Join Us for the FREE Film Festival in the Woods

PicnicA blanket and picnic in the middle of the woods, under the moonlight with the summer sounds of nature all around sets the stage for the 2013 Film Festival in the Woods. This year’s festival kicks off at Ryerson Woods, on Saturday, August 17, 2013 with an evening of art, films, food and music at Brushwood. The second night, Wednesday, August 21, goes indoors for a selection from the Chicago Latino Film Festival, Aventura Verde or Green Adventure, presented in Spanish with English subtitles at the Ryerson Woods Welcome Center. Then the festival closes under the stars at the Park District of Highland Park’s Heller Nature Center with the Pixar classic WALL-E on Saturday, August 24, providing fun for the whole family. Music will be provided on each night by the Music Institute of Chicago

Schedule of Events, Saturday, August 17:
6:00 p.m.                             Open Seating, Ryerson Woods near Brushwood
6:30 p.m.                             Classical Guitar Performance: Mitchell Green 
7:00 p.m.                             Art Exhibition Gallery Tour: waterCOLOR skySCAPE         7:30 p.m.                             Films Begin

curried_awayGuests can bring a picnic, chairs and blankets to make it a comfortable outdoor setting to enjoy the short films. Or leave the picnic baskets at home and buy dinner from a gourmet food truck on site.

Schedule of Events, Wednesday, August 21:
6:00 p.m.                             Open Seating, Ryerson Woods Welcome Center
6:15 – 6:45 p.m.                Bilingual Hike (Start at Welcome Center)
6:30 p.m.                             Guitar Performance: Brad Conroy
7:30 p.m.                             Aventura Verde begins

Schedule of Events, Saturday, August 24:
7:00 p.m.                             Open Seating, Heller Nature Center
                                                Musical Performance: Fifth House Ensemble 
8:15 p.m.                             WALL-E begins

Each night is free and open to the public. This program is presented in partnership with the Lake County Forest Preserve District, Heller Nature Center, the Chicago Latino Film Festival and the Music Institute of Chicago. It is sponsored by Whole Foods® Market Deerfield.

Adriana McClintock
Director of Development and Communications

Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot

Ginkgo biloba in autumn
Ginkgo biloba in autumn

by Sophie Twichell, executive director of Friends of Ryerson Woods

When you think of Ginkgo, what comes to mind?  Do you have memories that involve Ginkgo?  Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) has been used in traditional medicine to treat blood disorders and to enhance memory. For some reason, I can never remember if it is Ginkgo or St. John’s Wort that one should take for memory . . . clearly a sign that it’s time for me to add Ginkgo to my daily vitamin regimen!

Characteristic shape of the Ginkgo leaf.

I do have memories that revolve around Ginkgo.  I remember as a young girl when my parents planted a Ginkgo tree on the south side of my childhood home.  That was my first introduction to this unique tree.  It made an impression due to its unusual leaf shape but even more so due to my parents’ excitement. We watched it grow for many years.  Even though they moved out of that house 25 years ago, my mother still thinks about that tree: “Remember the Ginkgo tree we planted on Ridge Road? I loved that tree.”

Ginkgos are dioecious, with separate sexes, some trees being female and others being male. Females produce seeds with a fleshy outer layer, which contains butyric acid and smells like rancid butter or vomit.
Ginkgos are dioecious, with separate sexes, some trees being female and others being male. Females produce seeds with a fleshy outer layer, which contains butyric acid and smells like rancid butter or vomit.

My second memory is not as rosy.  Each fall during college in Philadephia in the late 1980s, I had to change my regular route to class due to a pesky Ginkgo tree. A female tree dropped a mass of seeds on the sidewalk, which created a sticky, slimy, smelly mess.  Apparently, the fleshy coating of the seeds contains butyric acid, which is also found in rancid butter. Yuck!

Before I knew to avoid this block in spring, I did walk through this mess on the sidewalk and didn’t think much of it.  Later in class, I became extremely self-conscious as I realized that the smell of vomit permeating the classroom was emanating from me — the soles of my shoes reeked!  I must admit, this marred my appreciation for the Ginkgo for a number of years.  Getting that smelly slime off my shoes was nasty. Clearly, the elegant tree I’d grown up with was a well-mannered male.

