Brushwood Center joins Green Wedding Alliance

Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods is excited to announce our membership in the Green Wedding Alliance!

Green Wedding Alliance is a growing list of resources that connects various environmentally and socially conscious businesses with consumers who wish to be conscious of the impact of their event. GWA, which began in 2010, is the brainchild of co-founders Lynn Fosbender, owner of Pollen Floral Design, and Amanda Eich and Tony Vassallo, who own Spilled Ink Press. Both businesses are invested in sustainable and eco-friendly operating methods – as are the 50+ businesses affiliated with the Alliance.

At Brushwood Center, we are dedicated to nurturing personal and community wellbeing through nature. Through programming and events, we aim to teach the importance of creativity and community-centered environmental stewardship. One of the ways that we do this is by providing a gathering space in nature for events and retreats – always keeping sustainability at the forefront.

Catherine Game, Brushwood Center’s executive director, had a few words to say about our involvement with GWA.

“We are so excited to be able to create a space where people can hold celebratory events, like weddings, parties, and retreats in a beautiful setting like Ryerson Woods. It is also extremely important that we are good stewards to the area we are occupying. This partnership will allow us to provide new resources for people who want to be mindful of their footprint on their special day.”

Through our membership in the Green Wedding Alliance, we hope to reach more people who are interested in hosting sustainable, mindful events in a serene, natural environment. We can’t wait to see how much more we’ll be able to accomplish with GWA and the other like-minded businesses involved in the alliance!

For more information on rentals, click here.

Christmas Bird Count

On Saturday, December 21st, Brushwood Center partnered with Nuestro Center and Audubon Great Lakes’ Wild Indigo program to participate in a Christmas Bird count at Ryerson Woods. Forty families from Nuestro Center’s program came out to Brushwood Center to conduct the count, and celebrate afterwards with crafts, hot cocoa and pan dulce.

With clear blue skies and temperatures in the mid-forties, it was a perfect day for a hike. Staff from Audubon went through some common species in English and Spanish with participants, and instructed students on how to properly use binoculars. The fifth grade students had done bird identification activities with Wild Indigo the week before, and were eager to put their newfound knowledge to the test.

Everyone split up into three different groups for the hike, each led by an Audubon staff armed with identification guides and binoculars for students to share. Almost immediately, it became clear that the students were taking this mission very seriously. Pausing often, students slowly raised their binoculars up as they squinted at the tree tops. Every few seconds, silence broke as they excitedly reported their discoveries:

“American Robin!”

“Blue Jay!”


After some double-checking with staff and the ID guides, the species was recorded. Students got more and more excited as they discovered rarer birds, and even other animals they had never seen before. One group caught a rare glimpse of a double-crested cormorant soaring overhead. Another group walking along the Des Plaines River was lucky enough to spot a beaver slipping back into its den.

The students were excited as they explored these new dimensions of nature, and very determined to count every bird they could. They shushed one another when conversations got too loud, worried that birds might be scared away. They cooperated on identifications, and eagerly showed their parents their findings. After about an hour on the trails, everyone headed back inside Brushwood Center for hot cocoa and conchas, and a craft activity making paper Cardinal ornaments.

In total, we recorded 18 species and 98 birds during our hike (detailed in table below). Students were emphatic as they identified species they had never seen before, and parents enjoyed the quality time outdoors with their kids. Topped off with delicious snacks and a fun craft, it was the perfect way to end 2019 programming!

“At Ease” in the News

Brushwood Center’s At Ease Program is an innovative approach to empower military veterans’ wellbeing through a series of nature-based art and photography workshops.

Over the past few months, the program has been picked up by several local new stations. Click below to explore the different coverage and learn more about At Ease!

Fox 32: ‘At Ease’ program uses Mother Nature to heal the wounds of war

ABC 7 Chicago: Riverwoods program helps veterans heal through nature photography

NBC 5 Chicago: Group Offers ‘At Ease’ Photography Workshop to Help Veterans

Guest Blog: Somewhere Outside of Saigon – Trauma, Violence & Prevention

By Lukan Paulus


“I was born in the 40’s, grew up in the 50’s and DIED in the 60’s.” These are the words of a Marine veteran who served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969. The trauma he experienced and the moral injury he suffered have been his daily companions for almost 50 years. In the following pages I will delve into the issues that both trauma and moral injury create, including suicide, and the methods being employed to help heal those who are suffering the effects of these injuries, often decades later.

