A Restorationist's View of Conservation

Piles of brush (honeysuckle:  Lonicera maackii) accumulate where the forest floor is opened to receive sunlight.

Piles of brush (honeysuckle:  Lonicera maackii) accumulate where the forest floor is opened to receive sunlight.

One of the finest ways of nurturing a sense of place, developing a direct connection to the land, is the practice of ecological restoration. As stewards—caretakers—we manage the vegetation of the site, which fosters a certain intimacy with the environment. Working the land for the purpose of healing, of restoring the vibrancy of the living systems at hand, connects us to the spirit of the specific locality. And yet, ecological restoration is a fairly recent phenomenon, a current expression of the conservation movement.

The conservation of natural areas has taken on different forms over the past century. From early efforts toward preservation of scenic beauties, to the calculated extraction of utilitarian resources, to active efforts to restore natural processes in historical landscapes, conservation has proven to be a multifaceted endeavor. Where once the preservationist presumed it to be sufficient to protect an area from development or despoilment, today’s restorationist seeks to manage natural areas for native biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Why the shift? Like many movements, restoration arose as a collective response to perceived threats. Planners, practitioners, and researchers alike recognize that natural areas, left unmanaged, quickly degrade in the face of stressors such as invasive species, altered hydrology, and fire suppression. Natural functions are diminished; ecological relationships are strained; species are lost. Due to the many challenges that stress the systems that sustain them, natural areas require our intervention. To allow nature to take its course no longer serves to preserve the historical character of our native natural communities. So we intervene, we intercede on behalf of native species and the ecosystems in which they live. We remove invasive species, restore habitat, and enhance the diversity of native species present in the system.

Such work may feed the human spirit, even while enriching the natural area being restored. Many people find quiet joy and great satisfaction in participating in restoration workdays. Good exercise in fresh air, coupled with the knowledge that we are making a positive difference in the world, combine to bring about a legitimate sense of well being.

If you have not yet experienced a restoration workday—or if you have and you are ready for another taste—I encourage you to join us here at Severson Dells to help restore our natural communities. We gather twice a month, on the second Saturday and the fourth Monday, 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon, with our inaugural workday slated for Monday, October 23, 2017. Respond via e-mail (gregr@seversondells.org) or phone (815-335-2915) to let me know to expect you. Dress for the weather and be prepared to get dirty. Bring a water bottle and work gloves if you can. And perhaps bring a willingness to be open to that natural connection to the living landscape.

Are Acorns Dangerous Nuts?

We have been having a lot of fun this fall doing Outdoor Skills programs for visiting classes.  We teach them how to identify some “dangerous plants” (poison ivy, wood nettle), how to make cordage (a very useful skill if you are ever on your own in the wild), how to build a debris shelter, how to tie basic knots, etc.  It’s not all serious, though – we also teach them how to make spinning tops from acorns, how to use an acorn cap as an emergency whistle, and how to make toy ducks from cattail leaves.  Last week, a parent asked if having the children handling acorns, even putting them up to their mouths, wasn’t dangerous, because, after all, they are nuts.  What if the child had a nut allergy? 

I didn’t have an answer. 

And what about all the walnuts and hickory nuts that are all over the ground this time of year?  I needed to do some research, and here is what I found out.

As most of us know, peanuts are not real nuts, they are legumes, so peanut allergies are not really relevant when it comes to dealing with the native nuts we have here.  However, walnuts and hickory nuts are on the list of dangerous nuts for those who suffer from tree nut allergies.  Acorns are not on any lists, and from everything I have found, they are not problematic (they have a different type of protein than the other tree nuts, which is apparently what makes them safe).  But even if they were problematic, here is the thing:  one has to actually consume these nuts in order to have a reaction to them (http://blog.onespotallergy.com/2012/11/newstalk1010-interview-are-acorns-a-risk-if-youre-allergic-to-tree-nuts/).  Rest assured, parents:  we do not allow students to taste things here.

