Nurturing Our Land

Nurturing Our Land

An oak savanna sunset at the Glacial Park conservation area in McHenry County, IL. Photo by Ray Mathis from


Prairie roots revisited


This past year, great programs by the Friends of Ryerson Woods have highlighted important lessons from the prairie.  In January, the screening of the documentary Greenfire traced the career of Aldo Leopold, considered the father of wildlife ecology.  His land ethic philosophy proposed that instead of conquering nature, man needs to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the natural community for our better good.  Leopold formed his ideas, as presented in the Sand County Almanac, from serving as one of the first U.S. forest rangers, chairing the original University of Wisconsin’s Game Management Department, and restoring a worn out farm with his family.  Later in May, Ryerson’s Smith Nature Symposium awarded leading U.S. ecologist Steven Apfelbuam of Applied Ecological Services for his regional conservation efforts including the nationally acclaimed Prairie Crossing community in Grayslake, Illinois.  Extending upon Leopold’s ideas, Steven’s work has epitomized how ecology,

wes jackson

Overlooking the Middlefork Savanna in Lake Forest, Wes Jackson of the Land Institute compares the roots of relatively wimpy annual vs. vigorous perennial wheat crop. Photo courtesy of Friends of Ryerson Woods.

economy, culture and sustainability can work successfully together.  A few years back, my husband and I had the opportunity to visit Steve’s 80-acre farm in Wisconsin that he has been restoring with his partner Susan for the past 30 years.  Their amazing Stone Prairie farm embodies the principles of land health, as documented in his book Nature’s Second Chance.  The symposium’s key note speaker Wes Jackson, vanguard plant geneticist and founder of The Land Institute in Kansas (who happens to be a MacArthur “Genius” and Right Livelihood award recipient), shared his plans to revolutionize the way the world grows most of its food.  He states industrial agriculture dependent on pesticides and fertilizers is the largest threat to ecosystem functions.  As outlined in Nature as a Measure, Jackson believes deep rooted perennial grain crops, as opposed to annuals, can conserve soil and water, require less fossil fuel, reduce global warming by storing carbon in deep rooted plants and restore biodiversity.  These inspiring conservationists stressed because we are part of the natural world, interdependent on the ecological systems that sustain our lives, we need to live responsibly with nature.  Begging the question, lacking rural farmland to restore, what can we do here in the North Shore to revive our native landscape?



Spurring land health in the suburbs:

Connect with the natural world

Getting outside and having endearing nature experiences compels us to protect it.  Richard Louv, author of The Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle, makes a convincing

Ryerson woods

As John Muir noted, walking is the best way to get in touch with nature. With six miles of trails that wind through woods, prairie, meadow and along a river, Ryerson Woods in Deerfield is the perfect place to take a hike or cross-country ski.  Photo by Joel Sartore/National Geographic Stock.

case that kids and adults are hard wired to interact with our natural environment.  In 10 Reasons Why Children and Adults Need Vitamin N, he reviews how nature can help us become happier, healthier, smarter and more productive.  Unfortunately, he points out many of us suffer from nature deficit disorder.  Good thing we are blessed with incredible native beauty and outdoor recreation close to home, with parks, prairies, woodlands, wetlands, the Chicago Botanic Gardens and of course Lake Michigan beachfront not too far away.  The Backyard Nature Center (BNC) lists outdoor play opportunities in New Trier Township, from kayaking in Skokie Lagoon and bike trails throughout the township to cross country skiing at the Glencoe golf course and nature exploration at local preserves.  The Chicago region boasts 370,000 acres of natural open

kayaking skokie lagoons

Paddling around Skokie Lagoons. Photo courtesy of

space.  The Chicago Wilderness Places to Visit and The Nature of Chicago by Isabel Abrams spotlight many nearby getaways as well.   Of course, you can also experience nature at home by starting a garden or setting up a birdhouse.  Your children’s schools can also awaken their sense of wonder by exposing kids to four season outdoor play, nature friendly field trips, eco-crafts and hands on environmental curriculum.


cardinal and birdhouse

We love to spot cardinals in the dreary winter months. Sunflower seeds in our feeder seem to be a big draw. Photo by Tammy Venable from



Go native in your yard

For many years, our suburban yard was pretty typical with a manicured lawn, some shade trees and ornamental shrubs and flowers. I took my cues from the attractive gardens around town.  It never occurred to me that most of our plants and shrubs had European and Asian origins.  The problem is over time alien plants can spread out of control and overtake native plant communities.  Fortunately, native perennial, grasses, shrubs and trees have been making a comeback in landscapes thanks to their beauty, hardiness and low maintenance.


Spectacular Goatsbeard (Aruncus) plants up to 5' tall are currently flowering in my backyard. With the help of Village Gardeners in Wilmette, other native perennials in our yard include Aster, Baptisia, Black-eyed Susan, Bugbane, Butterfly Milkweed, Coneflower, Coral Bells, Coreopsis, Goldenrod, Filipendula, Liatris, Monarda, Pasque Flower, Phlox, Red Switchgrass, Spiderwort, Swamp Milkweed, Turtlehead, Wild Columbine and Wild Gernanium.

