Thaw

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; www.ilherps.com
Blue-spotted salamander.
© Scott Albert; http://www.ilherps.com

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.

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

sproutrobot

  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

April is National Poetry Month

“A poem begins with a lump in the throat.”  Robert Frost

Were you aware that April is National Poetry Month, a month-long celebration designed to increase the visibility of poetry and poets in our culture?  As an organization that celebrates the intersection of art and nature, we wanted to offer a few ways for those interested to further explore nature poetry.

Orion is celebrating National Poetry Month a special curated selection of poems that will be updated daily.  Visit their website daily to see their selections, or get poems delivered to you by following Orion on Twitter or Tumblr.

From one of our favorite poets:

This is My Letter to the World

By Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

This is my letter to the world,
That never wrote to me,
The simple news that Nature told,
With tender majesty.

Her message is committed
To hands I cannot see;
For love of her, sweet countrymen,
Judge tenderly of me!

Emily Dickinson was an American poet who lived an introverted and reclusive life. Thought of as an eccentric, she was known for her penchant for white clothing and her reluctance to greet guests or, later in life, even leave her room. Although a prolific private poet, fewer than a dozen of her nearly eighteen hundred poems were published during her lifetime.

Friends of Ryerson Woods is increasingly interested in exploring how nature and culture are linked.  As such, we recommend Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry by Camille T. Dungy published by the University of Georgia Press in December 2009.  Black Nature is the first anthology to focus on nature writing by African American poets, a genre that until now has not commonly been counted as one in which African American poets have participated.   It features poets including the writers Harryette Mullen, Ed Roberson, Evie Shockley, Natasha Tretheway, Camille Dungy and Al Young.

Just as nature is too often defined as wilderness when, in fact, nature is everywhere we are, our nature poetry is too often defined by Anglo-American perspectives, even though poets of all backgrounds write about the living world. By creating an anthology of nature poetry by African American writers, poet and editor Dungy enlarges our understanding of the nexus between nature and culture, and introduces a “new way of thinking about nature writing and writing by black  Americans.”— BOOKLIST, starred review

You might enjoy viewing this video from the Black Nature: A Symposium on the First Anthology of Nature Writing by African-American Poets at The Berkeley Institute of the Environment in 2010.  They read from their work and participate in a discussion on the literary and environmental issues raised by the new anthology.

A closing poem in celebration of the trees that define our landscape here at Ryerson Woods.

TREES

By Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918)

I THINK that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest

Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,

And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in Summer wear

A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;

Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,

But only God can make a tree.

“Trees” was originally published in Trees and Other Poems. Joyce Kilmer. New York: George H. Doran Company, 1914.  Best known for this poem, Joyce Kilmer was killed in action during World War I while serving in France on July 30, 1918.