Folklore of the Forest Floor: Part 2

bird girl in spring
The Bird Girl, the 1938 work by sculptor Sylvia Shaw Judson, oversees the arrival of spring at Ryerson Woods.

by Luke Buckardt

The emergence of Wild Leeks in early April provides some of the first signs of green at Ryerson Woods in spring.
The emergence of Wild Leeks (Allium tricoccum) in early April provides some of the first signs of green at Ryerson Woods in spring.

After some rain and a few warm days, the forest floor began its push to beat the leaves.    Spring ephemerals must take advantage of the slim margin of time between when it is warm enough to flower and when the leaves pop, cutting off light to the forest floor.  This two to three week period is perhaps the most active time of year for the forest floor, where hundreds of species quickly take advantage of sunlight in order to reproduce.  The leaf litter is suddenly changed from decay into a vivid carpet of green.  The flowering species have a very short time to reproduce and take advantage of pollinators.  Historically, this brief period every year was essential for Native Americans and early settlers.  The plants that grew were harvested for food and medicine, as well as many other resources.  Following the phenology of bloom is something scientists are fascinated by, and in recognizing these patterns, can determine the many uses of these spring ephemerals.

Perhaps the most common plant in Ryerson right now is the Wild Leek (Allium tricoccum), which can be seen in many of the wet areas of the preserve.   The Wild Leek, a type of onion, is a member of the lily family.  It, however, is unusual in the sense that it does not flower during this crucial time before trees leaf out.  The leek flowers in late June.   Leek is touted as a savory flavor, perhaps the most delicious of all of the native wild onions.  Settlers used the strong odor of the leek to cover the taste of spoiled food.  They have been used for centuries for food, but they were also thought to have some medicinal properties.   Chippewa tribes used it as a cure for the common cold, and also as an emetic, or something that forces vomiting.

Trout Lily (Erythromium albidum) is currently in bloom at Ryerson Woods.
Trout Lily (Erythromium albidum) is currently in bloom at Ryerson Woods.

Another common plant right now at Ryerson is the Trout Lily.  Trout lily (Erythromium albidum) is an abundant plant on throughout the floor, and can be seen flowering right now.  The flower opens downward, so to get a good look at it one must get low to the ground.  Trout lilies are fascinating flowers for a few reasons.  Most surprisingly, they are colonial.  A large swath of these flowers may actually be one individual plant.  The bulbs extent stems throughout the soil, and each year add growth from one initial bulb.  The flower gets its name due to the leaf spots present, which look very similar to the spots on a trout.  The flowers are open until they are fertilized by insects, and then whither away within a few days.  The trout lily is very interesting in that the flower is very sensitive to temperature.  In order to maximize the potential for pollination, it will not open until the air temperature is 55 degrees. This, according to the plant, is the right temperature for insect activity to be abundant, and therefore giving it a better chance at pollination.  Historically, this plant has been used for food as well as medicine.  Sioux tribes ate the bulbs, as they are high in nutrients.  Some of the first botanical literature cited the medical uses of the plant as a cure for gout, as well as a treatment for boils upon the skin.  Trout lilies are beautiful, and their colonies in some parts of the forest take up much of the current forest floor.

Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) blanket the forest floor at Ryerson Woods.
In spring, Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) blanket the forest floor at Ryerson Woods.

Perhaps one of the most well known spring ephemerals in the eastern forests is the Mayapple.  The Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) grows in every section of Ryerson Woods and can be easily located by their large, umbrella-like leaves.  The Latin name comes from the Greek word “podos”, or foot and “phyllon”, or leaf.  Early taxonomists believed the leaf resembled the webbed foot of a duck.  Mayapples are also colonial, and reproduced via rhizomes underground.  This is the reason you will see large “stands” of Mayapple in different parts of the forest.  The plant blooms in early to mid May, and has a large white flower attached to the stalk under the large leaf.  The flower is quickly pollinated, and the plant stays on the forest floor for up to three months while the fruit ripens.  The unripe fruit has a toxic resinoid in it called Podophyllum, and can be lethal to children or adults if consumed in large quantities.  However, these are no longer present once the fruit ripens and can be eaten.  It is said that they taste like strawberries.  The fruit was consumed by many woodland tribes, but also used in the unripe state as a purgative or emetic.  The Delaware tribe also used the unripe fruit to treat arthritis.

luke buckardt 11.14.13


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

Moving Targets



Art exhibition linking passenger pigeon and Jewish heritage comes to Ryerson Woods


OPENING: Sunday, May 4 from 1:00 – 3:00 p.m.