Natives have evolved here over time and grow naturally with our local soil, moisture and climate conditions.  In well suited locations, natives are more equipped to thrive and endure our cold winter blasts and summer heat.  Alien plantings require more water, insecticides, fertilizers, pesticides, pruning and protection to survive.  Native birds, butterflies and insect species survive on food and shelter only offered by native plantings.  (see wren post Butterflies Welcome)

For example, Monarch caterpillars can only feed on Milkweeds. Without these host plants to lay their eggs on, our lovely state insect would disappear.  On the other hand, my shade loving Hostas that hail from China (often called the “Winnetka Weed” because they are so prevalent here), have little value to the butterflies in my garden.  Native plantings also help enrich the soil, reduce erosion and filter runoff which improves water quality and quantity.  Luckily, the semi-arid climate of the Midwest supports a many gorgeous native plantings for wet, dry, sunny and shady spots throughout the four seasons.  It should be noted plants labeled “native”


What's not to love about native coneflowers? Butterflies like the nectar and birds go for the seedheads. Photo by Marie Iannotti from

can be specific to Illinois, the Midwest or North America –  the more local and site suitable, the better.  Also the plant hardiness zone map was updated this year and the North Shore is no longer in Zone 5 but now considered Zone 6a.  When we were designing the landscape for our new home, we tried to incorporate native perennials, shrubs and trees wherever possible to make our yard more alive.  While we do have some non natives that I could not resist, we were careful to avoid  invasive plants of Chicagoland.  As time goes on, we’ve been transitioning more natives in and exotics out.  Also, since lawn grass is also non-native and requires abundant watering, we tried to minimize our lawn space by expanding garden beds, adding a wood chip play area and permeable walk paths.  It helps to work with landscape professionals and garden centers that are knowledgeable about using natives and avoiding invasives.


If you’d like to further explore going native in your yard, check these resources adapted from the Go Green Wilmette’s landscaping tips page:



A bee feeds on our fragrant Basswood tree.  In addition to existing mature oaks, other native shrubs and trees in our yard include Annabelle Hydrangea, Arborvitae, Black Chokeberry, Blackhaw Viburnum, Bottlebrush Buckeye, Carolina Silverbell, Clethra, Diablo Ninebark, Cranberry Viburnum, Oakleaf Hydrangea, Redbud, Red Maple and Serviceberry.


Maintain your yard naturally

In order to keep our yard healthy, green and lush, we follow three eco friendly goals: 1) Cultivate healthy live soil, which is the foundation of nurturing healthy plants.  2)  Promote the recycling loop by composting our yard and food waste to turn around and feed the nutrient packed compost back to our soil and plants.  3) Avoid chemical pesticides and fertilizers.  The good thing is, several firms in our area offer likeminded yard services.  Logic Lawn Care has been using their clean, quiet electric equipment to maintain our property naturally since we


It's all about building healthy soil, full of microorganisms, organic matter and goodness.

moved in.  In the growing season, they mow our grass at the highest setting (around 3″) and mulch back the clippings into the lawn to return organic matter and nitrogen back into the soil.  Weeds are pulled by hand and most yard trimmings are placed into our compost bins (to learn more about our compost set-up, see wren post Confessions of a Composting Slacker).  We set our irrigation system to water deeply and infrequently (around 1″ of water per week).  In the fall, our leaves are shredded and mulched into our garden beds, some added to our compost bins.  In the spring, we harvest our mature compost and fertilize our garden beds.  Logic aerates our lawn and then topdresses it with organic compost to your lawn.  Several times throughout the season they apply organic fertilizer that continues to build the soil.  Kinnucan Tree Experts fertilize our trees with organic root fertilizer treatments made from compost, grains, vegetables, seed shells, kelp and sea minerals.  Also The Organic Gardener helps us grow our fruits and vegetables without any chemicals (for a fuller see Grow Edibles in Your Yard).  We avoid synthetic pesticides and fertilizers for many reasons.  Pesticide sprays kill essential worms, butterflies, spiders, bees, birds, insects and soil microorganisms.  We want to attract butterflies and bees that pollinate flowers and fruit, burrowing earthworms that aerate soil and beneficial predators like ladybugs to eat aphids.  Using these synthetic products is a slippery slope because they create a cycle of dependence requiring ongoing chemical usage.  To ward off insects and disease, we rely on healthy soil, compost, diverse native plantings and non-toxic pest control such as

pesticide free yard

Without using any synthetic chemicals or fertilizers, our yard looks great. Instead of signposts warning kids to stay off treated lawns, our kids and visiting pets are always safe to play.

companion planting, targeted non-toxic garlic, hot pepper or soap sprays and other homemade remedies.  Of most concern, chemical pesticides and fertilizers pose serious health risks to people, especially children and pets.  The Safer Pest Control Project provides information on the risks and safer alternatives, including a Kid’s Guide to Pesticides and Lawns We Can Live With.  For your protection from involuntary exposure in your yard, Illinois law allows you to request 24 hour advance notice before a neighbor’s landscaping company sprays their adjacent yard.  Also to be safe on park district lawns and at golf courses, look out for lawn markers or posted signage.  You can request prior notification by the North Shore Mosquito Abatement District by calling call (847) 446-9434.  Toxic pesticides and fertilizers also degrade our water through stormwater run-off.  Stormwater pollution, beach contamination and green solutions will be considered in the upcoming July wren post.


To learn more about natural yard care:

  • attend How to Make Your Lawn More Eco-Friendly at Ryerson Woods on Thursday, June 21, 7-8:30
  • check out these great resources: The Organic Lawn Care Manual by Paul Tukey, The Organic Gardener’s Handbook of Natural Pest and Disease Control by Fern Marshall and Teaming with Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis.