Because they tolerate pollution, resist pests and disease, and don’t mind confined spaces, Ginkgos are widely planted in urban environments as street shade trees.
Because they tolerate pollution and confined spaces, as well as resist pests and disease, Ginkgos are widely planted in urban environments as street trees.

Despite the practical challenges the female Ginkgo may pose, one can’t deny that this is a most intriguing tree. Native to Asia, it is incredibly resilient.  Many cities plant the hardy Ginkgo because of its ability to survive the trials of road salt, pests and smog.  It is a popular shade tree along city streets. Believe it or not, six Ginkgo trees survived the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. Situated near the blast center, they budded after the blast without major deformities and are still alive today. Wow.  As a result, some regard Ginkgo as the “bearer of hope.”

Because we like to explore the intersection of art and nature at Ryerson Woods, I wanted to share a poem by the German poet, scientist, botanist and
philosopher, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe on the subject of the Ginkgo. It was first published in 1819.

Gingo Biloba

This leaf from a tree in the East,

Has been given to my garden.

Goethe sent Marianne von Willemer (1784-1860) a Ginkgo leaf as a symbol of friendship. He took the two leaves pasted onto the poem from the Ginkgo tree in the garden of Heidelberg Castle which he had visited with her.
Goethe sent Marianne von Willemer (1784-1860) a Ginkgo leaf as a symbol of friendship. He took the two leaves pasted onto the poem from the Ginkgo tree in the garden of Heidelberg Castle which he had visited with her.

It reveals a certain secret,

Which pleases me and thoughtful people.

Is it a living being,

Which has separated in itself?

Or are these two, who chose

To be recognized as one?

Answering this kind of question,

Haven’t I found the proper meaning,

Don’t you feel in my songs,

That I’m one and double?

At Friends of Ryerson Woods, we seek to bring the residents of Chicagoland’s North Shore the highest quality nature programming. As such, we are delighted to offer a public program on “Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot” by Sir Peter Crane, dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

Peter Crane headshot-smallSir Peter is the Carl W. Knobloch, Jr. Dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental   Studies at Yale University. His work focuses on the diversity of plant life: its origin and fossil history, current status, and conservation and use. His latest book, A Biography of Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot, was released in March 2013. Sir Peter has been the John and Marion Sullivan University professor at the University of Chicago, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and director of the Field Museum in Chicago with overall responsibility for the museum’s scientific programs.  Sir Peter was knighted in the United Kingdom in 2004 for services to horticulture and  conservation.  Sir Peter knows so much about Ginkgo, an extinct species of Ginkgo is named after him.  Ginkgo cranei was discovered from fossils found in North Dakota.


Here are some facts about Ginkgo that Sir Peter shared with us in anticipation of his talk.

1. Ginkgo is a botanical oddity. Like the platypus among animals, it is a single peculiar species with no close living relatives.

The iconic fan-shaped leaves of ginkgo have been identified as fossils from every continent. Living ginkgo trees have changed little from those that lived 200 million years ago.
The iconic fan-shaped leaves of Ginkgo have been identified as fossils from every continent. Living Ginkgo trees have changed little from those that lived 200 million years ago.

2. The iconic fan-shaped leaves of ginkgo have been identified as fossils from every continent. Living ginkgo trees have changed little from those that lived 200 million years ago.

3. Almost driven to extinction by climate change, wild ginkgo trees survive only in China. But you can see ginkgo today in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, on the streets of Manhattan, and in parks and gardens in all but the warmest and coldest places on our planet.

4. In the East, Ginkgo has been cultivated for a thousand years for its edible seeds, and many ancient trees are greatly revered by followers of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Shintoism.

5. The oldest living ginkgo trees in Europe date from 1730–1750, when ginkgo was introduced from the East. The oldest ginkgo in North America was planted in the 1780s in the Pennsylvania garden of John Bartram, a prominent early American botanist.