RUNS: May 4 – July 3, 2014

Artists and friends Steffi Domike and Ann T. Rosenthal often focus on environmental issues in their work, sometimes weaving bird imagery into their pieces. Both also have traced the history of their Jewish ancestors from Ukraine. Now the artists have created a unique exhibition that links their heritage and environmental ethics. Moving Targets will open May 4 at Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods. A free reception will be held from 1 to 3 p.m. Using digital media, painting and layering techniques, the artists will install collages, wood box paintings, maps and photos to tell the story of migration, loss and survival.

The exhibition weaves the story of their ancestors’ migration from Ukraine to Canada with the migration of the now extinct passenger pigeons in the United States. With help from historian Ruth Fichman, the artists learned about their ancestors who left the Ukraine circa 1910 to escape anti-Semitism and pogroms (organized massacres, especially of Jews). “As part of Moving Targets, Steffi and I are each creating a visual journal that will interpret the story of our mothers’ families, along with the migration of passenger pigeons in the United States,” said Rosenthal.

Steffi Domike and Ann Rosenthal at Ryerson Woods.

This year marks the centenary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon, once the most abundant bird in North America. The species was hunted to extinction within 40 years. “Both the birds and the people made tremendous voyages to survive,” Domike said. “On the one hand, our families obviously did survive. Yet the birds did not ultimately make it. Some of our interest is in the commonalities of this flight to survival. Some of it is about differences.” Rosenthal said they use maps as backdrops, with mixed media pieces hung on the maps. “There are two maps. One represents the pigeon. One represents our family.” The maps will be presented in sections, each telling a part of the story.

In addition to exhibiting their own work, the artists have invited 14 artists from states where the passenger pigeon formerly lived to create a portrait gallery in Brushwood. Each artist is using wooden birch boxes upon which they will create their work whether it be through collage, photography or painting. “One of our submissions is the ghost of the passenger pigeon, another is a formal portrait, another one is a half dozen birds flying madly as though in a large flock,” Domike said. “They are absolutely beautiful.”

They said their inspiration for creating the exhibition came from Joel Greenberg, author of A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction. Greenberg will receive a conservation award at the Smith Nature Symposium to be held May 17 at Ryerson Woods. Symposium attendees will be able to browse the Moving Targets exhibition during the Symposium.

Ann Rosenthal shares her family’s journey from the Ukraine to Canada to California in the “Moving Targets” exhibition.

The Smith Nature Symposium is an annual benefit event for Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods. This year will mark the Symposium’s 31st year of bringing luminaries in the fields of science and conservation to the citizens of Lake County. The 2014 Symposium is part of a year- long exploration of the theme extinction | survival. Key sponsors are Abbott and Bartlett Tree Experts. For more information on the Symposium, visit

Greenberg’s book and Rosenthal and Domike’s exhibition are part of an international effort to familiarize as many people as possible with the history of the passenger pigeon and its extinction as well as to raise awareness of how the issue of extinction is ecologically, culturally, and morally relevant to the 21st Century.

Domike and Rosenthal have been collaborating on environmentally themed artworks for more than a decade, exhibiting throughout the U.S., Japan and Germany. The exhibition runs through July 3, 2014.

For more information, call 847.968.3344 or visit

The exhibition is part of the extinction | survival series of public programs being offered by Brushwood Center over the course of 2014. The series seeks to promote a broader understanding of extinction and species survival. We’re exploring why extinction happened in the past and why it continues today, as well as celebrating stories of species survival. Programs include book talks, art exhibitions, lectures and film screenings that will run throughout 2014.


About Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods

Through innovative nature and arts programs presented against a backdrop of stately woods where pre-settlement flora and fauna still linger, Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods seeks to build an environmental ethic in our region by offering multiple points of entry for the public to connect with nature. Brushwood Center is a nonprofit organization.

Monday to Thursday, 9:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m. Sunday, 1:00 – 3:00 p.m.
Or by appointment, 847.968.3308.

Brushwood Center is located at: 21850 N. Riverwoods Rd., Riverwoods, IL 60015. 

Learn Spring Wildflowers

Close up of wild geranium from Ryerson Woods.
Close up of wild geranium from Ryerson Woods.