So, I’m breathing easier now that I know we can continue doing acorn cap whistles and making acorn tops.  But what about the walnuts and hickory nuts that are rolling about underfoot – should one be concerned about children touching them, or inhaling crushed bits of them?  Here is what is written on the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology website (https://www.aaaai.org/ask-the-expert/inhaled-tree-nut-allergen):

Your question is focusing on contact sensitivity or inhaled exposure in an individual who is tree nut allergic. Although it is difficult to make absolute statements, I am convinced by the available literature and clinical experience that there is no significant risk associated with a tree nut allergic person engaging in activities in close proximity to a tree, even with nuts on the ground around the tree. Certainly skin contact with nuts outside of the shell is a potential risk if common sense measures of avoidance are not in play. Although aerosol food allergen exposure has been described, this has been primarily in cooking of the food. I have cared for a patient who would have respiratory symptoms when sitting in an establishment with peanut shells on the floor, so aerosol exposure is theoretically possible but is not a realistic concern in an outside environment.

In summary, there is risk in any activity of life. I think you can reassure your patient and their family that the risk of playing under a pecan or walnut tree is negligible, even with pecan or walnut allergy, as long as the nuts are not handled or eaten. Inhalation risk is not a concern in this circumstance.

In summary, it looks like we will now caution parents, teachers and students not to handle the nuts if they have known tree nut allergies…at least if the nuts are outside of their shells.  Fortunately, most of the nuts we find are still in their shells, which is a relief considering how many times in the last few weeks we have turned around to find students with their pockets bulging with nuts they have picked up to take home!


Clingers & Shakers

What do Coneheads, Fluffies, Ballistic Missiles, Mama’s Boys, Clingers, and Shakers have in common? They’re all whimsical names applied to types of seeds based on their dispersal mechanisms.

The familiar dandelion, for example, disperses its seeds by air, each attached to a fluffy appendage known as the pappus. We’ve all experienced blowing on the tuft of a ripe dandelion seed head to watch the little “parachutes” float away on a breeze. Thistledown is another example of pappus. We might categorize seeds dispersed in this manner as Fluffies.

Generally, as organisms rooted in place, plants benefit from dispersing their seeds away from the parent; that’s how a population might expand and how new territory might be claimed by a given species. Some plants disperse their seeds with the aid of mobile animals. Seeds with bristly attachments, hooked hairs, and the like (think Bidens, enchanters’ nightshade, or stick-tight) might be called Velcro Seeds or Clingers. Those of us who have had to face the challenge of trying to comb bur dock out of a dog’s fur know just how stubborn such seeds can be in clinging to an animal.

Some seed pods are spring-loaded and catapult their seeds a considerable distance, perhaps as far as 30 feet. Such a dispersal mechanism could be termed, Ballistic. Local examples include Geranium, violets, and jewelweed.

If you’d like to learn more about seed types, especially in terms of harvesting native seeds for use in ecological restoration of natural areas, we have just the program for you:  Seed Collection & Dispersal, here at Severson Dells on Monday, October 2, from 9:00 a.m. until noon. We will begin with a brief presentation of seed types and dispersal mechanisms, followed by a hands-on field session of seed collection, and concluding with a tour of the Winnebago Forest Preserves’ seed-processing facility.

Each seed is a treasure, a little box of promise. Each seed represents the vegetation of the future—and our own future wellbeing may well hinge upon the vegetation that sustains the diversity of life in our region. To hold such promise in the palm of our hand, to nurture the future, is an honor and a privilege. And you are welcome to participate.

The event is free. RSVP at http://www.seversondells.com/community-programming-1/ or call 815-335-2915.

Ripe seeds of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)--shown without the pappus

Ripe seeds of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)--shown without the pappus

Things That Make You Say "Hm"

Have you ever wondered what sort of things go through the mind of a naturalist?  No doubt it varies from person to person, as all such things do, so I can only tell you for sure the things that often have me entranced as I try to puzzle them out.  Here is a "for instance."

a mass of braconid wasp cocoons Microgastrinae.jpg

A couple days ago, while leading a school program, one of our volunteers found this fluffy white mass on the back of a dried leaf that had fallen from one of the trees along our path.  Now, I knew it was an egg or pupa case, and I knew I had seen it before, but I could not recall what species it belonged to or any details of its life history.