6. Today ginkgo is grown as a botanical curiosity and a resilient street tree; extracts from ginkgo leaves have also become a top-selling herbal medicine that is believed to improve memory and learning. Its efficacy, however, remains controversial.

After all this contemplation of the Ginkgo tree, I think it is time for me to plant a Ginkgo tree at my own house so I can pass on the appreciation of this distinctive tree to my children.  A male tree, that is!

I hope you’ll join us on Thursday evening, June 6 at 7pm at the Welcome Center at Ryerson Woods, to learn about the mysteries of Ginkgo tree from one of the world’s most brilliant botanists.  Thanks to our friends at Lake Forest Book Store, we’ll have copies of Ginkgo available for sale and signing. I can’t wait to learn more fascinating facts about Ginkgo.  I look forward to seeing you there.


Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot
with Sir Peter Crane, Dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies

Welcome Center, 7:00 p.m.
Ryerson Woods
21950 N. Riverwoods Rd.
Deerfield, IL 60015
Cost: $20 (or $10 for FRW members)
Register:  here or call 847.968.3321 for member discount

Ginkgo coverABOUT THE BOOK (from Yale University Press)

Perhaps the world’s most distinctive tree, ginkgo has remained stubbornly unchanged for more than two hundred million years. A living link to the age of dinosaurs, it survived the great ice ages as a relic in China, but it earned its reprieve when people first found it useful about a thousand years ago. Today ginkgo is beloved for the elegance of its leaves, prized for its edible nuts, and revered for its longevity. This engaging book tells the full and fascinating story of a tree that people saved from extinction – a story that offers hope for other botanical biographies that are still being written. Inspired by the historic ginkgo that has thrived in London’s Kew Gardens since the 1760s, renowned botanist Peter Crane explores the evolutionary history of the species from its mysterious origin through its proliferation, drastic decline, and ultimate resurgence. Crane also highlights the cultural and social significance of the ginkgo: its medicinal and nutritional uses, its power as a source of artistic and religious inspiration, and its importance as one of the world’s most popular street trees. Readers of this extraordinarily interesting book will be drawn to the nearest ginkgo, where they can experience firsthand the timeless beauty of the oldest tree on Earth.


Ginkgo takes a place among the best books on plants that I have had the pleasure of reading. It provides an extremely interesting account of a remarkable plant through space, time, and culture.”—Peter H. Raven, President Emeritus, Missouri Botanical Garden
“Peter Crane provides a compelling and definitive portrait of the Tree That Time Forgot: its ancient lineage, its natural history, and history interwoven with people….an eye-opening page turner about the Ginkgo in particular and trees in general. A triumph of beautifully written scholarship.”—Thomas E. Lovejoy, University Professor of Environmental Science and Policy, George Mason University
“The Ginkgo is the elder statesman of the plant world, and Peter Crane’s erudite and fascinating biography is as absorbing as any account of the life of a Churchill or a Lincoln.”—Michael McCarthy, Environment Editor, The Independent, London
All Ginkgo images derived from Wikimedia Commons. Image of Dr. Crane and book cover from Yale University Press.

Project Passenger Pigeon – From Billions to None

Artists conception of mural being installed in downtown Cincinnati that features John Ruthven’s mural of passenger pigeons flying over the Cincinnati Zoo in the 1870s.
Artists conception of mural being installed in downtown Cincinnati as part of P3 that features John Ruthven’s mural of passenger pigeons flying over the Cincinnati Zoo in the 1870s.

Do you know about Project Passenger Pigeon (P3)?  It is an international effort to mark the 100th anniversary of the passenger pigeon’s extinction in 2014. Friends of Ryerson Woods is a P3 partner.

The passenger pigeon was once the most abundant bird in North America and likely the world, with a population that likely exceeded a billion as late as 1860. But because it was the cheapest terrestrial protein, it was subjected to unrelenting exploitation that drove it to near extinction by the first few years of the twentieth century when the last wild birds were shot. All that remained were a handful of individuals in captivity, the last of which (Martha) keeled over in her cage at the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914.