The Vietnam War

The War fought in Vietnam from late 1955 to the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975 was a long, costly armed conflict pitting the communist regime of North Vietnam and its southern allies, known as the Viet Cong, against South Vietnam and its principal ally, the United States. The divisive war, increasingly unpopular at home, ended with the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 1973 and the unification of Vietnam under Communist government control just two years later. More than 3 million people, including 58,000 American soldiers, were killed in the conflict over the course of those 20 years.

In 1968 the US Troop strength peaked at 543,482 as a result of President Johnson’s troop escalation. The number of soldiers and the degree to which they suffered PTS and moral injury is a subject that has been studied for decades. Many of these soldiers returned to the US and got on with their families and careers. It wasn’t until they started to retire in the last decade that many long-buried issues arose and the scars they created on their psyche became evident. Of the reported suicides within these last 10 years among veterans almost 70% are within the age of having served in the Vietnam War. This is not to say that the wars since have been less damaging, just that the full effects can take decades to surface. The author Penny Coleman addresses this in her book Flashback:

In a discussion about the war in Vietnam and PTSD, we must also address a separate aspect of postwar amnesia: the relationship between PTSD and suicide in combat veterans. Once again, in history we find the origins of American attitudes toward suicide, which help explain the silence and shame that surround the act, silence and shame that have colluded in the official denial of the relationship of suicide to PTSD, thereby allowing an epidemic of self-inflicted deaths to go unseen. (p.3)

Silence and especially shame will be issues I will address a little later but I believe it’s important to look a little more deeply at PTSD and its relation to suicide. Bob, an Army combat veteran, wrote: “My PTSD is a vicious, terminal parasite…Its darkness began to advance, ravaging me, especially emotionally, robbing me of any ability to exist. Hopelessness, helplessness, and utter defeat of all that was human inside of me followed….PTSD took away the only life I knew. All that remained was my excruciating, inescapable mental agony and an insatiable search for any means to arrest it.” (Beder, p.157) Just after writing this he attempted to take his life but thankfully was not successful.

It is no wonder that those who have been to war, seen death and destruction and been a part of 3 that would see that the only way out of those horrific memories was through their own violent end. The depression, anger, sleeplessness and anxiety the trauma creates can lead a strong-willed sane person to suicide – a permanent solution to a temporary problem. But by addressing the trauma we can work towards a meaningful and lasting solution.

Moral Injury

Growing up we learn certain values, ethics and standards that help to form our morality. When a soldier goes to war those morals are challenged by the acts he is asked to commit and witness. The difference between PTSD and Moral Injury (MI) is “…sorrow, remorse, … bitterness, and moral confusion—What is right?—signal moral injury, while flashbacks, loss of memory, fear, and a startle complex seem to characterize PTSD” (Wood, p.17). I like to think of it as similar to the difference between shame and guilt. Guilt as PTS is something “I did or experienced” whereas shame and MI are “I am”. Not that both don’t haunt the body and soul, it’s just that MI seems to dig deeper into the sufferer and require different approaches to treat. Timothy Wilson in his book, Redirect: Changing the Stories We Live By, writes about the father of positive psychology Martin Seligman who with his “colleagues developed a program to increase resilience among soldiers using the principles of positive psychology, which attempts to increase human strengths and flourishing, rather than waiting for mental health problems to develop and then treating them” (p.244). These programs work for both PTS and MI but are better utilized as preventative measures before the symptoms set in. David Wood describes in the beginning of his book What Have We Done the story of a chaplain that utilized a baptismal font to do a symbolic warrior cleansing before the soldiers in his unit returned home to Pennsylvania from Iraq. They wrote on a piece of paper what they wanted to leave behind – “Things you have done and left undone…things you have seen.” Then their papers were set aflame. This was his adapted ceremony of healing and forgiveness so they could leave behind the moral wounds they had suffered. (Wood, p.5)

When soldiers returned from Vietnam they were met by a public largely against the war that they had been drafted to go to. Very few volunteered and so I believe the moral injury was not only doubled but buried deeper. Recently at a screening of a documentary called “Almost Sunrise”, which documents two Iraqi veterans’ healing trek from Milwaukee to Los Angeles, one of the veterans told a story to the Marine I quoted at the beginning of this paper, about the great encouragement the two of them had received from Vietnam vets during their journey of healing. The Vietnam vets understood how important it was to unearth the issues as soon as possible so that the younger vets wouldn’t have to suffer, as they had, through decades with the PTS and moral injuries. This was a touching moment and a cross-generational healing moment I was honored to be witness to.