When we got back to the visitor center, and while the students took their lunch break, I grabbed my copy of "Tracks and Signs of Insects" by Eiseman and Charney, and searched for the answer I was sure was in there.  No luck.

And yet I KNOW I had seen (and identified) it before.

My go-to site for all insect ID is the terrific website BugGuide.Net.  If you haven't been there yet, you must do so soon.  These folks are terrific: you send them a photo of some mystery insect or insect part, and often within a couple hours you have an answer as to what it is. 

So, off I sent my photo, and sure enough, the answer soon came back: Braconid Wasp, subfamily Microgastrinae.

My work had only just begun.

This morning I have been scouring my insect books and the Web in search of details about this small ball of fluff.  Eggs?  Pupae?  Life cycle?  And while some information is quite readily available, much (to me) still remains a mystery.

For example:

There are about 2000 described species in the subfamily Microgastrinae.  Scientists suspect there are 5-10,000 species possible; that is a lot of unknowns.

The Microgastrinae are a subfamily of the Brachonid wasps, which are the second largest family of wasps in the world (right after the Ichneumonids, just in case you were wondering).  Over 17,000 species of Brachonids are recognized today, but again, it is believed there are thousands more that we know little to nothing about.

Brachonids are parasitic wasps.  In general, they lay their eggs on the host (in the case of the Microgastrinae, the hosts are the caterpillars of moths and butterflies), the eggs hatch, consume the host, pupate, and then the adults fly off to continue the cycle. 

If you have ever seen a tomato hornworm in your garden that is covered with small white ovals all over its back, you are seeing the pupal cases of a Microgastrinae.  The larvae ate the caterpillar's "blood" (hemolymph) and internal organs, then tunneled out of its dying body to spin silky cocoons on this back.  This is a good thing for you and your tomatoes - not so good for the caterpillar.

Anyway, this was all familiar territory for me -- I have seen many a hornworm covered with cocoons, and plenty more photos of other species of caterpillars similarly parasitized.  But the fluffy mass that is currently sitting on my desk has no (apparent) caterpillar host associated with it.  Why?

I continue to search the Web, but even BugGuide has let me down - there are photos a-plenty, but mostly all it says about them is "Brochonid Wasp - Microgastrinae" - no life histories.

The best I can come up with at this time is that this is a collection of Microgastrinae pupae (and if I teased apart the mass I would surely find all the little oval pupal cases), and perhaps the desiccated husk of the host caterpillar has fallen away, since by now its purpose is fulfilled and it is obsolete.

Knowing me, however, I shall continue to puzzle about this until one day I have found THE answer.

Light in the Sky


Recent weather systems have ushered in some glorious skyscapes, with a delightful play of light and shadow, color and texture, gracing the space above us. Cool days and crisp nights herald the coming of autumn, weeks before the equinox arrives. Sunsets come earlier and sunrises, later. Sunlight glances in on a slant distinctly different from that of high summer. We can feel the change in the air.

Of all these seasonal changes, one that tickles me most is the light in the sky. Clouds, lit from beyond, cast shadows of blue or gray that seem to support the white billows above. As gentle winds send undulating waves through the prairie grasses and set the tall, yellow Silphium and Helianthus to wave rollicking across the landscape, breezes usher low clouds across the sky in a procession of festive forms.

Any time of day might offer a show or feature a surprise, like the red moon that shone down upon us in September, just past full, ruddy with the residue of western wildfires. For those of us fortunate enough to be under a cloudless sky, August’s solar eclipse was something rare and wonderful to experience. Those even more fortunate caught a glimpse of the elusive aurora borealis in September.