Passenger pigeon specimens from the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum's collections.
Passenger pigeon specimens from the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum’s collections.

The story of the passenger pigeon has great relevance to us today. There is no better cautionary tale to the proposition that no matter how abundant something is, be it inanimate ―water, oil, etc.―or alive, it can be lost if we are not circumspect in our use. P3 seeks to familiarize the public with the story of the passenger pigeon and then to make the connections with current issues related to extinction and our place in nature. P3 intends to do this through its web-site, social media, curriculum, a book, and a variety of exhibits and programs.  Friends of Ryerson Woods has adopted the centenary as its 2014 theme, and we are developing a rich slate of public programs for 2014 that explore the themes of extinction and species survival.  We are partnering with other Lake County organizations to present a wide range of activities, exhibitions and presentations for you to enjoy throughout the year.

One program you won’t want to miss is a book talk by natural history historian and author Joel Greenberg. Joel has written the first comprehensive book on the passenger pigeon in 50 years.  It is being published by Bloomsbury USA and will be released early in 2014.  We’ve secured Joel for an author event on Thursday, February 20, 2014 at 7pm.  This event will be held at the Greenbelt Cultural Center and is being presented in partnership with Lake County Forest Preserves, Lake Forest College, Lake Forest Open Lands and the Wildlife Discovery Center.  Copies of Joel’s forthcoming book, Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction, will be available for sale and signing.

Filming for the documentary with author Joel Greenberg and senior curator of urban ecology Steve Sullivan of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in the museum collections.
Filming for the documentary with author Joel Greenberg and senior curator of urban ecology Steve Sullivan of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in the museum collections.

The single element that can reach the most people is the documentary being made by director David Mrazek, “From Billions to None.” It is also the most expensive element. As such, P3 recently launched an Indiegogo crowd funding campaign and has already raised $22,000 of its $65,000 goal. These funds will allow for additional animation, trips to significant sites, production assistance, and other important tasks.  We’d love to be able to screen this film for you in 2014.  Would you be interested in supporting the production of this important film?

Here is the link:

Magical Evening at Ryerson Woods

photo (2)
Model Allison Saum wears an original dress designed by Friends of Ryerson Woods Administrative Coordinator Julia Kemerer.
(Photo credit: Adriana McClintock)

Ryerson Woods is a magical, natural wonderland in the spring – full of native flowers covering the forest bed, trees as far as the eye can see and a host of beautiful creatures living inside. This past Saturday at the 30th annual Smith Nature Symposium, a new and delightful figure appeared in the woods. “Bird Girl” welcomed guests to the symposium in a dress made of moss, hand-painted birds, butterflies and flowers.

Celebrating 30 years is a special occasion and we knew we needed something equally special to dazzle our guests. I thought about a garden dress I came across some time ago. Cascading rows of planters made up an elaborate and dramatic piece of art and nature, the very intersection we cross with our mission at Friends. Many of the events I have done in the past have had a performance artist or some artistic feature to wow guests so I approached our group to see if we could do something similar.

With a passion for design, the project sparked the interest of Friends of Ryerson Woods administrative coordinator and multi-media artist Julia Kemerer. She quickly came up with a concept and got to work.

The hardest part was manipulating chicken wire to form the lower half of the dress and covering it with natural materials, such as Spanish moss, green mountain moss and Black Lichen. Poor Julia was covered in cuts and scratches, as well as the materials and glue. It was a labor of love, though, because it ignited her creative spirit and she was able to focus her energy into a project close to her heart.

Guests were tickled to see the finished product and enjoyed taking pictures with “Bird Girl” throughout the night. Her hat, adorned in hand-painted eggs atop a gorgeous nest, balanced delicately on her head as she made her way through the party interacting with guests. She then rallied the crowd to raise their paddles for fundraising.

photo (1)
Photo Credit: Adriana McClintock

It was an incredible evening, made possible by so many great moments and helping hands. Kenn Kaufman delivered an informative and funny keynote address. Sophie Twichell, executive director at Friends, lovingly honored longtime friend and former colleague Doug Stotz, the 2013 conservation award winner. Last, and certainly not least, the Lake County Forest Preserve District worked tirelessly to take care of setting up, providing staff and volunteers, chauffeuring guests to the front door and so much more. We couldn’t do it without you!