But along with peer to peer support I believe we need to do more than just a “thank you for your service” token appreciation. I agree with Brene Brown who writes in Daring Greatly: “What I am advocating is a kinder, gentler public, one willing to embrace, support and reach out to the men and women we pay to be invulnerable on our behalf.”(p.156) Yes, war is inherently a divisive issue but respecting and honoring those who have served with methods to heal their wounds, I believe, is crucial to creating peace. While this quote references a child’s trauma, I believe it speaks too much of what Vietnam veterans experienced. Bessel van der Kolk writes in The Body Keeps the Score, “It is one thing to process memories of trauma, but it is entirely an different matter to confront the inner void—the holes in the soul that result from not having been wanted, not having been seen, and not having been allowed to speak the truth.” (p.298) We have done a great deal of the work necessary towards helping veterans speak their truth, for as Shakespeare writes in Macbeth, “Give sorrow words: the grief that does not speak knits up the o’er wrought heart and bids it break.” Too many Vietnam veterans have had their hearts broken and worse. The years they have suffered like the Marine I quoted at the start have many roots, but resolving moral injury issues is crucial.

What of shame and its relation to finding forgiveness to heal the Moral Injury buried deep. Thelma Bryant-Davis writes in her book Thriving in the Wake of Trauma that “shame is the feeling of internalized ‘badness’ and general negative self-concept that the survivor has. It is not simply guilt over doing something wrong. Instead, it is the belief and feeling that at the survivor’s core that something is wrong. Shame creates feelings of embarrassment and causes the survivor to feel the need to hide.”(p.61) This is yet another aspect of how MI gets repressed, over decades, and requires years of effort to resolve. Shira Maguen, a therapist in San Francisco, has a program she calls “impact of killing” therapy. In it she explores with her “patients the emotional and physiological impacts of killing, then deals directly with self-forgiveness. Many veterans are resistant, believing that to forgive is dishonorable, dismissing a wrong they had committed.” She states that an important “part of self-forgiveness is understanding the context in which this happened, usually a situation where you are constantly making life-and-death decisions quickly without having all the information.” (Wood, p.253) In coming out of the shadows and finding their freedom from the shame and buried MI that they have lived with for decades, they are able to find their peace in self-forgiveness.

Finally, there are a number of additional therapies being utilized with veterans in the search for healing and wholeness. Every week I attend an outpatient PTS “Expressions Group” where veterans read poetry, tell jokes, play musical instruments, talk about their healing journeys, sing or paint beautiful pictures. Many also find healing in just attending the group and being of service to those in the group. There is also an inpatient unit in the same building and they have a recreation therapist who utilizes art and equine therapy to help clients find healing. I do a weekly “garden group” where we practice horticulture therapy in the service of finding their soul in the soil. Additionally, I offer them information about education and careers in agriculture because it has been demonstrated that veterans are a great fit for farming. It can become their new mission to work towards greater food security in our country while also discovering the healing they find in the act of planting, caring for and harvesting locally grown food.

Our war in Vietnam is over 5 decades old and has left us many wounds in need of healing. Issues of PTS and Moral Injury are crucial to address not only for those who acquired them in that Southeast Asian country but for the more recent veterans who have the opportunity to find health and healing now. Michael Castellana, a therapist at Camp Pendleton, says of veterans:

These are remarkable, courageous men and women. We should laugh with them, grieve with them, and most of all, empathize and inject a human perspective on the terrible experiences these service members have endured. We must bear with them, the distressing and challenging events they have lived through, and accompany them as they make their way to a new, fuller understanding and appreciation of their role in war and as fellow human beings in the world. (Wood, p.268)

It is crucial that we as individuals find ways to accompany them in their quest for healing, not only to stem the tide of trauma and violence already inflicted, but as acts of prevention so that the wounds suffered don’t beget new ones. With compassion and understanding, we can work to unravel both the PTS and Moral injury that many veterans have known for far too long, and in turn learn how to better address these issues in the future.


Beder, Joan ed. Caring for the Military: A Guide for Helping Professions. New York: Routledge, 2017.

Brown, Brene. Daring Greatly. New York: Avery, 2012.

Bryant-Davis, Thelma. Thriving in the Wake of Trauma: A Multicultural Guide. Westport, CT.: Praeger Publishers, 2005.

Coleman, Penny. Flashback: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide & the Lessons of War. Boston: Beacon Press, 2006.

Levine, Peter A. In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma & Restores Goodness. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2010.

Meagher, Ilona. Moving a Nation to Care: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder & America’s Returning Troops. Brooklyn, NY: Ig Publishing, 2007.

Van der Kolk, Bessel. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York: Viking, 2014.

Wilson, Timothy D. Redirect: Changing the Stories We Live By. New York: Back Bay Books, 2011.

Wood, David. What Have We Done: The Moral Injury of Our Longest Wars. New York: Little Brown, 2017.