No matter where you are, in city or town or out and away, you might catch a glimpse of the parade in the sky. For my part, I prefer to see it framed in nature, cast in a setting of leafy trees or adorned by the nodding spikelets of tall grasses.

Pause to breathe deeply; capture a moment of quiet; see the seasonal skyscape.  Go ahead. Take a look. Raise your gaze and smile back at the sky.

Monarchs Emerging


Yesterday we released our first three monarchs.  They emerged from their chrysalises (see above) on Tuesday, but had to rest and dry for several hours before they were ready to go.  One more may emerge today, leaving one chrysalis still in the "cage."  That final chrysalis formed just last week, and it takes about two weeks for the monarch to complete the pupal process, so we anticipate it emerging late next week.  The monarchs that you see outside now are the ones that will be heading to Mexico for the winter.  Keep your eyes open as you drive around these next few weeks - on a nice sunny day you may see waves of monarchs winging their way to warmer climes.

Severson Science Saturday: Monarch Mania


This past Saturday was a stellar day at Severson Dells.  It was the latest in our Science Saturday series, and we focused on monarch butterflies.  The weather was perfect, and visitors came out in droves.

If you didn't make it, here's what you missed:

The Animal Farm Band performed in The Grove to a roving audience of parents and adults.  Their music was engaging, and we even had families doing yoga and dancing to some of the tunes!  After the show, they invited the kids to come up and play a couple of the instruments - what fun!

The Southern Wisconsin Butterfly Association had a table set up in our classroom and they were able to answer not only all sorts of questions about butterflies in general, but were also able to share dragonfly information with visitors, for one of them has authored a dragonfly ID book.

But the day really was a focus on monarchs, a species that is facing a variety of obstacles for survival.  We had a handful of live caterpillars and chrysalises on display, which we collected and are raising inside so visitors can see the process up close and in person.  Visitors were able to plant swamp milkweed seeds in newspaper pots that they made, to take home and plant, and we were also giving out local wildflower seeds, so visitors could create their own pollinator patches at home.

Why are monarchs in distress?  There are so many factors contributing to their decline:  habitat loss (wintering habitat in Mexico is falling to timber harvesting, and all along the route north, milkweed patches are disappearing - more on this in a moment); increase in disease; and, dare I say it, climate change.

Let's take a look at the one that we as individuals can all have a hand in controlling:  milkweed.  As every grade school child knows, monarchs are completely dependent on milkweed - it is the only food the caterpillars eat.  That said, there are many different species of milkweed, each adapted to specific habitats.  The most common one is, well, common milkweed (Asclepias syrica).  This is the one that we used to find in every field and along every roadside.  If you find yourself in wetter areas, you've probably encountered swamp milkweed (A. incarnata), with its brighter, more magenta blossoms.  In our prairies and grasslands, butterflyweed (A. tuberosa) stands out with its brilliant orange flowers and its shorter, almost bushy, form. 

These three are the milkweeds most people have seen, but our part of Illinois is home to a few others, like poke milkweed (A. exaltata), which is our only woodland milkweed and has flowers that remind me of an old-fashioned firework; sand milkweed (A. amplexicaulis); woolly milkweed (A. lanuginosa), a state threatened species (it's rare); purple milkweed (A. purpurascens); prairie milkweed (A. sullivantii); whorled milkweed (A. verticillata), which has such thin, thread-like leaves that at first glance you would dismiss as a milkweed until you looked at its beautiful cream-colored flowers; and short green milkweed (A. viridiflora).  So many different colors, and all glorious.

The thing about monarchs and milkweed is that whichever species the female lays her eggs on, that is the species the caterpillars must eat, so there needs to be plenty of it around for the larvae to visit in order to get enough food to survive.  Also, if you collect the eggs or caterpillars to raise indoors, you need to have a source of the milkweed species you found them on so you can continue to feed them while in captivity.

