Meet Your Neighbors
It Took a Tanager
On the green roof
Photo: Dave Jagodzinski
On a fateful spring day at Glenbard West High School, in the western Chicago
suburb of Glen Ellyn, Illinois, Alice Eastman’s ecology teacher, Rick
Billings, led the class outdoors to show them wildflowers.
“He told us, ‘Leave your books here. It’s too nice out,’” Eastman
says. “I thought, ‘I have to do this.’” On that excursion,
she vividly remembers seeing her first scarlet tanager.
For Eastman, it was a singular moment, responsible for putting her
chin-deep in restoration work, nature programming, paperwork, outreach,
and staffing as manager of natural resources and interpretive services
for the Downers Grove
Park District. Downers Grove is one of a growing number of park
districts that see a major part of their mission as promoting people’s
interactions with wild nature. Out of 603 acres the Park District owns,
it manages 180 acres in a natural state at Belmont Prairie and Lyman
Woods, in addition to smaller pockets.
“I still didn’t have any idea there was so much biodiversity
in the western suburbs until six or seven years ago,” says Eastman. “Then
I took burn training at Lyman. I was amazed. I’m thrilled to death
it’s mine to take care of now.”
When she started with the district in 2003, Eastman took over the restoration of Belmont and Lyman.
“There were places you literally had to hack through buckthorn,” she
says. Eastman supervises volunteers and staff in clearing such invasive
species, and she and the park forester also supervise burn crews. “Now we’re
seeing natives like Jacob’s ladder, Dutchman’s breeches, and trout lily.”
Monitors also have reported redheaded woodpeckers and saw-whet owls.
One of Eastman’s jobs is simply keeping Lyman Woods from washing away.“Water blows
through tributaries to Lacey Creek after a rain event and takes the streambanks
with it.” Her exacting vision guides contractors in Lyman’s Streambank Stabilization
Project, which includes expanding streamside wetlands to slow and filter runoff from nearby office complexes.
Chief among Eastman’s other assignments is to coordinate the Park District’s interpretive
program, which starts with giving children an “enthusiastic, creative, and magical learning
experience” through first-hand exploration.
Eastman shaped her educational philosophy early on, when she landed her
first naturalist job at the hands-on Spring Brook Nature Center in Itasca. “I
learned to spend time with an oak,” she remembers. “That’s
what a five-year-old does and that’s where the curriculum starts.”
After nine years with the Wheaton Park District, Eastman came on board with
Downers Grove in time to help open the Lyman Woods Interpretive
Center. She created the bulk of the center’s exhibits and programs,
including “TIMBER Packs,” backpacks that contain everything a kid could want
for an adventure in the preserves. Eastman even helped Eagle Scouts construct a periscope,
camouflaged as a tree, that gives a view of the plants, birds, and bugs atop the center’s green roof.
Eastman directs the Wetlands Education Program, which serves 600 fifth-graders
and won the Illinois Parks & Recreation Association’s 2003
Outstanding Conservation Program of the Year. Additionally, she created the “Little
Sprouts” program, in which teachers and naturalists — costumed
as Chef Soil, high-fashion flowers, and pollinating bees and butterflies — guide
first-graders through learning stations.
A thriving volunteer corps helps staff the interpretive center and
maintain the preserves. According to Gordon Goodman, chair of the Pierce
Downer’s Heritage Alliance, Alice’s people skills, as
well as her expertise and imagination keep the volunteers highly engaged.
(Interested? Call (630) 963-1304.)
When she gets a chance, Eastman bikes on the Illinois
Prairie Path near her home, where she lives with her husband and
two kids. Her job keeps her at the preserves a lot, though. “It’s
trying to take over my life,” she says happily. “But it’s
kind of a good takeover.”
— Alison Carney Brown