 Tuesdays, May 6-27, 6:00 – 8:00 p.m.

Join Glenn Adelson, chair of the Environmental Studies Program at Lake Forest College, for this nature seminar that focuses on learning all about our spring wildflowers.  We’ll learn plant biology, as we walk the woods searching for trout lily, trillium, hepatica, wood anemone, marsh marigold, spring beauty, wild geranium and more.  We’ll also explore the relationship between plants and their environments. Four sessions. Dress appropriately for walking in the preserve.

WHEN:             Tuesdays (May 6, 13, 20 & 27), 6:00 – 8:00 p.m. 

COST:              $250 ($225 Brushwood Center members)

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

Registration required. Click here to register or call 847.968.3308.

Folklore of the Forest Floor: Part 1

Brushwood Center in spring with a field of spring beauty in bloom in the grass.
Brushwood Center in spring with a field of spring beauty in bloom in the grass.

by Luke Buckardt

Although it may seem that winter will never let go of its tight grip, the forests and fields of Lake County are about to bloom with force.  Spring is here despite the dusting of snow and below freezing nights.  Over the next month, many wildflowers will poke out of the leaf litter and continue their cycle of life.  Many of these flowers have very short adult lives, often only living for a brief amount of time.  These spring ephemerals are an exciting part of our local ecology, but we are not the first generation to take note of their beauty and usefulness.  Native american tribes, as well as the first European settlers, used the flowers both medicinally and spiritually.  Although you may recognize the spring beauty or bleeding heart, there is a storied past behind each spring flower.

Spring beauty
Spring beauty

One of the first flowers to show itself after the snow melts is spring beauty (Claytonia virginica).  The flower of each plant is open for an average of three days, and within that time it is pollinated by a plethora of insects.  It is the perhaps the most abundant flower seen during the spring as it grows in a variety of habitats.  Many woodland Indians used spring beauty as an immediate food source after long winters.  The root is a tuber and is said to have a nutty flavor.  The leaves were also eaten.

Perhaps one of the most commonly seen spring flowers is the dandelion (Taraxacum officinale).  It is a weed, growing in backyards, along roads and everywhere in between.  The flower is actually made of hundreds of florets, each being pollinated during the dandelion’s life.  The dandelion has a fascinating history and has been associated with humans as early as 300 BC.  Both the Europeans as well as many American Indian tribes, including the Potawatomi and Ojibwa, have used the dandelion for myriad medicinal purposes.  The leaves of the plant have diuretic properties and can be used in salads or tea.  Native Americans used the plant in order to help ailments such as kidney disease and swelling.  Today, specialty winery’s still make dandelion wine from the flowers.

Bloodroot in bloom

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) may already be up in the forests, as they are also one of the early bloomers.  The plant gets its name from the “sap” it expels when the rhizome, or root section, is sliced.  It is in fact not sap, but a form of latex.  This plant, like many spring ephemerals, follows the Doctrine of Signatures, which states that plants were most useful through association.  Because the plant secretes this red liquid, it was thought that it could cure blood related illness.  The reddish liquid that comes out of the plant, in fact, had many uses by both settlers and Indians.  Due to its strong color, it was used for dyes, both in painting one’s body as well as for coloring baskets and decoration.  Bloodroot also has many medicinal properties.  It was used to stop bleeding, treat the symptoms of fever and cure a sore throat.  The Winnebago tribe used Bloodroot as a digestive aid and a way to sooth a toothache.

These are just some of the early spring flowers that will be showing up at Ryerson Woods and other local woodlands.  Please remember that you cannot extract anything from the woods, so just enjoy the intrinsic beauty of the flowers.  Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3, which will feature flowers during the later portion of the bloom.  Spring is here, go enjoy it!


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

In honor of Earth Day, some thoughts on environmental literature by Ben Goluboff

A dense "Atlantic White Cedar swamp" in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. These habitats are characterized primarily by dense stands of Chamaecyparis thyoides, which grow tall and narrow in close proximity to one another. Image by Famartin from Wikipedia.
A dense “Atlantic White Cedar swamp” in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. These habitats are characterized primarily by dense stands of Chamaecyparis thyoides, which grow tall and narrow in close proximity to one another. Photo by Famartin from Wikipedia.


by Ben Goluboff

Sophie Twichell was kind enough to invite me to submit a blog post for Brushwood Center, and to share, in anticipation of Earth Day, some thoughts on Environmental Literature. Even though this means tearing myself away from Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary, a book I find extraordinarily compelling, I am more than happy to do so.