When I collected the caterpillars three weeks ago to have on hand for this program, I had no idea how difficult it was going to be to find enough common milkweed to keep them fed.  I've been involved with raising monarchs indoors for a number of years, and milkweed has been incredibly easy to find - after all, it does grow along roadsides!  But this year I had to scour the roads and fields near Severson Dells to find enough young plants to harvest to keep our larvae fat and happy.  And I only had eight caterpillars!

Why is this?  One of the reasons is directly related to the change in agriculture.  With large-scale farms growing huge monocultures of corn or soybeans, we find less and less milkweed on the landscape.  Once upon a time, milkweed grew alongside these crops - it wasn't too much of a competitor and the butterflies were able to find enough to carry on.  Modern farming practices, however (and this is just in the last few years), have turned to crops that have been genetically modified to be "Round-Up Ready."  This means that they are resistant to the herbicide Round-Up, so after the crops are planted, the farmers can go through and spray the fields with this herbicide to kill off all plants that are not their crop plants.  This keeps the competition down and increases their yield.  Unfortunately, this means there is no milkweed in the fields or on the field margins any more, which is problematic for monarchs, especially as they migrate north.

You see, monarchs have a bit of an unusual life cycle.  Let's start off with the ones that are here right now.  We are part of the northern range of these butterflies, and the ones that are emerging now are the last of this year's cycle.  This generation is the one that flies all the way down to Mexico to for the winter.  Those that survive the winter start to head northward the next spring.  They stop in Texas, or some other southern location, where they mate, lay eggs and die.  Those eggs hatch, and the caterpillars that successfully become butterflies fly the next leg of the Journey North.  They, too, stop part way north, mate, lay eggs, and die.  It takes four generations to make it to The North.  The fifth generation is the final one, and that is the one that then heads back to Mexico in the fall.  So, you see, if there isn't milkweed all along the routes these butterflies take as they fly northward, then there is no food for the caterpillars, and that means there won't be a next generation.

Disease and parasites also contribute to the decline in monarchs.  One disease is called OE, which is short for Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, a protozoan parasite that the caterpillars ingest as they eat the milkweed plants.  Not all milkweed is infected, but the infections are on the rise.  The spores are spread by the adults, and as more and more monarchs are raised in captivity in butterfly houses and to sell to classrooms and brides, the more it spreads, for the spores are often contained in the captive “ecosystems,” and when the butterflies are released, they take the spores out into the wild with them.  And thus the contamination spreads.

A “newer” disease is called Black Death, or NPV (nuclear polyhedrosis virus).  If your caterpillars seem to suddenly “deflate” and then turn black, you have NPV.  Well, YOU don’t, but your caterpillars do, which means your enclosure is infected (if you are rearing them indoors).  This is a virus that is commonly found out in the wild, but in “normal” situations, it isn’t too much a problem.  More on this in a moment.

Monarch caterpillars also have to contend with other parasites:  chalcid wasps, which lay eggs in the chrysalises before they harden, and tachinid flies, which lay eggs on the caterpillars.  The larvae of these parasites consume the host – they live and it dies.  And then there are assorted fungi that can kill the caterpillars, as well as pesticides, such as Bt.  Bt is Bacillus thurigiensis, a bacterium that is sprayed on crops to prevent pests from eating the plants.  But the bacterium doesn’t just fall on crop plants when the fields are treated.  If it lands on milkweed, then the monarch caterpillars ingest it, and, like the “pests,” they are infected by the bacterium and die within three days.

I mentioned climate change – how can this be affecting monarchs?  Let me take you back to NPV for a moment.  This virus, in the wild, is often kept in check by the chill of winter.  However, with good old-fashioned cold winters on the wane these days, NPV is surviving in greater quantity than before.

Climate change is also affecting migration.  Two things tend to trigger migration in animals:  day length and temperature.  While day length is unaffected by climate change, temperature is not, and studies have shown that the monarch’s fall migration has been delayed by as much as six weeks in recent years.  If the butterflies do not leave when they should, then the chances of them finding enough food (flowers for nectaring) as they head to Mexico becomes slim.  In other words, that fifth generation may starve before reaching the wintering grounds, which means there will be no (or fewer) monarchs to head back north come spring. 