Thank you to all involved to help make this a memorable year!

Adriana McClintock
Director of Development and Communications

5 Tips for Planning Your Spring Garden

What are you planting in your garden this year? Whether you are growing herbs, flowers, vegetables or fruit, here are five tips to help you with your green thumb this spring.

cropped flower


  1. Timing is everything. Plug your zip code into Sprout Robot to make sure you are planting the right thing at the right time. This easy to use website gives you step-by-step instructions with illustrations to help you get started.
  2. Use native plants and flowers when you can. Attend our free Midwestern Native Garden workshop in partnership with the Lake County Forest Preserves to find out how you can makeover your garden with native plants on Thursday, April 18 from 7:00 to 8:00 p.m. in the Welcome Center at Ryerson Woods.
  3. Be creative! You can recycle almost anything to use as a planter. Subscribe to our Pinterest gardening page to get inspired by tips and ideas. Garden Pins1
  4. Protect your plants and trees. Mulching helps to maintain soil moisture, control weeds and improve soil fertility. Take a look at many organic options available at The Mulch Center in Deerfield, a Friends of Ryerson Woods sponsor.
  5.  Enjoy the outdoors with children. Nurture your garden and pass along your knowledge to a young person to help them appreciate nature. Show them how to collect vegetables from the garden or watch flowers grow. Use the Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights from Chicago Wilderness’ Leave No Child Inside initiative as a guide.

Adriana McClintock
Director of Development and Communications

1491 and Passenger Pigeons

IJoel Greenberg at Markham Prairien late August, FRW executive director Sophie Twichell hiked in the gorgeous Gensburg-Markham Prairie in Markham, Illinois with author and historian Joel Greenberg.  In honor of FRW’s programming theme, LESSONS FROM THE PRAIRIE, they discussed future programming ideas for Friends of Ryerson Woods.  While talking about the upcoming book selections for the Ryerson Reads book discussion series, Joel expressed some strong feelings about Charles C. Mann’s treatment of the passenger pigeon in his celebrated book 1491.  Sophie invited Joel to submit a blog entry about it, and here it is. Enjoy!

by Joel Greenberg, Research Associate, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum and the Field Museum

After being immersed in the literature of the passenger pigeon for going on three years now, I want to address a canard that was fueled by its inclusion in 1491.  Although fossil remains have been found as far west as California, it would seem that the principal range of the passenger pigeon was a large region of eastern Canada and the United States, bounded on the east by the Atlantic Ocean, the west by the headwaters of the Missouri River, the north almost to Hudson’s Bay, and as far south as the gulf states. The bird’s foremost scholar placed its population in 1500 as some where between 3 and 5 billion. The birds aggregated in flocks that would darken the sky for many hours at a time: when in Kentucky, Audubon noted a three day period when the masses of birds blocked the sun for the entire duration. As late as 1860, a single flight near Toronto likely exceeded a billion birds and maybe three billion. But due to unrelenting exploitation by humans for food and sport, they were virtually gone from the wild by 1900 and the last individual died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.

A paper in 1985 by archeologist Thomas Neumann claimed that the absence of passenger pigeon remains in archeological digs demonstrates that the species existed in small numbers during prehistoric times due to predation and competition for food by Native Americans. It was only after Indian populations plummeted due to the diseases brought by Europeans were passenger pigeons able to attain historical abundance. This increase in pigeons was further helped by the reduction of deer, turkey, and other non-human competitors due to the appetites of the new arrivals.

Unfortunately this assertion was stated as fact by Mann in 1491 and the popularity of the book spread the falsehood widely. It has resonated with many people who still support it even after learning that subsequent work has largely refuted it.  I think a lot of people find reassurance in the idea that passenger pigeon abundance was due to Euro-American activities: the bird’s extinction at the hands of those same immigrants would somehow be less significant or awful. That we created the abundance exculpates us in our avarice that destroyed it.

