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.

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

Brushwood Center Garden Overflows with Supporters at Smith Nature Symposium


The 2017 Smith Nature Symposium’s  MC, NBC 5 reporter & journalist, Art Norman, poses with keynote speaker–journalist, and author of The Nature Fix–Florence Williams.

Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods held their 34th Annual Smith Nature Symposium on May 20, 2017. Celebrating a break in the weather, more than 200 supporters spilled outdoors, enjoying farm-to-table food and drink while touring Brushwood’s blooming native gardens. Inside the historic Brushwood home, friends of Brushwood strolled the gallery adorned with Carol Freeman’s Endangered Beauty photography exhibit. As the sun set, participants made their way to the tree-lined presentation tent to hear about Brushwood Center’s new mission, celebrate the 2017 Leadership in Nature Awardee, and hear the keynote address mediated by the symposium’s MC, Emmy Award-winning NBC 5 journalist and reporter, Art Norman.

Florence Williams delivers the keynote address.

Brushwood Center’s Board Chair, Ellie Ranney-Mendoza, welcomed the crowd and announced the recently adopted mission, which links this long-serving art and conservation organization to wellness. She also introduced the new Interim Executive Director, Catherine Game, formerly of Chicago Wilderness, who thanked the many partners and supporters of the organization. With this new compass direction, the organization reached out to author, journalist, and editor, Florence Williams, whose writings focus on the health benefits of spending time in nature. Williams’ inspired attendees during her keynote address, sharing the research behind nature’s effects on human health from her latest book, The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative.


The Smith Nature Symposium also serves as a chance to honor outstanding conservation leadership in our community. This year, Brushwood Center’s Award for Distinguished Leadership in Nature went to Deborah Lahey, president and chief executive officer of Chicago Academy of Sciences and Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. The award recognized Ms. Lahey for her work as a leader in the promotion and protection of nature. She was presented with an original botanical painting created by Brushwood’s artist-in-residence, Heeyoung Kim.

Deborah Lahey, President of Chicago Academy of Science, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, accepts the 2017 Award for Distinguished Leadership in Nature during the Smith Nature Symposium.

Brushwood Center is grateful to all those who made the 2017 Smith Nature Symposium a success, including the principal sponsor, Abbott, and partner, Lake County Forest Preserves, as well as Art Norman, and the many sponsors, partners, and volunteers who supported the organization’s annual event. Mr. Norman delighted the crowd and helped raise more than $30,000 to support Brushwood Center’s programming.

The evening’s MC, Art Norman, leads the paddle raise.

Located in the Ryerson family historic home among pristine woodlands, Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods promotes the importance of nature for nurturing personal and community wellbeing, cultivating creativity and inspiring learning.

To learn more about Brushwood Center, visit the art gallery, or participate in any of their numerous programs, drop in at 21850 N. Riverwoods Road, Riverwoods, IL or visit their website at

“Spring Beauty Arrives! But how?” By Leigh Stewart

Nestled up to the protective base of one of our Tardiva Hydrangeas, a Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) has appeared for the first time in the courtyard bed of our native gardens. None have appeared yet anywhere else in our beds and the nearest ones are tens of yards away; the Brushwood WildBunch didn’t plant it, so how did it get there?

2017-04-14 15.10.24 (1) Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) has appeared for the first time in the courtyard bed of Brushwood Center’s native gardens.

The circle in front of Brushwood Center erupted in Spring Beauties in the last couple of days, literally carpeting the lawn there. And in the woods surrounding Brushwood, these first bloomers of the year are dotted here and there along with Sharp-Lobed Hepatica, Bloodroot, newly launched umbrellas of Mayapple leaves and the spotted tongue-like leaves of Trout Lily yet to bloom. But these areas are yards and yards away from our native garden beds – how did this one, lonely individual Spring Beauty plant come to be in our garden? This question sends me to my books and, of course, Google!

DSC_0413 Leigh Stewart, of Buffalo Grove, is president of Brushwood Center’s volunteer garden club, the Brushwood WildBunch.

On the Lake Forest College website I find:

Claytonia virginica plays a noble role in its natural ecosystem. In order to effectively reseed, Spring beauty subjects itself primarily as a source of food. As mentioned before, insects such as bees and flies frequently visit the flowers seeking nectar and pollen. Small rodents dig up and eat the corms or a system of roots that grow like potato tubers. And as for the foliage, it occasionally becomes a food source for White-Tailed Deer. Spring Beauty acts as a sign that spring has arrived and the woods are filled with diverse wildflowers.”

