Chicago Botanic Garden, 1000 Lake Cook Road, Glencoe, IL 60022
“Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.”
Robert Frost (aptly named) wrote my favorite poem of all time, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” in 1922. He often hearkened back to a genre known as rural gothic. It is a style that evokes a quiet, almost spooky mood in natural or pastural settings. Above all, Robert Frost gifted us the appreciation for the eternal beauty and mystery of nature.
With that in mind, we step into woods in deep winter, through the heavy snow, and stop to listen for the northern cardinal, whereupon we may catch a glimpse of its red flash in the numbing whiteness.
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“The self-guided walk at McDonald Woods in Chicago Botanic Gardens is an exciting treat to be outside after the deep freeze! I really love the outdoor fireplace at the shelter. It’s so fun to step through the natural trail. I feel like a kid again, sinking into the snow while maintaining my balance. I also like spotting so many animal tracks that are like a little map of where they were and what they were doing. The scenery is very pretty with all the snow. I’m excited that we located the cardinal that was calling to us the whole time!”
After braving the latest, and hopefully last, polar vortex of the season, Chicago Botanic Garden hosted its Self-Guided Woods Walk in McDonald Woods on the penultimate scheduled weekend—after a few consecutive cancellations for safety due to the extreme cold. Lisa and I were excited to finally venture outside after a few weeks of cabin fever. Freezing temperatures and deep snow stretched out their figurative arms in an icy embrace as we walked toward the shelter in McDonald Woods. We smelled burning seasoned fruit wood as we followed the rising smoke of the fire at the shelter. Kristie Webber, Director of Interpretive Programs, was all bundled up and cheerful as she welcomed everyone to Winter in the Woods. We started off with a little background about McDonald Woods, learned about the science of interpreting tree rings, and delved deeper into the nature of animal tracks. Despite the cold and snow, we saw a healthy turnout of visitors. Nature doesn’t stop for winter; so, why should we? After Lisa and I warmed up by the fire, our motors were hot to get moving.
“My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.”
The first few steps were an eye opener. The snow was deep but well traveled. The trail was well marked and obvious by all the footprints. As we walked further through the trees, we began to spot numerous tracks that were definitely not the work of two-legged patrons. Some of them were tight with winding paths, and often stopped suddenly at the base of young trees. Squirrels? Others were more widely spaced between steps and seemed to indicate greater speed over open spaces, sometimes beneath ground cover. Rabbits?
During our walk, we heard different birds chirping, but one call sounded strong and familiar—the northern cardinal. Its smooth and sweet call stirs hope for spring. The northern cardinal is one of several local bird species that brave our winters. Its unmistakeable red flash of color in a monochromatic winter landscape brightens any scene. We were hoping to catch a glimpse of this inspiring bird.
Walking deeper into the woods, the snow piled high in drifts over dormant frozen creeks and sleeping logs. We had never walked through McDonald Woods before today. If we have the chance to walk these woods in summer, it will be an entirely new experience. We are fortunate to enjoy nature through four distinct seasons. I used to ride my bike through woods a few times every week. Every ride was different. I observed so much progress of nature just over the course of a few days. I would guess that McDonald Woods appears starkly different over months between visits. We must be a part of nature more often to fully appreciate it.
“Celebrate the beauty of winter in the woods with a peaceful, self-guided walk.”—Chicago Botanic Garden
“He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.”
Lisa and I came upon a footbridge lined with red twig dogwood. The heavy snow and the splash of red beside the wooden bridge appeared so rustic. It was a beautiful winter scene. Not long after this experience, we caught up to the northern cardinal. It was perched very high against the white sky. I was able to capture it as it sang behind the safety of some high branches. I posted the photo on my Instagram account.
There is an amazing diversity of trees at McDonald Woods. We stopped beside a shagbark hickory tree with amazing shaggy bark. Nature is so resilient. Winter is just another season. It might be harder to pass through than the other seasons; but, as we like to say, it “builds character.” Today we use this phrase lightly. It used to mean more when we were connected to the experience. Walking in woods during winter and seeing these giants having grown tall and strong over countless winters put us in our place.
As we emerged from the high snowbank that marked the end of the trail next to the interior road, we looked back to see how hard we worked to high step over deep snow on a frigid morning in winter. Walking a well traveled trail through the woods in February helped us gain more appreciation for the reality of hard living in winter for everyone years ago, those “character building” winters. Sometimes too much insulation doesn’t protect us; instead, it prevents us from real growth and strong overall health.
I asked Lisa for her thoughts about Winter in the Woods. She said, “The self-guided walk at McDonald Woods in Chicago Botanic Gardens is an exciting treat to be outside after the deep freeze! I really love the outdoor fireplace at the shelter. It’s so fun to step through the natural trail. I feel like a kid again, sinking into the snow while maintaining my balance. I also like spotting so many animal tracks that are like a little map of where they were and what they were doing. The scenery is very pretty with all the snow. I’m excited that we located the cardinal that was calling to us the whole time!” I thought, “Winter in the Woods is like walking into a Robert Frost poem. The hush of the snow crunching under my feet while following the trail led by bird calls gives me a deeper appreciation for the beauty of winter!”
“Winter in the Woods is like walking into a Robert Frost poem. The hush of the snow crunching under my feet while following the trail led by bird calls gives me a deeper appreciation for the beauty of winter!”
There are lessons everywhere everyday. Nature is the perfect classroom. We can be the ideal students as long as we are observant with open minds. Exposure to different perspectives is key. They keeps us hardy and resilient. Too much insulation keeps us dormant. Nature is our alarm clock to wake up and be a part of life. Something different is going to be thrown at us everyday. We are always faced with challenges that might break us. Be like the trees at McDonald Woods, and just bend.
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”
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