Become a local steward

If you’d like to be more hands on with protecting and restoring natural environments, plenty of places around here would love your volunteer time.  The Backyard Nature Center and Cook County Forest Preserve District organizes Second Saturdays 10-1 to clear Buckthorn

invasive buckthorn

As part of Patch's Give 5 community volunteer program, Chi-an Chang helps remove invasive Buckthorns at the Skokie Lagoons. Photo by Jacob Nelson at

and other invasives, plant natives and pick up litter from the Skokie Lagoons.  Also, many local schools, park districts and forest preserves are affiliated with Mighty Acorns, which fosters nature and stewardship programs for 4-6th graders throughout the Chicagoland area.  Chicago Wilderness, Nature Conservancy and Chicagoland Environmental Network also list a variety of conservation volunteer opportunities in our area that you may find rewarding.  Hats off to Betsy Leibson and the Friends of Glencoe Green Bay Trail volunteers for working to restore a 1/2 mile stretch on the Green Bay Trail.  They’ve spent over 1,000 hours clearing invasive Buckthorn and Garlic Mustard “that is taking our woods away from us.”  For over a year, they have collected, cleaned, germinated in greenhouses and planted over 3 million native plant seeds.  Check out their efforts here on YouTube or next time you hit the trail:



Advocate for conservation and sustainable development

When it comes to land development, we need to ensure that nature is fully considered and respected in the decision-making processes.  Currently, a hot button eco issue in Northern Illinois is the proposed expansion of Route 53 near Long Grove and Grayslake.  The Center for Humans and Nature’s thoughtful To build or not build a road essays offer considerations to more fully honor both our wild and human communities.  Good efforts are being made in

Crow Island Woods

Here in the Prairie State, less than one percent of the 8,000 year old tallgrass prairies remain today.  The Sedge Meadow at Crow Island Woods allows us to appreciate our native landscape before it was cleared and reshaped for European settlement.

Lake County to provide open spaces and protect wildlife habitat.  A consortium of conservation groups is working to preserve forever at least 20% of Lake County’s landscape as natural areas, parks, trails, and farmland.  Since Northern Cook County is largely developed, we need to encourage more land restoration and green infrastructure, often focused on improving stormwater management.  Serving as a great example, the Winnetka Park District’s careful restoration of Crow Island Woods earned a 2010 Conservation and Native Landscaping Award (see left).  When it comes to preserving and restoring ecologically important land, protecting natural habitats and wildlife and securing natural open spaces for public enjoyment, local conservation and environmental groups, such as The Nature Conservancy and Open Lands have been instrumental advocates on our behalf.  Any support you can give helps.  Currently, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is struggling to stay afloat with the State’s budget crisis.  DNR manages and maintains 324 state parks, fish and wildlife areas, forests, trails and recreational sites with 45 million annual visits.  Over the past several years, staffing has been cut in half and parks are deteriorating. To help fund the parks, a bill to increase license plate fees by $2 was passed in the Illinois House but failed by 3 votes in the Senate due to procedural rules.  Please urge your State Senator to support Bill 1566 when the next session reconvenes.



Of course many other sustainable choices can support our natural landscape, fodder for future posts.  In the meanwhile, check out the rest of Friends at Ryerson Woods interesting eco programs this year.  The  event calendar shown here includes author talks, art shows, lectures, nature walks, etc.



10 Tips for Lovely, Less Toxic Nails

10 Tips for Lovely, Less Toxic Nails

LOVE your  nailsspacer

I’m not exactly a nails fanatic, although I’ve come to love an occasional pedicure.  The strong fumes of polishes, removers and salons have been a big turn off.  Good thing is, thanks to increased demand, the nail care industry is shifting to safer, more natural products that work just as well.  My friends Tracy and Fiona mentioned that Treat Nail Lounge in Evanston was an eco-friendly salon, so we decided to check it out.  We immediately noticed fresh air as we entered the calm, clean, modern space.  I asked the owner, Hailey, what makes their salon different from a conventional one.  She said they offer various eco-friendly products for their customers.  We found nail polishes known to be less toxic such as Zoya, OPI, Essie and SpaRitual, non-acetone polish remover, and Qtica Smart Spa pedicure products such as the Lime Zest Sugar Scrub.  Another big difference, harsh fumes from acrylic nails didn’t drift our way as we were held captive on the pedi chair, because artificial nails are not on the menu.  Thumbs up, we all enjoyed our relaxing green pedicure.  While Treat made it easy, I needed to do some homework to make healthier choices at home too.  Turns out my daughters love coloring their nails and I’ve been worried about some of the products that have migrated into our home. Fortunately, I’ve found that girls can have great nails and play it safe too.


Top ten healthy mani & pedi tips:

1.  Learn more about the ingredients in your nail care products

In the absence of U.S. certification for ‘safe’ nail products, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) Skin Deep database supplies safety ratings on thousands of beauty products.  Before you select nail polish, remover, hand cream, cuticle treatment or foot care products, research the product’s safety.  This popular cosmetics database gets about one million page views per month.  Unfortunately, the database doesn’t review every brand and formulation out there.  In order to recognize toxic ingredients to be weary of, see Green America’s Nine Toxins to Avoid in Personal Care Products.