While seeds may attach to and be spread by the bees and flies, and I’ve certainly seen many ground-nesting native bees around our garden, I find another method of seed dispersal in my brand new copy of the recently published Flora of the Chicago Region by Gerould Wilhelm & Laura Rericha. It informs me that “The seeds are ant-dispersed, as they possess a minute, white-fleshy elaiosome that is embedded within a shallow notch or divot on the seed’s margin. After flowering, the pedicels nod and nearly touch the soil, a behavior that perhaps increases the likelihood of the seeds being collected and dispersed by ants.”

eastern-spring-beauty-543546_960_720.jpg Spring Beauty, Claytonia virginica

From the source of all true knowledge, Wikipedia, I find out that “Elaiosomes (Greek élaion “oil” and sóma “body”) are fleshy structures that are attached to the seeds of many plant species. The elaiosome is rich in lipids and proteins, and may be variously shaped. Many plants have elaiosomes that attract ants, which take the seed to their nest and feed the elaiosome to their larvae. After the larvae have consumed the elaiosome, the ants take the seed to their waste disposal area, which is rich in nutrients from the ant frass and dead bodies, where the seeds germinate. This type of seed dispersal is termed myrmecochory from the Greek “ant” (myrmex) and “dispersal” (kore). This type of symbiotic relationship appears to be mutualistic, more specifically dispersive mutualism according to Ricklefs, R.E. (2001), as the plant benefits because its seeds are dispersed to favorable germination sites, and also because it is planted (carried underground) by the ants.”

I suspect that the ants I’ve seen – and on occasion been bitten by! – are the culprits in bringing this wonderful new addition to our native gardens.

Leigh Stewart is president of Brushwood Center’s volunteer garden club, the Brushwood WildBunch.

Click HERE for more information on joining the WildBunch.                                        

Next WildBunch garden workdays: 5/18, 5/25, 6/8, 6/22


From Discovery to Wellbeing: Brushwood Center in 2016

A Look Back at 2016 and a Window Forward for Brushwood Center

The past twelve-months have been a time of reflection at Brushwood Center—and reflection is an easy feat here considering the beautiful natural setting we have in which to meditate. With a new mission statement and new direction, Brushwood Center is ready to begin anew in 2017. Brushwood Center values the basic human need for spending time in nature as it relates to a healthy and happy life, as well as the great role it plays in inspiring creativity, learning, and promoting a sense of wellbeing. Over the years, we have witnessed the positive impact nature has had on the many people who have engaged with Brushwood Center.

In 2016, nature inspired and influenced us–whether in the creative process through the many art programs and exhibits, in education and learning by way of lectures, book talks and community discussions, or through wellbeing as it relates to time in nature and at Brushwood Center. Regardless, Brushwood serves as an intimate and inviting place to retreat to when the world is too busy and quiet time in nature is needed to nourish and refresh. As we considered what Brushwood Center has meant since it was first built as a escape to nature for the Ryerson family in 1942, we felt that wellbeing would represent Brushwood Center’s future. We feel ever more confident that this new focus will honor, even better, the wonderful history of Brushwood Center and all who have walked its wide-plank, reclaimed wood floors. 

Before we look into the future, however, we’d like to take a moment to look back on the good times we had in 2016 and thank all those who made Brushwood Center a happy home in those 12-months.

Art on Our Walls

More than 3,500 art and nature lovers visited Brushwood Center in 2016 to see the eight different art exhibits and the dozens of incredible artists that graced the walls of Brushwood Center:pictureyes

  • Doug Fogelson’s On Climate, a 3-part photographic commentary on
    human action and climate change.
  • Tobin Fraley’s 36 Acres, a photographic exhibit documenting the Reed-Turner Woodland.
  • Donna Hapac’s Constructing Nature, abstract sculptures constructed using materials such as reed and waxed linen.
  • Dave La Forge’s Bird Sanctuaries, unique bird homes constructed using recycled materials.
  • Moments in Nature, an exhibition of photos from the Lake County Audubon Society’s 2015 photo competition.
  • Invasive Species in the Natural Landscape by the Reed-Turner Woodland Botanical Artists.
  • The Guild of Natural Science Illustrators Great Lakes Chapter’s The World of Birds, an exhibit of scientific illustrations of birds.
  • Foliage and Feathers, featuring Tammy Kordik’s 3-d mixed-media                                      foliage paintings and Francis Vail’s watercolor bird-wing studies.

Youth at Brushwood Center

Trail Tales®:                                                   
Brushwood Center’s Trail Tales celebrated the installation of a ttnew storybook, Winter is Coming by Tony Johnston, on October 19th.Trail Tales, in partnership with Lake County Forest Preserves and the generosity of several funders. Trail Tales/Caminando con Cuentos® was first introduced at Ryerson Woods in 2014 and has expanded to Lake County Forest Preserves. A bilingual program that combines exercise and literature to connect children and families to nature, Trail Tales takes nature-themed storybooks and places them on large panels along hiking trails. The panels are in English and Spanish and include “trail time activities,” developed by LCFPD educators, that offer ways to engage with the nature around you while relating to the storybook. Read Winter is Coming at Ryerson Woods and Little Miss Maple Seeds at Greenbelt today and Nippersink Forest Preserve in Spring 2017. Trail Tales is free and open to the public during Forest Preserve operating hours. 