Neumann, however, omitted many of the sites, including most of those mentioned above, where pigeon remains did appear. He also missed many of the earliest European descriptions depicting vast flocks of passenger pigeon. And finally, he greatly over estimated the degree and impacts that human competition and predation would have had on the pigeon population. For these and other reasons, archaeologists have largely repudiated this argument.  A detailed refutation based on a comprehensive review of  passenger pigeon remains in southern archeological sites is presented by H.E. Jackson of University of Southern Mississippi  (“Darkening the Sun in their Flight: A Zooarcheological Accounting of Passenger Pigeons in the Prehistoric Southeast.”  In Engaged Anthropology, edited by M. Hegmon and S. Beiselt. University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology: 2005.)

Professor Jackson’s work does suggest that pigeon numbers in the southeast began to rise during the period between 900 and 1000 AD, about 500 years before the appearance of Europeans. But even if this is true, the reasons for the increase are difficult to divine.  Fortunately, though, we have the opportunity to learn more about the early history of the species. The Smithsonian and other institutions are currently extracting DNA from the toe pads of passenger pigeon specimens (there are over 1600 throughout the world) in an effort to seek insights on how the passenger pigeon lived and died.

Joel Greenberg writes about natural history and has been most recently a principal in Project Passenger Pigeon, an international effort to use the 2014 centenary of the species’ extinction to help promote conservation. He is writing the first book on the bird since 1955. It is being published by Walker and Co., and has a publication date of January 2014.

To learn more about the Gensburg-Markham Prairie, visit:

WHAT TO READ by Tom Montgomery Fate

Tom Montgomery FateFriends of Ryerson Woods seeks to contribute to the development of an environmentally literate citizenry that has the skills, knowledge and inclinations to make well-informed choices that consider future generations. We believe environmental education extends beyond science to embrace human interaction with nature and its expression, including literature.  As such, we periodically invite individuals we respect to share a list of books that have influenced their thinking about nature and the environment.  As such, we invited our friend, author Tom Montgomery Fate, to share a list of books that have made an impression on him and his writing.  Some excellent food for thought here.  Enjoy!


“What is religion?” Thoreau once asked in his Journal.  His response:  “That which is never spoken.”  He describes taking a bath each day in Walden Pond as a “religious experience.”  From William Wordsworth to Mary Oliver there are dozens of books by writers who attempt to explore the spiritual components of observation and engagement with the natural world.  That said, I can recommend a few in recent years that might be of interest:

Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature by Kathleen Dean Moore

In an effort to make sense of the deaths in quick succession of several loved ones, Kathleen Dean Moore turned to the comfort of the wild, making a series of solitary excursions into ancient forests, wild rivers, remote deserts, and windswept islands to learn what the environment could teach her in her time of pain. This book is the record of her experiences. It’s a stunning collection of carefully observed accounts of her life—tracking otters on the beach, cooking breakfast in the desert, canoeing in a snow squall, wading among migrating salmon in the dark—but it is also a profound meditation on the healing power of nature.

The Force of Spirit by Scott Russell Sanders

Scott Russell Sanders reveals how the pressure of the sacred breaks through the surfaces of ordinary life-a life devoted to grown-up children and aging parents, the craft of writing, and the natural world. Whether writing to his daughter and his son as each prepares to get married, or describing an encounter with a red-tailed hawk in whose form he glimpses his dead father, or praising the disciplines of writing and carpentry and teaching, Sanders registers, in finely tuned prose, the force of spirit.

The Creation by E. O. Wilson

Called “one of the greatest men alive” by The Times of London, E. O.
Wilson proposes an historic partnership between scientists and religious leaders to preserve Earth’s rapidly vanishing biodiversity.  With his usual eloquence, patience and humor, Wilson, our modern-day Thoreau,
adds his thoughts to the ongoing conversation between science and religion. Couched in the form of letters to a Southern Baptist pastor, the Pulitzer Prize-winning entomologist pleads for the salvation of biodiversity, arguing that both secular humanists like himself and believers in God acknowledge the glory of nature and can work together to save it.