It's a complicated thing, life is.  And the more we learn just how intertwined each component is on this planet, the more we see just how prescient John Muir was when he said "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."

So, plant more milkweeds!  Plant all kinds – find out which one(s) is/are right for where you live.  (Don’t plant the tropical milkweed – it isn’t native and comes with its own host of problems.)  And while you are at it, plant other native flowering plants – provide food for other insect pollinators who are facing a genuine food desert out there.

And come join us for our next Science Saturday (September 30), when we will be going crazy over more insects.  It will be Insect Insanity, and who knows, you might even get to sample some edible insects…yum!




Wildflowers- Spring Into Summer

This spring Severson Dells partnered with the Natural Land Institute to offer a 10 week Wildflower Walk series, as we have done for many years. As a new transplant to the area, this was a great way to learn about the wonderful ecological gems we have in northern Illinois and begin to scratch the surface on all of the plants, animals and unique habitats that I get to learn. 

Thank you to all of the volunteers that helped make these walks possible and to all of those that attended. We hope you get out and continue to explore more of the hidden (or not so hidden) gems of northern Illinois and beyond. 

Spring is Moving in Quickly

Every year it seems that spring starts off slowly, and then with a little rain and a few warm days Whoosh!  it explodes and starts galloping very quickly toward summer.  After a week of sunny warm days, and then some rain, the trees went from swelling buds to hand-size leaves!

And just yesterday we had our first hummingbird and tiger swallowtail.

Things are starting to hop here - come on out and welcome the season with a explore along our trails.


I spy with my little my eye...

Warbler ATTACK!!!!

Watching the yellow rump warblers flock through the forest keeps your neck sore and your eyes strained. Spring is in full force here at Severson Dells. If you want to wonder the trails please keep your eyes open to both sky and Earth because there is a wealth of blooms and birds to see.

Stop in and check out the updated bird list on display in the museum room before you hoof it out for hepatica, or dance your way to the dutchmans, and last one- sashay towards the spring beauty!

Hope to see you on the trails!

The New Kid on the Block

Good Morning!  This is Ellen, the new educator at Severson Dells, and I just wanted to take a moment to say hello and introduce myself a little.

I am very excited to join SDNC and look forward to learning not only about SDNC, but also about this part of the country...and getting to know all of you.

I know new staff are an unknown quantity, so let me tell you a bit about myself, where I come from, and what my interests are.

I grew up in a small town central New York, so when I say I am from NY, please don't think I'm from NYC (which most people tend to do).  I am a rural girl at heart.  My family spent time in the woods hiking and picnicking; we spent summer evenings paddling on the lake and summer days learning to fish there; we had an organic vegetable garden (when "organic" was a new concept and not the trend it is today).  In my spare time, I was often outside, turning cartwheels in the lawn, climbing the aspen out back, or even exploring the pasture down the hill.

I attended SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, where I received my BS in Resource Management and Environmental & Forest Biology.  Seven years later I returned to get my MS in Environmental & Forest Biology, concentrating in Environmental Interpretation.  My master's work dealt with the relocation of house bat colonies.

I have worked as a naturalist or environmental educator in one form or another most of my career.  I started off at a great nature center right out of college, which is where I discovered that being a naturalist was exactly what I wanted to do.  From there I worked in NJ, NY and VT before landing my dream job in the Adirondack Mountains of northern NY.  I was there for over ten years when the economy tanked and our facility was closed, all staff laid off.  It was a hard time, but I landed on my feet in south central Michigan, working at a small non-profit environmental education center.  After six years, I found myself laid off once more due to financial difficulties.  Which I how I come to find myself in Illinois!