Art and Nature Field Trips at Brushwood Center
High school youth from both Evanston High School and Science First/College First Summer Researchers with Chicago Botanic Garden visited Brushwood Center for field trips in Spring and Summer 2016. These Botanical Photography and Sketching workshops served to inspire the students research and provided them with an opportunity to learn about the history and study of botanical art. Students walked the trails at Ryerson Woods, explored and identified the unique flora and fauna, and captured their subjects on cameras to later use their images as models during the sketching workshop. “This is the first time I feel I actually enjoyed being outside!” stated one of the students from Chicago Public Schools. Brushwood Center is developing more programs like these and are available to any group or school looking to experience nature in a new and creative way.

Utilizing Trail Tales, Brushwood Center developed a two-part nature journaling program in Fall and Winter 2016 with 1st-5th graders from Nuestro Center Afterschool Homework Club in Highwood. The children hiked Ryerson Woods trails, enjoyed the Trail Tales story and trail time activities—trying very hard, as youngft2 children generally must, to develop their quiet observation skills—and sketched natural objects they observed around them along with native animal skins, skeletons, and other specimens provided by LCFPD. Local botanical artists, Heeyoung Kim, Jane Sturgeon, and Dolores Diaz kindly volunteered their time to the program, sharing their expertise, their own drawings and nature journals, and stories of their artistic outdoor adventures. After lessons in science and developing observation skills, dozens of children captured subjects along the trail, and back in the warmth of Brushwood Center, sketching animal specimens they hoped to run into the next time they visit the trail. Through the generosity of the Lumpkin Family Foundation, these children will now have a chance to return in Spring and Summer 2017 to experience all of the seasons at Ryerson Woods.

4-H Art and Nature Spin Club                                                                                          Brushwood Center hosted two 4-H Clubs in 2016. During Summer, a group of 8-12 year-olds met to study photography along the trails of Ryerson Woods. These students were joined by a naturalist as well as expert photographer, Emma England, to learn camera use and techniques. This pilot 4hprogram was such a success that Brushwood Center launched their own 4-H Art and Nature Spin Club, October.  The youth voted to focus on both visual arts and photography. Their visual arts creations relied on found natural objects and, under the instruction of artist and Brushwood Center Director of Arts, Julia Kemerer, created both individual and collective ephemeral art. The youth also took to beautifying dry, crunchy leaves with bright paints, evoking their glory days of color in Spring, Summer, and Autumn. Going into 2017, the club will begin photography projects, using beautiful Ryerson Woods and its natural treasures as their subjects. We look forward to seeing the incredible work these talented youth will continue to produce.


Smith Nature Symposium                                                                                                    On May 14th, 2016, Brushwood Center hosted the 33rd Annual Smith Nature Symposium. The keynote speaker, Dr. J. Drew Lanham—an academic, naturalist, writer, and birder—presented to a large group, gathered at Ryerson Woods.  Dr. Lanham share a poignant message on the journey of examining and broadening our own personal Range Mapping, a concept that discusses the far-reaching social and scientific implications of the shared habitats snsof birds and humans. The Symposium began with Dr. Lanham leading a morning bird walk with 30 Science First/College First students and their families at The Magic Hedge at Montrose Beach. The Symposium’s dinner and keynote address that evening was well-attended by more than 200 guests, including the family and friends of Edward and Nora Ryerson (founding members of Brushwood Center), volunteers and representatives from the Lake County Forest Preserves, a wonderful contingency of Abbott representatives (our principal sponsor), and many friends and partners including: Chicago Botanic Garden, Center for Humans and Nature, Environmentalists of Color, Faith in Place, The Field Museum, Liberty Prairie Foundation, Openlands, and Outdoor Afro, among others.

Illinois Young Birders Symposium                                                                                    In August 2016, Brushwood Center and the Lake County Forest Preserves hosted the Illinois Young Birder’s Symposium. More than 30 birding youth and their families, from all throughout the United States, gathered to discuss and img_3815present their involvement, passion, and techniques. Following youth presentations, a panel of birding experts—Brushwood Center’s own board member and acclaimed author, Joel Greenberg, aspiring professor, Sulli Gibson, Field Museum artist-in residence, Peggy Macnama, and zookeeper, Vickie Igleski—had an open dialogue with the attending youth, sharing their career path, experiences and practiced advice. A keynote address by Field Museum research assistant and tropical bird expert, Josh Engel, inspired youth to “pursue childhood passions,” as he had with birding, turning them into joyful careers.  Keeping things light, Engel reminded the youth that Illinois Young Birders was founded to give kids a chance to share their interests with other “bird nerds.” Engel’s talk was followed by a tour of Brushwood Center’s art gallery, filled with beautiful work from Illinois Young Birders.  Brushwood Center will host the second Annual Illinois Young Birders Symposium in August 2017.