Founding Fish coverYesterday, in the company of a room full of students who were polite enough to act interested, I indulged myself in a medium-long digression on the environmental writing of John McPhee, whose The Founding Fish (2002) veterans of Ryerson Reads will remember as a natural and cultural history of the American Shad. McPhee, I wanted my students to understand, is the environmentally-inclined member of a group of writers remembered now as Sixties New Journalists. These writers, in response among other things to the Vietnam-era distrust of government and media, produced non-fiction prose that abandoned traditional journalistic objectivity, in favor of a subjective, sometimes novelistic reportage in which strict fidelity to fact was abandoned. In his Encounters with the Archdruid pine barrens(1971), for example, McPhee joins David Brower, then president of the Sierra Club, and Floyd Dominy, then Comissioner of the U.S.  Bureau of Reclamation, in a rubber raft on the Colorado River not long after the completion of the controversial Glen Canyon Dam.  The dialogue McPhee reports between the conservationist and the dam builder was certainly invented or adapted (the three of them were in the middle of a deafening rapids after all) but nicely dramatizes the clash of two opposing philosophies about the natural word.

Elsewhere, as in his The Control of Nature (1989) and Annals of the Former Word (1998), a collection of his writings on geology, McPhee writes with a more traditional objectivity.  My favorite of his books, and the one I am most interested in re-reading is The Pine Barrens (1968), a survey of the landscape, ecology, history and folkways of the New Jersey Pine Barrens, a wilderness of more than a million acres in one of the most populated corners of the nation. McPhee writes:

The Pine Barrens are so close to New York that on a very

clear night a bright light in the pines would be visible from

the Empire State Building.  A line ruled on a map from Boston

to Richmond goes straight through the Pine Barrens.

The halfway point between Boston and Richmond — the

geographical epicenter of the developing megalopolis —

— is in the northern part of the woods, about twenty

miles from Bear Swamp Hill.

Mullica River in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Photo by Mwanner courtesy of Wikipedia.
Mullica River in the New Jersey Pine Barrens.
Photo by Mwanner from Wikipedia.

I am nostalgic about the New Jersey Pine Barrens. As a kid growing up in the seventies, first as a camper then as a counselor at a Quaker-Hippy summer camp in Jersey, I became confirmed as a nature nut on a series of excursions into the pines.

ArcadiaCoverSM-webAnother book on my mind right now is an anthology of very current environmental poetry edited, with G.C. Waldrep, by my wonderful colleague in Lake Forest College’s English Department, Joshua Corey. The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral (2012) is a collection of challenging poems that repurpose the ancient mode of pastoral writing for a moment when not only is the environment in crisis, but when, to the artistic and philosophical imagination, the line between the natural and the man-made has been decisively breached. Corey writes:


Postmodern pastoral retains certain allegiances to the

lyric and individual subjectivity while insisting on the

reality of a world whose objects are all equally natural

and therefore equally unnatural. Celebrity websites

and abandoned factories and telenovelas and the New

Jersey Turnpike are all eligible objects of postmodern

pastoral’s dialectical nostalgia, sites in which the human

and the unhuman mix and collide, as much as in any

mountain peak or jungle or wetland.

To learn more about the book, visit:

gardensOne of the environmental titles that I am looking forward to reading in the near future we will take up as a group next year at Ryerson Reads. Robert Pogue Harrison, a scholar of Italian literature at Stanford, was first known to me for his powerful work of environmental history, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization (1992).  In his new book, Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition (2008) Harrison offers, as I understand it, not a survey of garden history, but a series of philosophical reflections on what gardens – from Eden to Versailles – reveal about being human both today, in the shadow of environmental collapse, and throughout the long history in which our species has sought beauty, calm, even enlightenment from the artistic manipulation of natural materials.

Let me close by offering Brushwood Center’s readers a small specimen of my own writing – a poem on an environmental theme that is set in a landscape Brushwoood regulars will find familiar.

The Vegetation of Wisconsin

August corn

grows right to the doors

of the Adult Superstore.

Burdock and Mullein

live among the

Ho Chunk burial mounds.