It’s A W.I.N.: Building a “Forest of Health” through Community Partnerships

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

    -Emily Dickinson

It is no secret that the world’s pollinators are currently in trouble. From fruit bats to the rusty-patched bumblebee, many of our vital fuzzy friends are endangered due to habitat loss and human development. At Brushwood Center, we believe that creative thinking and collaborative community efforts have the power to help.

This summer, Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods launched the Forest of Health or Bosque de Salud youth program.  Forest of Health aimed to educate youth and families about the importance of pollinators and forests through community partnerships with Cool Learning Experience, Foss Park District, Nuestro Center, Roberti Community House, and the Round Lake Bilingual Parent Advisory Committee.

Participants in Brushwood Center’s PLT Certification Workshop

Forest of Health kicked off with a Project Learning Tree workshop.  Project Learning Tree (PLT) uses trees and forests as windows on the world to increase students’ understanding of the environment and actions they can take to conserve it. This workshop certified staff and volunteers from the five partner organizations in PLT’s curriculum, and provided tools to incorporate environmental education into formal and informal classroom settings.

In June, Brushwood Center followed up this training with site visits to each community partner. This was done in partnership with the innovative Filament Theatre group, a Chicago-based organization specializing in interactive performances for young audiences.  These site visits had two components: an exciting theater workshop led by Filament, and a visual arts activity led by Brushwood Center.  Teaching artists from Filament helped students embody native pollinators through music and movement-based exercises. As they explored the history of prairies in our state, students were challenged to think of solutions to declining pollinator populations. They broke up into teams to write small skits demonstrating an environmental issue, and their solution. The creativity and knowledge of the students was impossible to miss, as they intertwined sustainable concepts with goofy interpretive performances, bringing some much needed lightness to heavy topics.

Participants from Roberti Community House’s Junior Green Youth Farm building their city block.

In the visual arts activity, students took this problem-solving a step further. Using up-cycled cardboard and craft supplies from BASE (Brushwood Art Supply Exchange), students envisioned a city block with space for people and pollinators alike. They worked collaboratively to retro-fit “buildings” with green roofs and community resources, and reconstructed the “grounds” with nature-play areas and edible gardens.  Students not only created eco-friendly cityscapes, but also tackled difficult socioeconomic injustices in their creations.  Students from Roberti Community House’s Junior Green Youth Farm program, for example, included an adoption center with a nature play area, an underground public transit system to keep more cars off the road, and multi-unit subsidized housing for citizens in need.  With almost no instruction or rules from facilitators, the students became empowered by their complete control and ownership over this activity, and found equitable solutions to the woes of pollinators and people alike.

A “Pollinator Promise” that reads “I will help my grandma plant some flowers and I will leave water for hummingbirds”

On field trips to Brushwood Center, groups delved deeper into the world of pollinators and plants.  Students dissected flowers, exploring complex communication and reproductive systems. They engaged in PLT activities outside, where they learned more about human interdependence with nature, and ecosystem functionality. They also flexed their creativity again by creating pollinators out of up-cycled materials from BASE. Each pollinator was coupled with a “Pollinator Promise”, simple things that each student felt they could do to positively impact the pollinators in their communities, like not stepping on ants, and planting native flowers around their homes.

Families from Round Lake BPAC and their sustainable city block

Emily Dickinson’s poem about prairies and reverie advocates for the power of daydreaming to create something beautiful. There is immense power in giving yourself the space to think creatively and imagine a better world without limitations. This empowerment is what we aimed to do through our programming this summer. During these various trips and activities, these students not only became more familiar with the natural world; they became its caretakers. They took on roles of investigative problem-solvers and community leaders, working together to dream up creative and equitable ways to help all creatures in need.

Through the Forest of Health/Bosque de Salud program, Brushwood Center has reached over 400 students so far from Highwood, North Chicago, Round Lake, and Waukegan communities. The outreach and relationship building will continue with the program’s culminating event, the Forest of Health Family Festival, on September 14th from 10:00 am – 1:00 pm for the students and families from these participating organizations. The collaborative streets and creative pollinators made by students will be displayed as a testament to the intelligence, power, and creativity of Lake County’s young minds. As long as these kids have a say, our future will be bright.

This programming was made possible through funding by Abbott, Chicago Community Trust, Gorter Family Foundation, Lake County Health Department, Lumpkin Family Foundation, Morrison Family Foundation, Sustainable Forestry Initiative, and U.S. Forest Service International Program.

If you are interested in becoming a community partner or participating in Brushwood Center’s programming, contact Dani Abboud at

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

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.

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!