Nature and Wellbeing

Serving Veterans at Brushwood Center                                                             Partnering with Thresholds—a mental health support agency —Brushwood Center hosted a nature photography workshop for military service members. The service members involved in the workshop came from Threshold’s Veterans Project, a program that provides therapeutic opportunities and activities for veterans with post-traumatic vetsstress and other traumas. The 8-month program, beginning in September 2015, brought veterans to Brushwood Center each month to learn foundational skills in art, photography, as well as observing and experiencing nature. Led by photographer Tobin Fraley and arborist and educator John Eskandari, the photography workshop was designed to allow veterans with PTSD, a chance to experience the healing qualities of being in nature as well as participating in the creative process. Veterans studied technical instruction, artistic reflection, and nature exploration in the safe and inspirational outdoor setting of Brushwood Center to much success. Brushwood Center will continue to offer groups like Thresholds workshops that encourage people to find their creative side through the inspiration of nature.

Brushwood Center thanks the following for the success of the veteran’s photography workshop: Chicago Community Trust; John Eskandari from Urban Plantsman LLC; Fresh Thyme Farmer’s Market; Ted Jung and Nancy Fitzsimmons from Gemini Moulding, Inc., in Elgin, Illinois; Barbara Kreski, Director of Horticultural Therapy Services at the Chicago Botanic Garden; and the National Veterans Art Museum.  Special recognition must be given to Tobin Fraley, the photographer whose vision and mentorship inspired everyone involved with this program. 

Soundwalks                                                                                                                      swAcclaimed audio artist and professor, Eric Leonardson, led two soundwalks— drawing 40 people—around Brushwood Center in 2016. Each walk was an entirely unique experience that allowed attendees to practice being in nature in a new, special way. Under Eric’s guidance, every sound becomes significant and connected to an orchestra of natural and man-made utterances. Further than just hearing, we learned of the positive and negative consequences of sound—or a lackthereof—in nature.

Field Museum Lecture Series                                                                                 Partnering with the Keller Science Action Center (KSAC) of The Field Museum, 2016 saw the start of a new set of quarterly presentations on KSAC environmental field work and research around the world and in the Chicago Region. The presentations, attended by more than 100 people, provided a great opportunity for the public to engage with the scientific community on how to locally and personally work to mediate the effects of climate change. So far, Brushwood Center has hosted four brilliant KSAC folks, all on the front lines of hands-on environmental action, conservation, and education:

  • fmlsDr. Nora Bynum presented recent conservation efforts locally and internationally
  • Dr. Mark Bouman spoke on “The Field Museum and the Changing Landscape of the Chicago Region”
  • Dr. Diana (Tita) Alvira discussed “Community Well-Being and Conservation in South America”
  • Dr. Nigel Pitman shared “The Chicago 40: Forty iconic species that every Chicagoan should know.”

We are thrilled to begin hosting 2017’s set of KSAC talks beginning in March!


Bbhilingual Hikes                                                                               Brushwood Center’s Community Engagement Specialist, Marcela Alva, and Lake County Forest Preserves, partnered to lead hikes for 364 Spanish-speaking residents of Lake County in 2016. The guided hikes gave attendees detailed facts and information about local flora and fauna in both Spanish and English, giving everyone an enhanced opportunity to connect to the nature around them in a hands-on way. This family-friendly program will begin again in Summer 2017.



Ryerson Reads and Author Talks                                                                                      For 13 years, Professor of English and expert in American literature at Lake Forest College, Dr. Benjamin Goluboff, has led captivating discussions on environmental literature at Brushwood Center’s Ryerson Reads. Dozens of books have been covered and the topics span multi-faceted aspects and eras of the environmental literature movement. Ryerson Reads is an opportunity to gather with other book and nature fans to learn through scholarly discussion and debate while enjoying the historic and natural setting that Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods provides. In the 2016-2017 series, Ryeson Reads covered H is for Hawk, Man and Nature, The Seed Underground, and Half-Earth. The 2017-2018 series begins this Spring! Click here to register!

In April 2016, Brushwood Center hosted Helen Macdonald—author
of best-selling novel, H is for Hawk—in partnership with Lake Forest Book Store. 
Macdonald spoke to a crowd of 100 on her development as a writer in conjunction with her experiences in life and how she weaved her experiences and growing talents together to create an award winning book. Many thanks to all who attended, the volunteers who helped, and Lake County Forest Preserves for partnering with us on this great literary event!