At the Aviation Museum

in Oshkosh,

where they keep a shrine

to the Doolittle raids,

Loosestrife and Chicory

blaze by the parking lot.

A well-kept lawn

covers the landfill.

At its base,

and at a little distance,

they fly the flag.

From the Hamilton Stone Review, Issue #30, Winter-Spring 2014.(


Ben Goluboff - Ryerson Reads
Prof. Ben Goluboff leads the Ryerson Reads book discussions (four per year) for Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods.

Ben Goluboff is a professor of English at Lake Forest College.  He has led vibrant discussions for our RYERSON READS book group for 10 wonderful years.  Here are the selections for the 2014-2015 season. Hope you’ll join us!

Sept. 10, 2014: When the Killings Done by T.C. Boyle

Nov. 12, 2014: The Paradise of Bombs by Scott Russell Sanders

 Jan. 14, 2015: The Last Animal by Abby Geni

Mar. 11, 2015: Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition by Robert Pogue Harrison


David Sibley Returns to Ryerson Woods!


On the heels of the release of his highly anticipated second edition of The Sibley Guide to Birds, David Sibley will speak and sign books from 7:00 to 8:00 p.m., April 9 at Ryerson Woods.  The book talk will take place in the Welcome Center, 21950 Riverwoods Road, Riverwoods, IL. The event is free and open to the public. Registration is required.

978-0-307-95790-0Sibley, preeminent birder, author and illustrator, will talk about his work to expand and update his bird guide published in 2000. The second edition, just released, offers new paintings, new and rare species and copious updated information sure to astound bird lovers of all levels. The second edition also includes nearly 7,000 paintings, and all illustrations reproduced 15 to 20 percent larger for better detail.

Sibley will talk about his research out in the field and in museums to gather information he said has made his second edition more accurate and more useful to birders. The cover features the Magnolia Warbler, a bird Sibley recalls seeing first when his father, ornithologist Fred Sibley, banded it near the Point Reyes Bird Observatory in California. It’s one of many birds that will be migrating through the Chicago and suburban area in May.

David Sibley leading a workshop at Ryerson Woods in 2003.
David Sibley was the keynote speaker at the Smith Nature Symposium at Ryerson Woods in May 2003. Here he led a workshop on bird illustration.

Sibley’s book has been called “the finest guide to North American birds.” He is a contributing editor to BirdWatching Magazine and author and illustrator of many other books about birds. He last visited Ryerson Woods as keynote speaker of the 2003 Smith Nature Symposium. He spoke to a sold-out crowd.

David Sibley with his illustration of a yellow-rumped warbler at Ryerson Woods in 2003.
David Sibley with his illustration of a yellow-rumped warbler at Ryerson Woods in 2003.

This event is presented in partnership with Lake County Forest Preserves and Lake Forest Book Store. Books will be available for purchase and signing.  Registration is required. Call 847.968.3321 to register. For more information, visit

WHEN:      7:00 – 8:00 p.m.                                                    Wednesday, April 9

WHERE:   Welcome Center, Ryerson Woods                        21950 N. Riverwoods Rd.                                      Riverwoods, IL

COST:       FREE

Registration required. Space is limited. Call 847.968.3321 to reserve your spot.

This program is SOLD OUT. To add your name to the wait list, please call 847.968.3321.  If you have a spot and won’t be able to attend, please let us know so someone else can have it.  Thank you!


A March thaw at Ryerson Woods.
Snow melt at Ryerson Woods.

by Luke Buckardt

Although it seems that we may never escape this winter’s grasp, spring is near.  This transition into a warmer season is driven by a lengthening day and more direct sunlight.  Every year, spring brings about a plethora of changes to our local environment.  We think of ephemeral flowers and migrating songbirds, but what happens to the environment during the early stages of the transition?  The impending thaw is something we can look forward to, but it also brings many necessary changes to Ryerson Woods.

When the first thaw occurs, the ground is usually still frozen on the surface, which creates an impermeable surface.  The water needs somewhere to go, so it acts as it would during a heavy rain.  Water is affected by gravity, and it will go to the lowest point possible.  In many areas, including our own corner of Lake County, this is in a river or stream.

The Des Plaines River overflowed its banks last spring.
The Des Plaines River overflowed its banks last spring.