Life is a Miracle by Wendell Berry

Living for almost 40 years on a family farm in Kentucky has led Berry to place a high value on local knowledge born of a long and affectionate engagement of the intellect and imagination with a particular place. To readers of his poems, novels and essays, it will be no surprise that in his latest essay collection, he argues cogently and passionately against the proposition E.O. Wilson puts forth in Consilience, that our best hope for preserving the biosphere lies in linking facts and fact-based theory across disciplines under the hegemony of the natural sciences.

Writing the Sacred in the Real by Alison Hawthorne Deming

Descended from the great American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, Alison Deming appropriately begins this philosophical autobiography along the shores of the North Atlantic – on Grand Manan Island, in the Bay of Fundy. Moving on to Provincetown, Massachusetts, and then to Tucson, Arizona, and Paomoho, Hawaii, Deming describes places that are dear to her because their ways are still shaped by terms nature has set, though less and less so. With vivid ideas and passion, Deming writes about the importance of nature writing for these peripatetic times. Because people’s lives are materially less connected to the natural world, they are also spiritually less connected. Through the arts – through the story of the captain whose boat honors the Kwakiutl “Wild Woman of the Woods” or the fisherman who sacrifices his catch to save two whales – people fall again “into harmony with place and each other”; they write the sacred into the real.

The Sacred Depths of Nature by Ursula Goodenough

In this eloquent volume, eminent biologist Ursula Goodenough reconciles the modern scientific understanding of reality with our timeless spiritual yearnings for reverence and continuity. Looking at topics such as evolution, emotions, sexuality, and death, Goodenough writes with rich, uncluttered detail about the workings of nature in general and of living creatures in particular. Her luminous clarity makes it possible for even non-scientists to appreciate that the origins of life and the universe are no less meaningful because of our increasingly scientific understanding of them. At the end of each chapter, Goodenough’s spiritual reflections respond to the complexity of nature with vibrant emotional intensity and a sense of reverent wonder.  A beautifully written celebration of molecular biology with meditations on the spiritual and religious meaning that can be found at the heart of science, this volume makes an important contribution to the ongoing dialog between science and religion. This book will engage anyone who was ever mesmerized–or terrified–by the mysteries of existence.

And if you prefer audio to print, here is a wonderful series exploring the relationship between science and religion from PRI’s To the Best of Our Knowledge

Tom Montgomery Fate is a professor of English at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn and the author of five nonfiction books.  The most recent is Cabin Fever: A Suburban Father’s Search for the Wild.  For more information on Tom’s work, please visit:

Book descriptions drawn from

Genius Loci: Learning from Nature’s Muse

Genius Loci opening, Friends of Ryerson Woods

The art and design exhibition Genius Loci: Learning from Nature’s Muse opened Sunday, July 8 at Brushwood, the historic home at Ryerson Woods.  We had a great turn-out: over 130 people viewed works by 12 artists, designers, and architects.

Each work selected for the show captures the spirit of a particular natural environment.  The concept was to find artists and designers whose work is not only inspired by these places—prairie, woods, and lakefront—but seems to be born of these landscapes.

Topo House by the Milwaukee architecture firm Johnsen Schmaling is a great example.  This private residence blurs the line between what is landscape and what is architecture.  Located in the “driftless region” of Wisconsin, it’s green roofs seem to spring up from the earth’s natural topography. The building is represented in the exhibition through scale models, architectural renderings, and photographs of the (nearly) completed structure.

Another architect, Jessica Calek, presented designs for a Studio in the Woods.  The branch-like framework of the building’s structural system pays homage to its wooded surroundings, but also recalls the “primitive hut” of Vitruvius and Laugier, a metaphor for architecture’s roots in the natural world.

Cynthia Winter (also an architect) displayed a series of watercolors titled Roadtrip: The Seasons at Ryerson Woods. Seen together, these near-abstract, small-scale images—painted on postcard-sized paper—read as stills from a film, capturing a sense of movement through time and through the landscape.