Brushwood Center is working on a set of new author talks for 2017, stay tuned for authors and books to be announced!


Film Festival in the Woods                                                                                            Partnering with Lake County Forest Preserves and Heller Nature Center, Brushwood Center hosted its 5th Annual Film Festival in the Woods on the Lawn at Brushwood. The festival featured short, nature-inspired films. The festival’s tffheme, Impact: People and Nature, examined the impact humans have on nature, as well as the impact nature has had on people, inspiring art and expression, and much more. Featured was award-winning film: Moving the Giants as well as Everglades of the North: The Story of the Grand Kankakee Marsh, How Wolves Change RiversNaturalists and environmental organizations were on hand at the festival, giving attendees opportunities to supplement the films, answering questions and providing hands-on educational activities.  An exciting new line-up of films is planned for August 2017.

Holiday Open House and Carol Sing                                                                                 15492478_10154834574277002_7080452858393129370_nOn December 10th, Brushwood Center joyfully opened its doors to celebrate the holiday season, inviting the public in to enjoy an extensive selection of holiday treats, caroling, and a fun craft. Attendees started the event at dusk with a snowy luminary-lit hike along the trails. This beautiful walk was followed by cocoa, cookies, and crafts inside historic Brushwood Center, where the halls were fully decked with holiday decor and historic photos of family holidays from a time when Brushwood was Ryerson family’s home. After gathering for caroling, led by the great-grandchild of the Ryerson’s and Board Chair, Ellie Ranney, guests wandered the halls of Brushwood Center, enjoying the art exhibit, Foliage and Feathers by Tammy Kordik and Francis Vail.

We had a great time in 2016 and are so grateful to all who made the year a wonderful success. We look forward to continuing the fun in 2017! 

Check out our 2017 program line-up here!

May nature be with you! 

Where Trail Tales at Ryerson Woods begins, just steps from Brushwood Center!

Brushwood Center Updates: Trail Tales!

It’s been awhile–let’s get caught up!

We’ll start with Trail Tales!                                                                                                   Brushwood Center has a fantastic program that connects families and children to nature and each other through literature and physical activity. Unveiled in 2014 in partnership with Lake County Forest Preserves, Brushwood Center has developed Trail Tales/Caminando con Cuentos as a way for families to get outside and explore the many benefits of observing and exploring nature.

What is Trail Tales?                                                                                                                             Trail Tales is a bilingual program that takes the pages from a nature-themed storybook and reproduces them onto large panels placed along a hiking trail. The panels include ‘Trail Time’ activities that offer fun ways for families to interact with the nature around them. “We want to offer an experience that draws on the power of story to help kids and families develop a stronger sense of place,” says Brushwood Center board member, Emilian Geczi: “The narrative and artwork of Trail Tales make us more mindful of our surroundings. They help us observe the changes in the land in the contexts of our own lives.”
The latest Trail Tales book at Ryerson Woods, Winter is Coming by Tony Johnston and illustrated by Jim La Marche, is a beautiful depiction of a young girl documenting changes from Fall to Winter. As you walk the trail, following along with the story, it is exciting–especially for little ones–to make the connections from the book to the natural world. The story, very truly, comes to life!
Brushwood Center is going further than a tale on the trails and is creating youth programming around Trail Tales, says program director, Jackie Rockwell: “We are developing a bilingual nature journaling program that combines nature appreciation, literacy, science, and creativity to encourage young people to develop their curiosity in our natural world and give them a voice for expressing themselves.”


Where is Trail Tales?                                                                                                                   There are currently two different Trail Tales books installed in two different Lake County Forest Preserves. Visit Ryerson Woods to read along with Winter is Coming, or Greenbelt  and Nippersink Forest Preserve to experience the fun of reading Miss Maple Seeds as you walk.



Little Free Library                                                                    At the end of the Trail Tale’s hike is a Little Free Library where you can “take a book, leave a book.” Ryerson Wood’s Little Free Library resembles a large bird house and, thanks to Waukegan Public Library, is filled with nature books for all ages. Share a little bit of your interests by leaving a book in our Little Free Library for other Trail Tales visitors to read and take a book home to enjoy with your friends and family!

Trail Tales is an invitation into nature and the imagination—an activity that inspires children and families to explore the outdoors through art, literature, and science.

Trail Tales is free and open to the public during Ryerson Woods operating hours.

To learn about our Trail Tales guided programs for groups and schools or other Brushwood Center programs, contact Jackie Rockwell by phone at 847-968-3343, by email at, or visit BrushwoodCenter.Org. Trail Tales at Ryerson Woods is located at 21850 N. Riverwoods Rd., Riverwoods, IL 60015.