Over the years I have worked with birds of prey and zoo animals, led paddling, camping and ski trips, told stories around campfires, bushwacked swamps and bogs, taught hundreds of school children (thousands?), harvested hay, created exhibits, and have written more blogs and articles than I can remember.  I have been a quilter, a tracker, a photographer (I love macro, often stalking insects and wildflowers), an animal trainer, and a gardener (I used to grow all the veg I ate every year).  I have played with the SCA (those folks who recreate the middle ages), I have been an archer, and I have studied the medicinal uses of plants.  These days my focus is more toward reconnecting people of all ages with the outdoors, often going back to basics and using primitive skills or building fairy houses as the catch.  I have also developed a passion for habitat restoration, and I love fire.  Did I mention that I also make drums?

As you can see, I am a bit of a jack-of-all-trades.  I dabble because I find it all so very interesting, and just as I really get into something, SQIURREL!  There is always something new to learn and explore.

So, stop by and say hello!  I look forward to meeting you all and sharing ideas.

Bluebirds and Pterodactyls

I start my day in the sunshine letting the dance of nature take me into her rhythm. I am not a great dancer, but that is not the point, I enjoy the movement and feelings of harmony around me. The song is smooth and romantic, warm and bubbly, and I see the bluebird who is my D.J. sitting above me on a branch. The sunlight is illuminating his blue feathers and red breast, he is a powerful mixer of sound. I am standing under him just enjoying the romance of this transcendental moment- I close my eyes and breathe in the scent of early spring...

PTERODACTYL attack!!! Just like that the thrush is quiet and fleeing for his life. All of nature is suddenly rattled and shook to her core by the threesome that has appeared on the scene. Pileated Woodpeckers swoop in with the grandeur of a victorious military occupation. My dance of cool slow jazz suddenly turned into a punk-rock mosh pit full of chisel faced teenagers! I flee the scene to avoid getting a wood-chip in the eye and have to stop to let my heart slow.

Nature's song is so incredible because it is inconsistent and the tempo is ever changing. I hope you dance when the time is right and rock-out when the conductor changes the beat.

Spring is coming fast so make sure you stretch and we will see you on the dance floor!


Tracks upon Tracks

Walking down the familiar trail I found myself following my past. My footprints from the day before were still visible in the light, crunchy, snow under the hickory and oak trees. The light was soft both from the grey overcast as well as still mostly slumbering sun, but I could see smaller footprints within my own boot-prints.

As I made new tracks behind me and continued my morning journey I was transfixed by the visitor who had walked in my steps. Is this another gnome walking through the forest? The snow is not so deep that my footprints provided any easier mode of travel than just walking, so it must have been by choice that these little paws followed me.

I bent down and took a closer look at my stalker. I felt relieved that paws were visible and not small wooden shoe prints so I was able to release the fear of a gnome hunting party. Small and rounded, with a push of snow here and there where a nose could have been sniffing my relic scent, I am pretty confident my night time watcher was a little red fox.

I wonder who she thinks she was following? Or, does she know me and watches me everyday walk the same trail and curiosity drew her out of hiding to find and learn more? How incredible to think that we are the subject of another's curiosity and that as a species we must always remember how important all interactions are- not just first impressions.

Follow me fox. I promise I will lead us to adventure! 

Puddle Fire

Every Tuesday there is a dedicated group of volunteers who show up at Severson Dells Forest Preserve to attack the dreaded honeysuckle that has choked the life from our woods. I cannot even begin to express my emotional attachment to this group of men and women, who have become like family to me. I am so amazed at the work we have accomplished over the years and perhaps through time will share more about the little victories along the way in liberating the Hall creek corridor.

This quick note is to reflect on this previous Tuesday and what with persistence, people can accomplish when they work together. If you recall it has been warm, raining, or freezing rain for the better part of the last week and the very last thing I thought we would be able to do this past Tuesday is start a brush pile on fire. We marched into the woods on our work trail, skirted next to the open water that had pooled above the ice in any low spot. As we approached the creek, large pools of standing water and still melting runoff cascaded to the lowlands, we stood above the flooded creek upon our bridge. Swollen and brown the creek raged with springtime fury, “no way do we get a fire going today” someone yelled above the roar.