2. Chose “three-free” nail polishes at a minimum

Exposure to the “toxic trio” of dibutyl phthalate (DBP), toluene and formaldehyde has been associated with cancer, birth defects, asthma and other negative health effects upon prolonged exposure.   In 2006, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics led a successful campaign to pressure OPI (at  that time the leading salon brand but also one of most toxic nail polishes) to reformulate their products using safer chemicals to protect consumers and nail salon workers. Slowly OPI phased out the toxic trio, and their competitors followed suit. In the past few years, nail polishes are also starting to omit formaldehyde resin and camphor.  Many “three-free,” “four-free,” and “five-three” products are available today, as further listed at

three free nail polish

alllacqueredup.comwellandgoodnyc and rawlifecoaching.  Keep in mind even “5-free” nail polishes aren’t necessarily non-toxic, they still contain other chemicals.  Cross checking with EWG’s Skin Deep database can give you a little more insight.  Below find a sampling of brands with available EWG Skin Deep scores (scores may vary depending on formulations and colors: 0-2 = low hazard, 3-6 = moderate hazard, 7-10 = high hazard, * “3-free” verified upon recent California testing):


3. Give water-based nail polishes a try, especially with your kids

Beyond 5-free options, water-based nail polishes are solvent free and considered low hazard lacquers.  For this reason, many of these products are targeted to kids.

kids water based nail polish

My girls enjoy kid-friendly water based nail polish by Keeki, Honeydew Farms, Piggy Paint and Suncoat.

Since these formulas are still somewhat new and improving, durability may not yet be the same as solvent-based nail polishes.  Polishing nails at night to minimize contact can help the lacquer cure better.  Also be sure to follow the directions, since some brands recommend buffing, a base coat or top coats to extend the wear.  The good thing about water-based nail polishes is that they can be removed with less-harsh nail polish removers, some can be peeled off or even wiped off with vodka.  The water based brands below include available EWG Skin Deep scores and notes if the company was a signer of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.


4. Switch to a natural nail polish remover

Conventional acetone nail polish remover contains harsh smelling solvents that are strong enough to disintegrate plastic.   Needless to say, acetone is pretty toxic and actually dries out your nail beds.  While non-acetone or acetate remover can be gentler, it’s not particularly healthy either.  non-toxic nail polish removerNatural removers rely on water and plant based ingredients, such as soy or corn, rather than petroleum based solvents.  These non-toxic removers are often odorless and pleasant smelling, and may include nourishing natural ingredients such as aloe vera and vitamin E to promote nail health.  Several removers also comply with California’s more stringent pollution control laws.  While conventional products might work faster at getting the polish off, natural polish removers will be gentler to your nails, your health and the environment.


5. Seek out an eco-friendly nail salon

First, be choosy about finding a hygienic, reputable salon that demonstrates proper sterilzation protocols.  Posted credentials, hand washing and tools sanitized with an autoclave and EPA certified disinfectants will limit serious infection risks.  In any case, always trust your senses.  If a salon smells strong and wrong or doesn’t look particularly well kept, go somewhere else.

Additionally, seek out green salons that are knowledgeable and committed to non-toxic, natural nail care across the board.  Treat Nail Lounge, as mentioned above is one. Although I have not visited these places myself, the Egea Spa in Evanston (using the SpaRitual line),

Spa O in Deerfield

Soak your feet in a copper bowl at Spa O in Deerfield. Three-free polishes and Spa Organics pedi products can also be found at this soothing space.

Haven Organic Skin and Nail Care in Wilmette (using the SpaRitual line) and Spa O in Deerfiled also promote organic and earth friendly manicures and pedicures.  Truly being pampered at a spa should be fume free with three free polishes, non-toxic polish removers, organic skin scrubs, paraben free lotions and essential oil soaks.  If you love your existing salon, ask them about the ingredients in the products they are using on you, and encourage them to switch to healthier products.  The nail technicians you have come to depend on may thank you, as their health is most compromised by the continuous exposure of chemical fumes.  If in doubt, you can always bring your own trusted products and sterile tools.  With so many new salons popping up here in Winnetka, I’m somewhat surprised more aren’t trying to attract customers by offering healthier eco friendly options, setting them apart from competitors.


6. Always apply and remove polish in a well-ventilated area

Whether at home or in the salon, the best recommendation for reducing toxicity polish nails outsideis to to make sure you are in a well-ventilated space when you use nail polish and removers.  Avoid salons with persistent heavy odors, a tell tale sign they are not well ventilated.  If at home, go outside to dress or undress your nails when possible.  Also, keep the bottle lids closed as much as possible and seal away materials soaked with polish remover to avoid unnecessary escaping fumes.


7. Reconsider acrylic and gel nails

For long and strong nails or glossy lasting color, many women have turned to salons for acrylic nails and the latest rage, soak off gel nails.  Important questions to consider before having either procedure…how toxic are the materials applied to the nail? what will the impact be to your nail bed?  how safe is the UV or LED light used for setting/curing?  how harsh is the removal process?  The application of acrylic nails involves use of strong chemicals, which may include formaldehyde, toluene and methyl methacrylate (MMA).  The resulting fumes can be strong and toxic.  Gel products are relatively new, and little has been reported about the toxicity.  Both CNT Shellac and OPI Gel Color nails are both three-free, but what other chemicals are being used to deliver longer durability?  Concerns have been raised over skin irritating methacrylates, reproductively toxic methylpyrrolidone  and carcinogenic BHA found in some in gel products.  Aggressive nail filing associated with acrylics and gel nails can weaken the nail bed and increase risk of fungal and bacterial infection.  If your skin is accidentally nicked during filing or the salon is using unmarked bottles, hold off on the procedure to avoid heath risks including infections, exposure to prohibited toxins or nerve damage.  For setting acrylic nails and curing gel nail color, your hands will likely sit under a UV light.  Concerns about regular exposure to UV lights include premature aging of your hands and skin cancer risks.  Curing under new LED lights may be safer since it works quicker than a UV light.  You can also wear special gloves or sunscreen for skin protection.  Removal of acrylics and gel nails is also pretty harsh.  The nail beds need to be soaked in toxic acetone nail polish remover for at least 10 minutes and sometimes additional filing is necessary.  Is all of this really necessary to achieve beautiful nails?