Film Festival in the Woods Features Chicago Filmmaker

Midsummer crowd shot

RIVERWOODS, IL – With a mix of short, thought-provoking environmental films, light-hearted animations, and poignant documentaries, Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods examines the costs and benefits of sharing space with nature at it’s 2015 Film Festival in the Woods, August 22, 2015, 7:30pm-9:30pm. Some of the short films to be featured include:  Chasing Water and Delta Dawn by award-winning photographer, Pete McBride; CHICAGOLAND, by Ben Kauffman; and Bluebird Man by Neil Paprocki and Matthew Podolsky.

Each film examines the environmental impact of coexistence with our natural world. McBride’s films address the timely subject of water. With extreme conditions in California and the national attention on lack of resources, water has become headline news.  Chasing Water and Delta Dawn shares a photographic and explorative journey on the Colorado River.  Using incredible photography, McBride takes an intimate look at the watershed as he and his crew attempt to follow the irrigation water that sustains the family’s Colorado ranch, down river to the sea. His encounters along the way help us to feel the extreme value of water and the heavy demand on this important commodity in North America.

2015 FF 4x6 poster no sponsorsBirds are also feeling the pinch for resources, with increasing difficulty finding breeding grounds and food sources as land gets gobbled up by homes, highways, and deforestation.  Thirty-five years ago, Alfred Larson decided to retire and in his sudden pause, took note of the change in the landscape.  Once a fluster of noise and activity, the Idaho landscape he grew up in seemed more quiet and still.  Larson began a project to build one bluebird house with his new-found free-time and in so doing launched a conservation effort that changed his life, the landscape, and the local bluebird population.  Paprocki and Podolsky’s Bluebird Man, is a short documentary about bluebird conservation and citizen science.  This Wild Lens production focuses on the efforts of 91-year-old Alfred Larson, who has been monitoring and maintaining over 300 nest boxes for bluebirds in Idaho for 35 years.

Kauffman’s film was made right here in Chicago with Manual Cinema.  Although Chicago boasts almost 5,000 acres of urban natural areas, some wildlife subsist within the built environment.  In the film, CHICAGOLAND, the filmmaker tells a timely story about the unseen wildness of our cities and the animals that also call it home. We follow a lone urban coyote in search of sustenance for herself and her pups while navigating the perils of the Chicago landscape, both man-made and natural. Traveling from the perimeter of the city into its center, we see through her eyes a Chicago where the boundaries of “nature” and “city” are permeable; a Chicago where the wild and the urban intermingle.  This creative endeavor is a nail-biter and a lot of fun to watch.

This popular Film Festival is presented outside on the Brushwood Center lawn with room for picnics, blankets and chairs.  Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods is a non-profit organization dedicated to nurturing art, nature and discovery by offering multiple points of entry for the public to connect with the natural world.   This festival is in partnership with the Center for Humans and Nature, Lake County Forest Preserve, and the generosity of our sponsor:  Frances Simons/Baird & Warner.

The program is free, but with a suggested donation of $10.  In the event of rain, the festival will be held indoors.  Come at 7pm for a gallery tour. BrushwoodCenter.Org.

Brushwood Center Announces Return of Shakespeare Outdoors July 23-26

Brushwood Center announces the return of Shakespeare Outdoors, July 23-26, 7pm, with the Bard’s As You Like It, performed by Citadel Theatre. This popular summertime event in Riverwoods, will be performed in Ryerson Woods, near Deerfield.  “Our mission is to connect people to nature through the arts and environmental programs,” said John Barrett, Executive Director of Brushwood Center.  He continued, “Shakespeare Outdoors is a chance for us to connect the community to nature in a unique way.”

as you like itShakespeare’s As You Like It is a favorite of audiences everywhere.  Recognized as his pastoral comedy, it is perhaps known as much for the famed soliloquy “All the World’s a Stage” or “The Seven Ages of Man” as for its storyline.  In the play, a duke’s court is usurped by his brother and he and his followers flee to the nearby forest.  There, his supporters; including his jester, other courtiers, his daughter Rosalind and her friends, camp out among the country folk and make do with their banishment. In hiding, Rosalind has adopted the visage of a young man, and a new name – Ganymede – and this new appearance leads to a comedy of mistaken identities as a country girl falls for her. “The show has a little bit of everything: comedy, love and romance, mistaken identity, and even chase scenes. It will be fun to watch,” said Scott Phelps, artistic director of the Citadel Theatre.

The most musical of Shakespeare’s plays, As You Like It features a number of songs which highlight the pastoral atmosphere and the changing of the seasons.   As You Like It is directed by Frank Farrell. Farrell performed as an actor in Goodman Theatre’s As You Like It years ago; and directed Citadel’s outdoor A Midsummer Night’s Dream last summer.