The Des Plaines River breaks out of its banks and causes flooding, which varies from year to year depending on many factors.  These include snow totals, the speed of the melt, and any additional precipitation that occurs during a thaw.  Flooding is considered a nuisance for many reasons.  It affects homeowners along the river and can close streets.  However, the annual spring flood plays an essential part in developing and sustaining a healthy ecosystem.  Each year, the flood alters the river landscape, rearranging downed trees and other debris.  This constant change keeps habitat available for many species.  This extra material can accumulate in the river, making necessary habitat for native fish and invertebrate species.  It can also pile up along the river, creating protection for other native fauna.   Debris carried by floods can alter the entire hydrology of a river or stream.

Snow melt and river flooding creates vernal pools at Ryerson Woods.
Snow melt and river flooding creates vernal pools at Ryerson Woods.

Floodwaters often creep into the riparian areas alongside the river, which adds many benefits to a habitat.  When the water is out of its banks, it often slows down due to increased vegetation and a less channeled path.  When the water slows, it deposits the suspended sediments.  These are often very nutrient-rich.  Once the water recedes, the sediment is left along the banks and regenerates the nutrient levels along the river.  This leads to an increase in productivity for both plants and animals that are found within a riparian zone.

Finally, flooding benefits the diversification of plants along a river.  The floods transport seeds down river.  This increases diversity within a plant community, but it also perpetuates the success of many species.  The river can carry seeds or pollen to new areas where they have not been previously.  This aids in the genetic diversification of a plant species, which ultimately strengthens that plants ability to survive.

Blue-spotted salamander.  © Scott Albert;
Blue-spotted salamander.
© Scott Albert;

Once the thaw begins, it also creates another important habitat for many species in Lake County.  When water cannot travel to a stream or river, it pools in low-lying areas.  These temporary vernal pools are an extremely important wetland for many plant and animal species.  Because they are often void of predators, these ponds attract many species of amphibian.  Frogs and salamanders live close to vernal ponds year round, but during the spring thaw, they flock to the area for mating purposes.  They attract mating partners in the water, mate, and lay eggs.  Because these areas are void of constant aquatic predation, they are perfect for perpetuating a species.  Chorus frogs, spring peepers, and wood frogs all use these vernal ponds for mating.   The blue-spotted salamander frequents vernal ponds of Lake County in order to mate and lay eggs.  These habitats are necessary for some of the county’s most endangered species, particularly the tiger salamander.  For just a few weeks out of the year, these pools become extremely busy areas in the forest.

wood frog by Luke Buckardt
Spring peepers, a tiny species of frog, are often referred to as the “harbinger of spring.” As soon as things thaw in the spring, they leave the trees to converge upon vernal pools where they sing to attract a mate and breed. Photo by Luke Buckardt.

The spring thaw is a wonderful thing for all the inhabitants of Lake County.  Although it can cause some temporary issues for people, the thaw is essential in the perpetuation of many species of plants and animals.  Now all we can do is wait and enjoy the thaw when it comes.  It is just the first step in a very exciting transitional time for the local environment.

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

Facing Extinction

"Martha" by Diana Sudyka
“Martha” by Diana Sudyka
Passenger pigeon memorial at the Cinncinati Zoo. Photo by Frank X. Mercurio.
Passenger pigeon memorial at the Cinncinati Zoo. Photo by Frank X. Mercurio.

Like every school kid who grew up in Cincinnati, I learned the story of “Martha” at an early age. Martha was the last know passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius). She died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. The zoo’s memorial to Martha is a “must see” on school field trips. Housed in a converted Victorian-era aviary, the memorial commemorates Martha’s passing and the extinction of her entire species.

The passenger pigeon was a wonder of its time. Great flocks passed over the cities, towns, and farms of eastern North America “darkening the skies for days.”  Millions roosted in forest, tree limbs crashing from the weight of so many birds. Nesting grounds reportedly covered hundreds of square miles of territory.

"Camouflage XII (Disguise for Endangered Parrot)" by Jenny Kendler.
“Camouflage XII (Disguise for Endangered Parrot)” by Jenny Kendler.

In the mid-1800s these wild pigeons were seen as an unlimited resource. Hunters captured them by the thousands, packed them in barrels, and sent them to markets across the United States and Canada by train. The birds proved to be nutritious and delicious—but not as unlimited as first imagined. By 1914, abundance yielded to extinction.