8. Dare to go bare

Photo courtesy of

Going natural often looks best, especially with nicely buffed nails. It’s also easier.  Let’s face it, maintaining nail color, especially on fingers, can be a lot of work!  I find many people pass on polish except for special occasions, or prefer to polish only their toes.  Check out natural living expert Annie Bethold-Bond’s advice for giving yourself a natural manicure and natural pedicure.



9. Try natural, DIY recipes for healthy nails

A fun way to give  your nails, hand and feet some love is to create a homemade spa products.

natural pedicure remedy

Photo courtesy of the

Making your own natural soaks, scrubs and creams can be a fun, pampering project, especially with your kids.  The Klutz Natural Beauty Book by Anne Akers Johnson, offers simple recipes designed for kids 12 and up.  You’d be surprised how nourishing avocado, banana, oatmeal and yougurt mixtures can be!  Better habits and a healthy diet can also keep your nails strong and healthy, as these tips suggest.



10. Support reform in the cosmetics industry

Surprisingly, the cosmetics industry is almost completely unregulated, as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not have the power it needs to keep consumers and salon workers safe.  Just last month, a California study showed numerous nail products tested positive for hazardous chemicals despite label claims.  Currently advocates are urging Congress to adopt meaningful cosmetics regulations including the phase-out of ingredients linked to cancer and reproductive or developmental toxicity; a safety standard that protects workers, babies and other vulnerable populations; full disclosure of ingredients; and FDA authority to recall dangerous products from the market.  These elements are part of the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011 (H.R.2359), co-sponsored by our district’s Congresswomen Rep. Jan Schakowsky.  Tell Congress to fix our broken cosmetic laws here.



See companion Non Toxic NailsPinterest Board for many more visuals & ideas!


Screen Shot 2013-08-30 at 11.07.15 AM


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updated August 2013

Magnificent Morels here shortly!

Magnificent Morels here shortly!


Finding the beloved fungi


Our friend, Jeff, brought us an amazing treat plucked from his Lake County farmstead… a pint of morels.  We cooked them up, and fell for their rich, nutty flavor.  No wonder why morels are the most sought after edible mushroom found in Illinois, going for around $60 per pound.  Since morels cannot be cultivated, foraging is one way to get the real deal.  I’ve heard hunting for the elusive morel can be exhilarating upon finding a prolific patch. Curious to see if I could discover some for another amazing meal, I joined Jeff on a morel hunt.  For all of you naturalists and foodies out there that love morels, here’s what I learned.


Hit the woods

morel hunting w/jeffA successful hunt depends on knowing when to look, where to look and how to be safe. Morels only pop up once a year, usually during April (in southern Illinois) to early May (in northern Illinois).   Jeff explained while the spores are out there, the right ground temperature (around 54 degrees), air temperature and rainfall are necessary for growth.  Morels grow in wild, undisturbed, wooded areas. Unfortunately you can’t just head over to the Skokie Lagoons because collecting mushrooms is prohibited in Cook County and collar county forest preserves.  If caught, you can get a ticket for poaching.  According to Nessie Van Loan, the Foray Coordinator at the Illinois Mycological Association, foraging is allowed in Kankakee County forest preserves and Illinois state parks (except for nature preserves).   You can also sign up for a morel field trip in the Cook County Forest Preserves with the Illinois Mycological Association, permitted to foray there for scientific and educational purposes, see foray dates and info here.  hollow morelIt helps to know someone with private, wooded property.  Since deadly poisonous mushrooms are commonly found, proper identification is critical.  Hunting with an experienced forager or bringing along a field guide is essential, along with following the rule “if in doubt, throw it out”.  Conical, sponge-capped morels are pretty easy to distinguish, their hollow stem and cap set them apart from solid false lookalikes.


Edible wild mushrooms of Illinois & surrounding states



Dr. Gregory Mueller, the Vice President of Science and Academic Programs at the Chicago Botanic Garden, and outdoor writer Joe McFarland’s Edible Wild Mushrooms of Illinois and Surrounding States provides extensive detail and photographs to help safely identify 40 different edible wild mushroom species. These veteran mushroom hunters offer advice on hunting, preparing, storing, drying, and cooking (recipes included) with wild mushrooms.  Also see the accompanying Illinois mushrooms website.






Can you find these hidden morels?

Back to my quest for morels. Last Earth Day, on a beautiful crisp morning, I met Jeff at his farm near Libertyville.   Lucky for me, he’s an experienced mushroom hunter willing to share his sure fire spots.  We hiked out toward silvery elm trees, where morels are typically found.  With his wooden walking stick he carefully poked around the grassy, brambly undergrowth with a keen eye.  You have to be careful not to smash or step on the fragile mushrooms.  After a few fruitless searches, Jeff finally spotted a caramel colored morel emerging from the ground.  Once we found one, we knew we were on fertile ground, likely more would be nearby.  At first I couldn’t find anything among the decaying tree debris, moss, grasses, and occasional mayapple and trillium.  Like Where’s Waldo, the little gems are hard to pinpoint at first.  But with some time, I stumbled upon one.  Then another.  And another.  It was pretty fun.  I joked with Jeff (a big time carnivore), he finally got me (a vegetarian) to like hunting!   Even if we ended up empty handed, searching for morels is a great way to spend some time walking around the woods.


morel bounty

Our productive bounty!