Sitting outside and listening to Shakespeare’s words in a wooded setting harkens to the early days of theater.  Phelps said his performers are really looking forward to returning to Brushwood.  “They love the intimate connection they can make with the audience,” he said. Last year was their first year at Brushwood and it was so successful that they are added a fourth performance this year.

As You Like It is a 90-minute performance including guitar, violin and vocals.  Barrett suggests arriving early for a hike on one of the many trails of Ryerson Woods or to take a tour of Brushwood Center to view the art gallery before finding a spot of the lawn.

Tickets are available for all four shows which begin at 7 p.m., July 23-26. Tickets:  $15 or $10 for Brushwood members.    Register at:  www.BrushwoodCenter.Org or call 847-968-3344.

Ryerson Reads takes on Harrison’s “Gardens”

Gardens largeOur most recent session of the environmental literature discussion group, Ryerson Reads, was about Robert Pogue Harrison’s Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition (2008). Harrison’s Gardens is not the sort of work we generally discuss. That is, it is not a work in the broad tradition that begins with Thoreau’s Walden and includes the many American books that connect a meditation about a particular place with a meditation on the subjective experience of a sojourner in that place. These books – let’s call them what Thoreau once called Walden, “a meteorological journal of the mind” – include such very different texts as Terry Tempest Williams’s Refuge and Janisse Ray’s Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, and constitute something like the mainstream of American environmental writing. Neither is Harrison’s Gardens a traditional work of garden writing that might belong in the tradition that stretches from Gertrude Jeckyll to Michael Pollan, or the traditional academic monograph that one might expect from Harrison, the Rosina Pierotti Professor of Italian Literature at Stanford University.

Gardens, which Harrison calls an “essay,” recalls the root meaning of that term: a try or an attempt. Harrison attempts to delineate some of things that the ancient human imperative to order outdoor space for aesthetic purposes suggests about human nature. The attempt, necessarily partial and incomplete, is undertaken with all the resources of a master teacher of the humanities. Dante, Boccaccio, Italo Calvino all figure in Harrison’s bibliography, as do Plato and Epicurus, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and many more in many languages. The difficulty of the book – its many references and subordinate texts – is part of the pleasure of reading Gardens: you admire the reach of Harrison’s learning even as you work to keep up with his argument.

Central to Harrison’s argument is the idea of care (cura), which Harrison defines, learnedly, by telling the story of Homer’s Odysseus stranded on Kalypso’s island of earthly delights. Kalypso has offered the hero immortality if he will only stay with her in her garden of perfect beauty, but Odysseus spends his days there pining for Penelope and Ithaca. But what he also pines for is the human world of mortality and imperfection where care and cultivation are possible:

Had Odysseus been forced to remain on Kalypso’s island for

the rest of his endless days, and had he not lost his humanity in

the process, he would most likely have taken to gardening….

For human beings, like Odysseus, who are held fast by care

have an irrepressible need to devote themselves to something.

A garden that comes into being through one’s own labor and

tending efforts is very different from the fantastical gardens

where things preexist spontaneously. For unlike earthly

paradises, human-made gardens that are brought into and

maintained in being by cultivation retain a signature

of the human agency to which they owe their existence. Call

it the mark of Cura.

Harrison extends this claim in a striking feminist adaptation of the Christian felix culpa argument by asserting that Mother Eve, an apostle of Cura, redeemed humanity from the idleness of Eden by delivering us into the world of labor and care.

The gardens Harrison surveys in this brief and crowded book are many. Plato’s academic grove is contrasted with Epicurus’s kitchen garden as divergent expressions of the Greek idea of civis virture. Harrison analyzes the temporary gardens of homeless people in New York City as exemplary of human biophilia or, as he wittily calls it, “chlorophilia.” He writes of Versailles as the monument to a suite of regal vices. And there is a lovely interlude on Kingscote, an out-of-the way garden on Stanford’s campus, which is one of several places in the book where Harrison insists that to be a garden there must be a wall enclosing it, but that the wall must have openings to people and polis: “Gardens are vital to the degree that they open their enclosures in the midst of history, offering a measure of seclusion that is not occlusion.”

In the final chapters of Gardens, with the help of a cast of sources that includes Ariosto, Pound, and the Czech modernist writer and gardener Karel Capek, Harrison launches an attack on modern Western restlessness and consumerism. Our manic modern energies, and the environmental destruction they have wrought, are for Harrison a renunciation of Cura in quest of a dehumanizing Eden of creature comforts. Modern westerners live in “the expectation of an Edenic condition, in which the sole higher purpose, if not obligation, of the citizen is to enjoy the fruits of the earth in an increasingly infantilized state of sheer receptivity.”