Today, few people know about Martha and the demise of her kind. Mention “passenger pigeon” at a dinner party, and people will likely confuse this once prolific bird with “carrier pigeon” or “messenger pigeon.” It’s amazing to think that a bird that once numbered in the billions—and was a ubiquitous part of America’s culinary culture—has been so completely forgotten.

Then again, how can you miss something that you never knew?

This notion is part of the impetus behind the new exhibition “Facing Extinction” at Brushwood Center (opening on Sunday, March 9 from 1:00 to 3:00 pm). The show aims to raise awareness of the world’s endangered species before they slip into oblivion. Using the cautionary tale of the passenger pigeon as a starting point, “Facing Extinction” presents 12 artists whose work addresses the environmental, cultural, and moral issues surrounding human-caused extinctions.

Photographs of endangered species by National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore, part of his PhotoArk project.
Photographs of endangered species by National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore, part of his PhotoArk project.

Featured works include photos from Joel Sartore’s “Photo Ark” project. Joel traveled to different zoos around the country taking portraits of endangered animals, some of whom can no longer be found in the wild.

Closer to home, photographer Carol Freeman documents the local endangered flora and fauna of Illinois. Currently, she has photographed 140 of the nearly 500 species that are in danger of disappearing from our region.

"To sleep" study of a passenger pigeon by Kristina Knowski.
“To sleep” study of a passenger pigeon by Kristina Knowski.

The artists of the Endangered Species Print Project—founded by Jenny Kendler and Molly Schafer—seek to raise awareness of the world’s dwindling biodiversity. An international cadre of artists have created prints of disappearing species, including the Javan rhinoceros, the Sumatran tiger, and the Philippine crocodile.  Proceeds from sales are donated to conservation efforts.

The works of Diana Sudyka and Kristina Knowski are more poetic. Diana’s lyrical watercolors acknowledge the relationships between humans and other species. As a book illustrator, text often features prominently in her paintings. Kristina often works from museum specimens to create poignant images of already-extinct birds, including passenger pigeons, the New Zealand huia, and the Wake Island Rail.

"Lost" by Annette Barbier.
“Lost” by Annette Barbier.

Other works in the show are more conceptual, especially those by Annette Barbier and Jenny Kendler (from her solo practice). Annette’s Lost features a large nest containing broken eggs marked with the names of extinct birds. The work suggests the destruction of species at human hands. Composed of vintage bird figurines, Jenny’s Camouflage series strives to bring awareness to still-living species that need our protection.

The subtext that runs through the entire show is that there is still hope and opportunity; that we, as humans, can act to save species from extinction, not just for the sake of bolstering the world’s biodiversity, but for ensuring our own survival. I hope that you will be able to attend “Facing Extinction” and support the work of these artists who blend creativity with activism.

Franck Mercurio installing photographs by Carol Freeman.
Franck Mercurio installing photographs by Carol Freeman.

—Franck Mercurio, Curator

Franck Mercurio is an independent arts consultant, curator, and writer based in Chicago.  Before starting his own consultancy business, Franck served for eight years as an exhibition developer for the Field Museum.  He has curated other exhibitions at Ryerson Woods for Brushwood Center including, Genius Loci: Listening to Nature’s Muse (JulyAugust 2013) and Art of Green (July–August 2011).  Learn more about Franck’s work at:

Flight of the Passenger Pigeon

Painting of the Passenger Pigeon,  Ectopistes migratorius,  by Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874–1927). Juvenile (left), male (center), female (right). Image from Wikimedia Commons.
Painting of the Passenger Pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius, by Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874–1927). Juvenile (left), male (center), female (right). Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Join us on February 20 for a book talk with naturalist and author Joel Greenberg.  In the early 19th century up to 40 percent of North America’s birds were passenger pigeons, traveling in flocks so massive as to block out the sun for days. Although billions of passenger pigeons once populated the continent, they became extinct in 1914 when the last of the species, Martha, died in captivity.  Joel’s new book, A Feathered River Across the Sky, relates in gripping detail how the pigeons’ propensity to stay together in vast numbers made them vulnerable to unremitting market and recreational hunting.  Joel will highlight many of the human stories that were intertwined with that of the pigeon, as well as explain how the story of the passenger pigeon provides a cautionary tale of what happens when species are not harvested sustainably.

