs of animal life are everywhere. Help them find the clues and join in guessing, “Who’s been here?”


in the woodsIn the Woods: Who’s Been Here?

By Lindsay Barrett George

Greenwillow  $7.99

A boy and girl in the autumn woods find an empty nest, a cocoon, gnawed bark, and other signs of unseen animals and their activities.


And for older children, books that involve nature:

Ghost HawkGhost Hawk

By Susan Cooper

McElderry  $16.99

A story of adventure and friendship between a young Native American and a colonial New England settler. The intertwining stories of Little Hawk and John Wakely offer an eye-opening look at the history of the nation.



By Gary Paulsen, illustrated by Drew Willis

Simon and Schuster  $17.99

I love this anniversary edition of the classic outdoor survival story, great illustrations and additional information.


hoot chomp scat flush

Hoot, Chomp, Scat and Flush, ecological thrillers

By Carl Hiassen

Yearling  $8.99 each

Laugh out loud adventure stories about kids trying to set right the wrongs done to the planet by adults as well as touching scenes of young people enjoying nature.


Sue hugs her favorite beech tree along the Windy Moraine Trail overlooking Glen Lake in Michigan.

Sue Boucher has enjoyed the out-of-doors her whole life.  An avid hiker, biker and cross country skier, she has enjoyed the Lake County Forest Preserves for all the years she lived in Illinois.  She owned the Lake Forest Book Store for eighteen years and has enjoyed sharing books about nature and the out-of-doors with parents and children.  She has recently sold the book store and moved to Northern Michigan right in the middle of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lake Shore where she is busy enjoying her favorite pastimes and helping out in another wonderful independent book store.