A bracing and challenging book, Harrison’s Gardens provoked a rich discussion among the group at Ryerson Reads. Consider joining us next season, when we will discuss Berndt Heinrich’s Life Everlasting; Terry Tempest Williams, An Unspoken Hunger; E.O. Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence; and T.C. Boyle, A Friend of the Earth.

Ben GoluboffWritten by Benjamin Goluboff, professor of English at Lake Forest College and an expert in American literature. Ben has led Ryerson Reads for the past eleven years and is now preparing for an exciting 2015-16 season.

It’s woodcock dancing time

Stand near the entrance to Ryerson Woods at dusk in March, April and May and you might hear the unusual courtship and flight song of an unusual shorebird, the American woodcock. It’s called a shorebird because of and habit of probing into the earth with a long bill to capture its food, as other shorebirds do.

But the woodcock doesn’t live or nest along the shoreline.  It chooses habitat that includes an open field with short grasses next to a wooded area that can be wet in spring.

And, compared with other shorebirds, its legs are quite short, especially in relation to its rotund body.

Woodcocks will stay in the woods during the day, but come nightfall, the males emerge onto a short grassy area to show their dancing and singing skills to females and competing males.

First, the male utters a nasal-sounding, “Peent,” lifting its open bill to the sky. He continues his “peenting” for up to a dozen or more times before spiraling into the sky as high as 100 or more yards, the size of a football field.

As he flies into the air, his wings give a whistling twitter – until he’s so high, you can’t see or hear him. Seconds after you’ve lost him, you’ll hear a chirpy,chirpy,chirpy or kissing sound  he utters as he returns to nearly the exact same place he started peenting. Minutes later, he starts peenting again, then taking off to the sky again.

Sometimes, he’ll peent in all directions, turning after each peent, to broadcast his vocals as far as possible.

Watching woodcocks can strain the eyes – they begin their displays when it is almost dark – just after the last American robin has quit singing for the night and when the spring peepers begin their chorus.  Stand quietly and listen for the unusual sounds and hope for a glimpse of the bird against a moonlit sky.

Here’s a better look at a woodcock:

You can find more videos here.

You’ll notice it has large eyes  on the side of its head – this gives it the chance to look out for predators, while inserting its long bill into the earth searching for a meal of worms.

Woodcocks visit other Lake County Forest Preserves to mate in spring, including Middlefork Savanna in Lake Forest and Almond Marsh near Grayslake. You’ll need to enter those preserves to hear the woodcocks. At Ryerson Woods, you can turn into the entrance, then immediately park alongside the road, turn off your car, get out and listen.  If you’re lucky you’ll get to hear and see the birds before the preserve is closed for the night. Or come first thing in the morning before the sun has risen – woodcocks peent and display at dawn as well.

For a special program on woodcocks and a guided tour to hear and see them, you might consider signing up for a class at Middlefork Savanna in Lake Forest on  March 27. Click here for more information.

Sheryl DeVore

Artists explore the rare bobolink in exhibition to open March 8 at Brushwood Center

Artists Ginny Krueger and Ann Blaas present an intimate and varied look at a declining songbird, the bobolink, and its migratory patterns at their exhibition, “The Bobolink Proposition,” which opens March 8 at Brushwood Center, 21850 Riverwoods Road, Riverwoods. The opening reception, held from 1 to 3 p.m., is free and open to the public.

The artists, who have done other shows together, wanted to work within a bird theme.  “We thought the bobolink had that exuberance and childlike rhythm that’s in both of our works,” Blaas said. “The word bobolink has a fun sound. We learned about the bird’s migratory patterns and there are some hints toward that in our paintings. “

The bobolink, one of North America’s fastest declining songbirds, breeds in grasslands including Rollins Savanna, a Lake County Forest Preserve District property near Krueger’s home. During courtship, the male flies close to the surface giving a tinkling sound and showing off its white back to attract females and deter intruders. It migrates to South America for winter. “I’m fascinated that the bobolink’s breast is dark and the back is white,” said Krueger. “It’s usually the reverse in birds.” In field guides, the bobolink has been described as wearing a reverse tuxedo.

Blaas, who teaches art at College of DuPage and Joliet Community College, is creating some of her works on Mylar, a type of drafting paper.“The transparency of the paper allows the artist to work on both front and back surfaces,” she said.

Krueger will display her encaustic paintings of melded wax, resin and pigment on wood. She’ll also showcase two colorful quilts depicting woodland birds, and several ceramic sculptures.

“Brushwood Center is a wonderful venue for artists. It has such intimate spaces,” Krueger said.

Visitors can meet Blaas and Krueger at the March 8 opening. No registration is necessary for the free event. The exhibition continues through May 5. Gallery hours: Monday – Thursday 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sundays 1 to 3 p.m. For more information, visit