Cold Combatants of Lake County

Ryerson Woods in winter.

by Luke Buckardt

This winter has been brutally cold.  With an average temperature of 19.4 degrees F, it is the fourth coldest on the record books here in the Chicago area.  Schools have been cancelled and people have been warned to stay inside on days with negative wind chills.  But what happens to the rest of the wintery world when temperatures dip to such lows?  The plants and animals in Ryerson also have to cope with these temperatures, but have no relief.  Both the plants and animals use incredible adaptations in order to make it through the long winter.

Bur oak by Cemx86 from Wikimedia Commons.

Many of the trees in Ryerson are deciduous, which literally translates to  “tending to fall off.”  Tree species, such as the Bur oak and the Sugar maple, go through a yearly change in order to prepare for winter.  When light conditions shorten in the fall, trees begin to go through abscission, or loss their leaves.  This assists the tree in two major areas.  Primarily, it conserves water.  Leaves are where the tree transpires, or gathers CO2 for the transformation into oxygen.  However, water is lost through the stoma, or pores in the underside of the leaf, during this process.  In order to conserve water during the winter, deciduous trees drop these leaves.  They also drop their leaves in order to conserve energy.  It is not efficient for many temperate tree species to continue maintaining leaves throughout the winter, as the leaves do not receive ample sunlight.  The tree would be using excess energy to keep their leaves throughout the winter, so it sheds them when light conditions begin to deteriorate.

Coniferous trees handle the winter through a different method that does not involve dropping their specialized leaves, called needles.  Needles differ from deciduous leaves in two major areas.  First, they continually transpire throughout the year.  Needles have a waxy cuticle, or outer covering, that limits the amount of water that is lost during the process.  Their stoma are sunken deeper into the plant tissue, which also helps retain water.  Conifers are also shaped differently in order to prevent damage from snow and ice.  Pines, firs and cedars have a conic shape, with a thin top and wider base.  This shape does not allow for snow to build up, which can potentially break branches, endangering the tree.

White-tailed deer at Ryerson Woods.

Animals must also endure the cold winters in the Chicago land area, and have many specialized physiologic adaptations.  One of the most prevalent animals in Lake County is the ubiquitous White-tailed deer.  They have a few adaptations that allow for them to maintain internal temperatures when the thermometer dips below zero.  First, they, like other mammals, abide by Bergmann’s rule.  It states that as a mammalian species ranges farther north, they are larger in colder climates.  By increasing size, they are better “designed” for colder temperatures.  They have a greater mass to surface ratio and therefore have an easier time retaining heat.  Deer also have unique fur that helps them stay warm.  Their fur has multiple layers, which help trap heat against their skin.  White-tailed deer have guard hairs that are exposed to the elements.  The outer hairs are hollow in order to trap air, which is used to insulate the animal.  When it is extremely cold, deer bed down in deep snow.  Snow is about 90 percent air, and acts as a wonderful insulator.

Another amazing animal is the Wood frog.  Being only 2 inches long can be tricky when temperatures get below freezing, but they enlist an incredible method, which helps them endure such temperatures, they freeze. Wood frogs hibernate in the top layers of soil.  During the fall, the wood frog begins to store urea within its tissue.  While in hibernation, they convert glycogen into glucose.  Both of these help break up internal ice formation within the blood and other fluids.  They can withstand up to 65% of their tissue freezing and still survive through hibernation.

Southern Flying Squirrel by MimiMiaPhotography from Wikimedia Commons.

Animals also enlist behavioral adaptations to combat the chilling temperatures.  Birds, when it gets particularly cold, maintain their body temperature by manipulating their feathers.  Birds at feeders are often seen “puffed up” during the winter months.  They are actually expanding their feathers and trapping air for increased insulation.  Birds also enact thermogenesis to warm themselves.  Although it is not as apparent as with humans, birds shiver to maintain an appropriate body temperature for survival.  Certain animals will change their social behavior to perpetuate survival as well.  The Southern flying squirrel, a local Lake County resident, is primarily a loner.  Throughout most of the year, they live by themselves.  However, when temperatures become dangerously low, they huddle together in a collective den.  The added bodies maintain a more constant temperature throughout the whole den, allowing for more individuals to survive.

While we are buried under our comforters in our toasty houses, the world around us continues to endure and in many cases thrive during these frigid days.  Make sure to look outside to enjoy the nature around us, and to find many more adaptations that keep the plants and animals of Lake County going on these chilly days.

Winter sunset at Ryerson Woods.