DURING THE difficulties of an ongoing pandemic, we all seek light. We look for things that give us hope and lift our spirits. One such positive finding has been discovered right in our back yard.
That antidote is nature.
More than ever, the events of the last year have awakened the firsthand discovery of nature’s benefits. With few options outside of our own homes where we now live, work, learn, and try to keep each other from climbing the walls, our community has taken to our open spaces for the recuperative power of nature.
“The pandemic has highlighted the importance of nature—and the critical role nature plays in individual and community health, resilience and well-being,” expresses Lois Morrison, a member of Lake Forest Open Lands’ Board of Governors.
We have discovered the very thing that science has been pointing to for quite a while—that we need nature. And Lake Forest Open Lands (LFOLA) provides us all with a gateway to nature that is remarkably special. With hundreds of acres of preserved landscapes and miles of trails laced through native prairies, upland woodlands, savannas, lakeshore ravines, and wetlands, LFOLA is a unique community asset
for all—a privately-funded conservation organization with over 1,000 members and supporters passionate about nature.
“This is one of the reasons people are moving here from the city, one of the things that more and more, people appreciate in this community,” explains Real Estate Broker Luke Mutter of Berkshire Hathaway. “It’s the lungs of the city.”
“Think about it—we have access to nature through six, soon to be eight, public nature preserves,” says Lake Forest Open Lands President John Sentell, nodding to a map of the soon-to-be-opened Jean and John Greene Nature Preserve at McCormick Ravine. “I hear it all the time, ‘my family is so thankful we can get out and discover these open spaces and wild places right in our backyard.’”
The experts concur—our days get better when we are able to set the sources of stress aside, get outdoors, and immerse ourselves in nature even for short periods of time. Some healthcare providers in North America and Europe have even begun to write nature prescriptions, often called “nature pills,” using common sense and interpretation of published research to motivate patients to take a “nature break” according to an April 2019 Frontiers in Psychology article.
An article in the December issue of ZME Science supports that report, citing that people have also experienced a shift in the way they value nature. During the pandemic, respondents said in nature they cherished a greater sense of mental health and well-being (59 percent), exercise (29 percent), appreciating nature’s beauty (29 percent), sense of identity (23 percent), and spirituality (22 percent), along with other less common values. In fact, research has shown that exposure to nature can result in a significant drop in the stress hormone cortisol, with the duration of the nature experience contributing to the amount of stress reduction.
How do our residents access nature to reduce stress? Most activities are self-initiated. A leisurely walk, brisk hike, or energetic run at a preserve of their choosing. During winter, LFOLA grooms cross-country ski trails in the Mellody and Middlefork Farm Nature Preserves. Some regulars meet a friend or bring one, even of the four-legged variety. The changing weather is part of what grounds you, part of what keeps things interesting.
Others engage in activities that are more tailored to a specific interest. Flocks of birders throughout our region find their way to the preserves throughout the year, on the lookout for the hundreds of rare migratory species—some on layovers from as far as South America to the northern territories of Canada. The preserves are also popular with photographers and painters, capturing the natural beauty of what they see.
Lake Forest Open Lands helps to encourage our connection with nature in so many other ways by offering dozens of socially-distanced, guided activities throughout the year. For example, there is a new program called Tuesday on the Trail, an hour-long, educational, guided hike rotating to a different preserve every week. Last month there was a full moon hike in search of owls. There are small, educational socials
like Conservation Cocktails held the second Friday evening of every month. And there are major shindigs like Bagpipes & Bonfire, a citywide celebration of fall and family. The re-imagined version last September played out in the parks and schools of Lake Forest and Lake Bluff. It touched the entire community and will again this year. There are dozens of volunteer activities dotting the calendar in which all generations assist Lake Forest Open Lands’ restoration team—the caring hands of preservation at work throughout the natural habitat dutifully managed
The students in our community also have access to unique outdoor learning programs created by Lake Forest Open Lands, working in conjunction with our public and private schools. Education and stewardship opportunities have also been created for hundreds of students in surrounding communities from Wilmette to Waukegan.
“Through its welcoming and inclusive reach beyond the borders of Lake Forest, LFOLA’s Center for Conservation Leadership is making deep and lasting impacts on the next generation of conservation stewards,” says Lois Morrison, a program mentor. “The more people think outside and connect with nature, the more our communities are strengthened and the more we all benefit.”
Perhaps it is a bit ironic that thanks to the dark days of a global pandemic, this community has embraced nature and never been stronger.
“It’s symbiotic,” says Sentell. “We need nature—boy do we need nature. And nature needs us.”
For more information, visit lfola.org.