Jennifer Hines displayed a very different series of works.  The simplicity of her individual ink drawings, Untitled Abstractions, is deceptive.  But viewed collectively, her images capture an entire ecosystem: seemingly separate organisms which together create a holistic environment.  Another series, displayed with the mini-dioramas in the Library, takes a more psychological approach. Forest Photos are imaginary arboreal landscapes where trees serve as metaphors for human existence. Here, Hines’ depicts states of being, rather than actual physical places.

Also in the Library is a conceptual work by artist Rachel Kauff.  Her series Field Books documents three distinct ecosystems: prairie, woods, and wetlands.  By leaving the hand-bound wordless books for 20 days in each landscape—open to the elements—Kauff allowed Nature to record her own stories in her own language.

Also charting conceptual territory is Doug DeWitt.  The long horizontal lines of his constructions, made from found materials, recall the flat Illinois prairie.  These psychological landscapes capture the essence of the rural Rustbelt: its faded wooden architecture, rusted steel equipment, and overgrown vegetation—nature reclaiming the land.

Also working in a hoGenius Loci opening, Friends of Ryerson Woodsrizontal format is photographer Michael McGuire. His images reflect a kind of surreal or dreamlike remembrance of Lake Michigan. By reproducing one section of the lakefront over and over, he captures an illusion of the lake’s vastness. The particular location represented in each photo might remain ambiguous, but the subject matter—and spirit of the place—is unmistakable.

Another photographer, Barry Phipps, photographs trees in different seasons while subtlely addressing the relationships between humans and nature.  In his photo Cahokia (Winter) the long shadows of giant trees reach toward earthen mounds made by humans nearly 1,000 years ago.  The scene captures the mystery and monumentality of this ancient site, as well as the quality of light on a typical Midwestern winter’s day.

Anne Kauff (Rachel Kauff’s mother) captures light and color in her masterful oil paintings of northern Illinois prairies and woods. She paints outdoors which brings an immediacy to the images—a freshness and vitality that is difficult to achieve within the confines of the artist’s studio. Her approach is perhaps the most traditional of the group, but allows her to effectively capture the spirit of prairie, woods, and sky.

Meaghan Burritt, Genius Loci opening, Friends of Ryerson WoodsLooking to the Des Plaines River for inspiration, conceptual artist Meaghan Burritt created a site specific installation for the show.  Project In Situ: Des Plaines River Specimen 1 (PI:DPS1) reconstructs a fragment of the landscape inside of Brushwood, shifting its context and challenging us to reconsider an overlooked part of the natural environment: a “debris pocket” on the river.  The installation—including found objects collected from the river banks—is a meditation on time, movement, and the interconnectedness between humans and nature.

Finally, furniture designer Jacob Wener of Modern Industry displays three of his designs in the Great Room: a coffee table, a console, and several benches.  Horizontal lines reflect the city’s flat terrain. Reclaimed wood recalls Chicago’s motto Urbs in Horto—a city of parks and tree-lined boulevards. The recycled steel framework references Chicago’s legacy of architectural innovation and structural engineering feats.  The final synthesis of form and materials captures the spirit of the City of Broad Shoulders.

When organizing the show, I purposely chose this diversity of artists and range of approaches to the shows themes.  Each individual artist, in his or her own way, is listening to the genius loci and creating pieces that are in harmony with the natural environments that inspired them.

—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.  Last year he curated the Art of Green (10 July 2011 – 31 August 2011) for Friends of Ryerson Woods, an exhibition that featured the work of twelve regional artists and designers who are creating art and designing objects in sustainable ways. 


Genius Loci: Listening to Nature’s Muse is on exhibition in the Brushwood Gallery at Ryerson Woods in Deerfield, Illinois until August 31, 2012.  Brushwood is open to the public:  Tuesday – Friday, 10am-2pm; Sunday 1-3pm;  or by appointment. For more information, contact Friends of Ryerson Woods at 847.968.3343 or visit