For sale at farmers markets

If you can’t make it hunting, no worries. I checked in with Kitt Healy from Green City Market in Chicago, and he said a few of their vendors have previously sold morel mushrooms.  River Valley Kitchens, Nichols Tomato Mountain and Hawks Hill Ranch may possibly have them available for sale.  Green City’s indoor market is open every Saturday and the outdoor market opens May 4.  River Valley Kitchens also has a stand at the Evanston Farmers Market which opens on May 4th.

morel pasta

We cooked up a simple morel pasta with shallots, garlic, parsley, a touch of cream and Pecorino Romano. Delicious!


On the menu?

Now is the time to check with your favorite restaurant that features local, in season ingredients, maybe you will be in luck.  Perhaps Chowhound has some suggestions on where to find morels on the menu. Please keep us posted if you come across any while dining out!


jeff big mushrooms

Holy mushrooms! A few years ago, Jeff found these gigantic edible mushrooms, two Hen-of-the-Woods and a Giant Puffball.  Enough for a feast.



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Written April 2012, revised 2013 by Amanda Hanley

Best Kid’s Books to Celebrate Earth Day

Best Kid’s Books to Celebrate Earth Day




Turn the page for Mother Earth


Earth Day is coming up on Monday, April 22.  What better time to share with your kids the wonders of our planet and ways your family can take part in making the world a better place.  I have great memories snuggling up with nature inspired classics like E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree and Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax.  Over the years, our family has found many new favorites we love reading together.  If you are on the look out for some of the latest and greatest green books, check out these recommendations at your local library or book store.


For a more regularly updated and expansive list of great green picture books – also see wren’s Pinterest Page Earth Day Books for Kids.



Explore nature’s beauty and bounty:

A seed is Sleepy




A Seed is Sleepy   Written by Dianna Hutts and illustrated by Sylvia Long, this gorgeous and informative guide introduces readers to seeds and plants (2007).  Also see similarly amazing An Egg is Quiet (2006) and A Butterfly is Patient (2011) by the same duo.  Ages: 5+








The Apple Pie Tree






The Apple Pie Tree   Written by by Zoe Hall and illustrated by Shari Halpern, this charming book highlights the joy of apple trees all the way up to making pie (1996).  Also see The Surprise Garden created by the same duo (1998).  Ages: 3+






Brother sun, sister moon





Brother Sun, Brother Moon: Saint Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Creatures   Katherine Paterson reimagines St. Francis of Assisi’s hymn of praise written in 1224.  Exquisitely illustrated by Pamela Dalton (2011).  Ages: 5+






Butterfly Eyes





Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the Meadow Author Joyce Sidman uses poetry riddles and scientific wisdom, accompanied by Beth Krommes’ lovely illustrations, to discover the hidden treasures of the meadow (2006).  Also see Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature ? by the same team (2011).  Ages: 6+






First garden






The First Garden: The White House Garden and How it Grew  Robbin Gourley introduces readers to the history of the White House garden and Michelle Obama’s present day efforts (2011).  Ages: 6+





Lost in the Woods





Lost in the Woods  Carl R. Sans II and Jean Stoick’s amazing nature photography portrays a story about a newborn fawn in its first few weeks of life (2004).  Also see A Stranger in the Woods and many other photographic fantasies by the duo.  Ages: 5-9




roots, shoots buckets & boots





Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots: Activitis to Do in the Garden   Sharon Lovejoy presents the BEST gardening book to inspire kids and parents, whimsical illustrations accompany twelve fun, easy and imaginative theme gardens (1999). Ages: 3+





These Bees Count



These Bees Count!  Written by Alison Formento and illustrated by Sarah Snow, this story takes a field trip to a bee farm and teaches kids how bees produce honey and make flowers grow (2012).  Also see These Trees Count by the same team.  Ages 3+





Outside your window






Outside Your Window: A First Book of Nature   Nicola Davies’ volume of poetry is sprinkled with facts and fun things to do, beautifully illustrated by Mark Hearld (2011). Ages: 8+






Rah Rah Radishes





Rah, Rah, Radishes!: A Vegetable Chant  April Pulley Sayre offers a fun rhyming twist on healthy eating, featuring photographs of produce from Midwestern farmers markets (2011).  Ages 3-6





Secrets of the Backyard Garden





Secrets of the Garden: Food Chains and the Food Web in Our Backyard  Written by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld and illustrated by Priscilla Lamont, learn about backyard food chains and gardening during each season (2012).  Ages 5-11



We planted a tree





We Planted a Tree   Written by Diane Muldrow and illustrated by Bob Staake, this simple poem relays two different parts of the world planting a tree (2010).  Ages: 5+







the world is waiting for you






The World Is Waiting For You  This inspiring compilation of photos by Barbara Kerley and National Geographic archives shows kids how to turn their love for outdoor exploration and adventure into a future career (2013).  Ages 4-8









Just as children need good nutrition and adequate sleep, they may very well need contact with nature.” Richard Louv from Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder




