Prairies and Power lines: At Ease Veterans Visit ComEd Buffalo Grove Site

ComEd’s Buffalo Grove Prairie doesn’t look like much from a distance.  In fact, from most angles, it’s impossible to see from a distance.  But this high quality, 10-acre remnant prairie is the last remaining strip of a natural area that was bulldozed decades ago; it stands as a testament to time and human development—a glimpse into the ecological past of Illinois.

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Com-Ed Buffalo Grove Prairie, photo by Michael Kardas.

“It’s just a really special place.”

Prairies predate people in this state, but are now rare and endangered ecosystems due to years of farming and land use change.  Luckily, the presence of the power lines kept development beneath them at bay, and saved this small patch from demolition.  Twenty years ago, ComEd recognized the ecological importance of this site and took the opportunity to step in and protect the land themselves.  Under the care of the Buffalo Grove Prairie Guardians, a group of volunteer stewards, the prairie has flourished and is home to over a hundred different species, including some that are federally threatened and endangered. “It’s just a really special place”, said Prairie Guardian Jeff Weiss. “There aren’t many quite like it.”

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Prairie Guardian Jeff Weiss, photo by Michael Kardas.

This hidden gem was pulled into the spotlight on Friday, August 25th as it became the muse of the Brushwood Center’s At Ease program.  At Ease is an innovative program that collaborates with the James A. Lovell Federal Healthcare Center to connect veterans to the arts and the opportunity to explore and restore in nature.  This program builds on research showing that exposure to nature and the arts improves mental health, self-esteem, and other obstacles that veterans may face during their transition to civilian life. The participants are equipped with DSLR cameras, a brief lesson, and then are turned loose into nature to explore their surroundings–and their creativity. 

“Light is everything!”

Guided by Weiss, the students got an overview of native plants and the history of the site as they patiently pushed through the trail-less prairie, paying special attention to lighting and symmetry—the focus of the day’s lesson.  “Light is everything!”, boomed Michael Kardas, an Air Force vet, professional photographer, and the instructor for the day.  One veteran focused on the contrast between the prairie and the Metra trains passing in the background.  Another honed in on delicate stalks of goldenrod, pausing as clouds shifted overhead, waiting for the right light to strike.  Kardas focused on capturing candids of the students themselves.  After an hour or so of full immersion in art and nature, the group adjourned for coffee, and to look over the shots of the day together.

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Lionel (At Ease participant), photo by Michael Kardas.

The power of art and nature to showcase, support, and reinforce one another often goes understated.  The goal of Brushwood Center is to bring people to this intersection, and demonstrate the importance of nature for nurturing well-being, cultivating creativity, and inspiring learning.  Programs like At Ease help to extend this mission to under-served populations in our communities.  For more information about At Ease and programs like it, visit brushwoodcenter.org

It’s A W.I.N.: Art and Wellness in Nature

Multiple studies have found that spending time recreating in nature not only improves physical fitness, but can also have numerous positive impacts on mental health and development.  In children, these impacts can include: decreased feelings of stress and aggression, increased focus, and improved relationship skills.  Time in nature can also help stimulate creativity, and artistic outlets can have similar beneficial effects on mental health. But access to nature and the arts is not universal, and is often restricted by income and class.  Here at Brushwood, we have been working to increase access to nature and the arts for children through its new program, It’s A W.I.N. (Art and Wellness In Nature).

It’s A W.I.N. aims not only to impact individual children’s access to the health benefits of nature, but their surrounding ecosystem of care as well, including parents and teachers. Brushwood had the honor of running a pilot of the program this summer with Nuestro Center in Highwood.  After a training with staff and volunteers in June, Brushwood hosted over 60 summer campers from Nuestro Center on July 14th.  These campers spent a day learning all about monarch butterflies, their life cycles, and their migration pathways.  Students returned the following Saturday with their families to show them what they had learned, and look for monarch eggs and caterpillars along the trail.

In early October, Brushwood staff made a trip to Nuestro Center to partake in the Symbolic Migration Program through Journey North.  Each student decorated their own paper monarch to send to a classroom in Michoacán, Mexico, the region that the monarchs migrate to in the fall.  Students were told that their monarch should serve as an ambassador of their town and themselves.  One student chose to draw their favorite athlete’s jersey, while others decorated their butterfly’s wings with hearts, or flowers, or in one case, a pepperoni pizza.  Two wrote a special message in Spanish for their new friends: nunca se rinde—never give up.  In the spring, the students will receive a different packed of butterflies from their friends in Michoacán, and the migration cycle will be complete.