We made our way to the first pile and examined the drenched branches while standing in ankle deep water- we passed on this pile and moved up the hill. Somewhat drier, but slippery up on the slope the crew was determined that this pile would burn. I stood in awe as I watched the crew shake the snow from the top branches, and like ants set to work as a single entity to make this waterlogged pile of sticks flammable. Hands and bodies were everywhere, all moving in different directions, but all focused on the end goal. Handful after handful of small broken sticks and branches were added to a small kindling pile of old receipts, a magazine, and the flames grew bigger.

An hour passed by and the dripping from melting snow and ice was no longer a threat to the working fire. Constant, tireless work to grow a small flame to a working fire had paid off. I stood in the puddle and watched the fire burn. There are so many lessons I learn from being a part of the Tuesday crew, and this day was like any other- persistence of a common goal is accomplishable if your team is all on the same page even if it seems impossible. 

The full moon

I stood in my backyard near the two rail white-oak fence I built at dusk.  I watched the January full moon emerge from its hiding on the eastern horizon aglow with reflected starlight.  Snow clouds pushing in from the west had yet to blanket the entire sky and left a horizontal line of clarity to observe the rising moon.  Silver with a pink hue mixed with blue, the moon seemed to sense my watching and made haste to shroud itself in the cloud cover.  Once fully free of the horizons hold the moon hovered between earth and cloud, I could feel the movement, I was in a trance.  Like a great jewel being lifted around an elegant woman’s neck, slow and sensually the whole scene was erotically miraculous.  The touch of the moon as it appeared to rise into the clouds could not have been gentler, easy.  The reflection of my sun was being amplified to my eye with each shrinking inch the moon was drawn in by the clouds.  When only a sliver remained, like a portal into another realm, I found it hard to blink, I couldn’t take my eyes off the shimmering crescent.  I suddenly felt worried and anxious somewhat overwhelmed and amazed.  When it vanished into the clouds, would I?  I was connected.  When the final pinpoint of light disappeared I returned to my reality and could feel the cold against my cheek.  Walking back to the house, with the path enlightened by the world’s nightlight, I knew I had been under the spell as so many have before and will be again by the exotic enchantress of the full moon.

Deer days of winter...

The dog days of summer are nothing like the deer days of winter. Every morning we feed the birds and every morning white tailed deer tip the feeder to the side and pour bird seed into their mouths. This morning there were nine deer stomping around the feeder and each one of them took a turn slobbering all over the feeder. Corn fed during the fall, bird seed fed during the winter, then grass fed in the spring it is no wonder why these deer look like horses! There are many times that a big doe will be under the window of the attic and it is just so tempting to leap onto her back. Like a gnome king I would ride into the woods and explore the world around me.

From the back of my four legged beast I am accepted into the landscape as an equal and the wildlife allows me the opportunity to truly experience their world. A mink crawls up from Hall creek, she is black and her mate is white- this explains the small black and white babies I saw from the trail last spring. Two wood ducks paddle in the pool before a riffle and bluebirds land in the cottonwood above their heads. All is calm. What a peaceful, beautiful world we live among.

If you come walk the trails stay quiet and observant and you may just stumble into the magic that keeps the hills of Severson Dells alive with generations of wonder.

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

Snow lays heavy here at Severson Dells and the tranquility that can be found while walking the trails can not be more needed. If you are in need of an escape from the bustle of Holiday joy, or need to walk off the 2 pounds of Christmas ham stuck in your gizzard come out for a hike! 

This morning while walking into the center I was greeted by the deep rumble of a Great Horned owl calling out to a hopeful mate. Did you know that the owls are setting up territory already, and that they will be on the nest within a month? Babies mean spring right! If you are a mother mouse that must make last minute runs for food because you didn't plan correctly, or ate more than you should have-Look out! Night vision, extraordinary hearing, flying in complete silence, ninja accuracy with talons, owls are super heroes. I wonder if they ever pretend? 

Happy Holidays from the staff of Severson Dells!