Learn more about earth friendly concepts:


the busy beaver

The Busy Beaver  Written and illustrated by Nicholas Oldland, this charming story is about a beaver that decides to change his ways to benefit the rest of the forest (2011).  Also see Oldland’s Big Bear Hug.   Ages 3-7










care for our world





Care for Our World   Written by Karen S. Robbins and M.H. Clark, and illustrated by Ball Alexandra, young readers learn the importance of caring for all the plants and creatures of the Earth through meeting animals around the world (2012).  Ages 3+






The Cloud Spinner





The Cloud Spinner   Written by Michael Catchpool and illustrated by Allison Jay, this magical tale shows how a young hero stands up to protect nature (2012). Ages: 5+








Common Ground by Molly Bang






Common Ground: The Water, Earth and Air We Share  Caldecott Honor author Molly Bang asks questions how to handle our natural resources through the example of managing townspeople’s growing needs in a a shared village green (1997).   Also see Living Sunlight: How Plants Bring Earth To Life by Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm.   Ages: 9+





The Eagles are Back




The Eagles are Back  Written by Jean Craighead George and illustrated by Wendell Minor, this story shows how dedicated volunteers stopped the extinction of eagles, our national landmark, from pollution (2013). Ages: 6-8 yrs



energy island






Energy Island: How One Community Harnessed the Wind and Changed Their World  Allan Drummond highlights how on the small windy island of Samso in Denmark, the residents have become almost entirely energy independent (2011). Ages: 6+





Compost Stew






Compost Stew: An A to Z Recipe for the Earth  Mary McKenna Siddals offers a bouncy verse on composting do’s and don’ts, illustrated by Ashley Wolff (2010).  Ages: 5-9





The earth book by todd parr






The Earth Book   Todd Parr’s simple artwork and ideas show us how to take care of the earth (2010). Another wonderful book following his others on peace, love, acceptance, etc. Ages: 3-9







Earth Matters






Earth Matters: An Encyclopedia of Ecology  This attractive photo- and fact-filled volume by DK Publishing explores our planet’s habitats, how climate change affects animals and plants on each one, and practical ideas on how to help (2011).  Ages: 7+






An Environmental Guide from A to Z




Environmental Guide A-Z  Chicago author Tim Magner’s eco alphabet spotlights many people, places and concepts of the natural world, illustrated by Aubri Vincent-Barwood (2009).  Also look for his other books N is for Nature and Earl the Earthworm Digs for his Life. Ages: 8-10



Hole in the bottom of the sea





Hole in the Bottom of the Sea  Written by Christine Lavin and illustrated Betsy Franco Feeney, this story and song are inspired by the catastrophic Gulf Oil spill in 2010 that promotes the use of  clean energy to help save wildlife and power our world (2012).  Ages: 4-8






Joseph Had A Little Overcoat by Simms Taback





Joseph Had a Little Overcoat   In this Caldecott Medal winner, Simms Taback shows how the ultimate “downcyler” makes something out of nothing (1999).  Ages: 3+











More  Written by  I. C. Springman and illustrated by Brian Lies, this tale shows how more is not necessarily better (2012). Ages: 4+






Polar Bear, Why is Your World Melting?




Polar Bear, Why Is Your World Melting?  Written by Robert E. Wells, this book offers a simple, clear explanation of global warming.  (2008) Ages 5-9.




One Well





One Well: The Story of Water on Earth  Written by Rochelle Strauss and illustrated by Rosemary Woods, this book shows how every one of us has the power to conserve and protect our global water resources (2007). CitizenKid, a wonderful collection of books that informs children about the world and inspires them to be better global citizens, also includes Tree of Life (biodiversity) and If the World Were A Village. Ages: 8+











The Story of the Blue Planet  Written by Andri Snaer Magnason and illustrated by Aslaug Jonsdottir, this is an adventurous green tale about how kids can wreck or save the world (2012).  Ages: 7+






10 Things I Can Do to Help My World









10 Things I Can Do to Help My World   Melanie Walsh’s die cut flap book suggests small changes that can make a difference (2008). Ages: 3+








UNLESS someone like you cares a whole lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”  Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax




Be inspired by environmental heroes:


Amelia to Zora


Ameila to Zora: Twenty-Six Women Who Changed the World  Written by Cynthia-Chin Lee and illustrated by Megan Halsey and Sean Addy, this books highlights 26 female changemakers in the arts, sports and sciences (2005).  Not solely about the environment, but overall a wonderful book!  Akira to Zoltan is the male counterpart. Ages: 10+



The boy who drew birds






The Boy Who Drew Birds: The Story of John James Audobon  Jacqueline Davies story highlights how Audobon pioneered bird tracking and became the greatest painter of birds, illustrated by Melissa Sweet (2004).  Ages: 9+






If you spent a day with thoreau







If You Spent a Day with Thoreau at Walden Pond  Written by Robert Burleigh and illustrated by Wendell Minor, this book shares Thoreau’s philosophy of living simply and appreciating nature (2012).  Ages: 5-9






in the garden with dr carver

In the Garden with Dr. Carver  

Susan Grigsby writes historical fiction about Dr. George Washington Carver teaching grownups and school children how to restore the farm/garden soil and respect the balance of nature, illustratrations by Nicole Tadgell (2010).  Ages 7-9



 The fantastic undersea life of Jaques Cousteau




The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau  Dan Yaccarino’s biography of Jacques Cousteau guides readers through the wonders of the ocean (2009).  Ages: 5-10







Life in the Ocean.






Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle  This picture book biography by Claire A. Nivola tells the story of Sylvia Earles’s passion for ocean exploration and advocacy for caring for the ocean (2012). Ages 4-8












Me…Jane   Patrick McDonnell’s 2012 Caldecott Honor book is a wonderful story of a young girl who would grow up to be Dr. Jane Goodall, primatologist, environmentalist and humanitarian (2011).  Ages: 3+





Pale male






Pale Male: Citizen Hawk of New York City  Janet Schulman’s true story about a famous red-tailed hawk that built a nest on a swanky Fifth Avenue apartment building to the delight of New Yorkers, illustrated by Meilo So (2008).  Ages: 6+






Olivia's birds





Olivia’s Birds Saving the Gulf   Olivia Bouler and Audobon show how an 11 year old girl, who is a gifted artist and ornithologist, can make a difference in the world (2011).  Ages: 3+





Screen Shot 2013-04-13 at 7.19.31 PM





Rachel Carson and Her Book That Changed the World  Written by Laurie Lawlor and illustrated by Laura Beingessner, this biography of the pioneering environmentalist is in celebratation of the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Silent Spring. (2012).  Ages: 5-10





Wangari's Trees of Peace





Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story From Africa   Jeanette Winter’s story about Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai’s passion and determination to plant trees in Kenya (2008).  Also see Winter’s book The Watcher about Jane Goodall (2011).  Ages: 6+









I encourage everyone, especially young people, to make the world a better place for people, animals and the environment.”  Jane Goodall


. . .


Book list originally by Amanda Hanley, with some help from Robert McDonald of The Book Stall in Winnetka in April 2012.  Revised in April 2013.  For more titles also see wren’s Earth Day Books for Kids Pinterest Board shown here. 

Speak Your Mind

Speak Your Mind

Photograph: Joshua Roberts/REUTERS


Sometimes you just need to take a stand.


With clean air and water laws under attack and climate policy off the table, it’s pretty frustrating being an environmentalist these days.  Feeling somewhat restless, an invitation to the Keystone XL pipeline protest at the White House called my name.  Normally I wouldn’t consider going… I’m too busy, too far away, too old, too cynical it would make any difference.  But this time I didn’t want to sit by and swallow something I believe to be wrong.  The Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street has given me hope that public outcry might actually have some impact.  Maybe this clever protest could actually stop Big Oil’s plans.


white house kxl pipeline protest 11/10

Feeling naked in a crowd fashioned with neon orange vests and steadfast signs like “No Fracking Way!,” we were happy to run into Josh Mogerman from NRDC’s Chicago office, who offered us “NO OIL IN OUR SOIL” signs and hats.

On November 6th, a perfect Indian summer afternoon, my good friend Eileen and I joined the masses to take a stand.  We started off at a festive rally in Lafayette Park near the White House.  An array of speakers, from Tars Sands Action organizer Bill McKibben, NASA scientist Jim Hanson, pastor Jim Wallis, Nobel Laureate Jody Williams, actor Mark Ruffalo and many others reinforced why we needed to stop the pipeline. (To see The Top Ten Reasons Why the Keystone is a BAD DEAL, see February 2012 post PIPELINE INTERRUPTED?)  The energized crowd, representing every walk of life (including many mid-life moms!), gave us our first taste of the human microphone and wiggly finger cheers.


Directed by volunteers, we filled the streets to form a massive circle.  Our stroll past iconic DC buildings was scored by a steady drumbeat and chants of “Hey Obama, we don’t want no climate drama!“  A logjam brought us to a standstill and after a while a confirmation text arrived. An estimated 12,000 people “hugged” the perimeter of blocked streets surrounding the White House, with a band at least six people deep.  We sent a strong message to Pres. Obama to refuse TransCanada’s KXL permit.  The event trailed off with a post rally back on the stage.  The next morning, Eileen and I joined the NRDC folks for breakfast and headed to the Hart Senate offices to lobby our Illinois senators.





Hundreds of people paraded by with a massive mock pipeline hoisted up like a Chinese Dragon




When facing tough odds, it’s easy to think why bother?  But this time, I felt like our voice was heard and our actions counted.  Four days after the amazing grassroots demonstration in DC, the Obama Administration rejected the State Department’s environmental impact review and sent the entire project back for another year of careful review.  TransCanada responded by stating it would relocate the controversial pipeline route away from the environmentally sensitive Sandhills area and Ogallala aquifer in Nebraska. (see February post PIPELINE INTERRUPTED for status on the “zombie” pipeline that won’t die)


Going to DC allowed us to dig deeper and learn more about the controversial Keystone proposal, especially thanks to Tar Sands Action, the Sierra Club and NRDC.  And aside from all the fun we had, it felt really gratifying to take part in the protest. If we expect Obama to say no to Big Oil, he needs people power on his side.  And I’m sure Eileen would agree, our girlfriend protest getaway left us reenergized and hopeful.


Soul of a Citizen cover

In Soul of Citizen, (assigned reading in hundreds of college classrooms), Paul Loeb inspires us not to give up by showing how ordinary people can make a difference.


Thanks especially to TAR SANDS ACTION, NRDC esp. Susan Casey-Lefkowitz (DC), Julie Truax (DC) and Henry Henderson (CHI) and SIERRA CLUB esp. Sherri Racine (Chi) and Kate Colarulli (DC).