Laura Derks is the founder of Flybird Experience and has been leading people on restorative experiences in nature since 2016. She volunteers as a Master Naturalist in the Forest Preserves of Cook County (FPCC), is a certified TreeKeeper through Openlands, and volunteers with Sierra Club’s Inspiring Connections to the Outdoors (where she has developed programs with youth groups in Hermosa, Pilsen, North Lawndale, and Cicero neighborhoods). I talked with Laura about her company and some of her experiences in Chicagoland nature.
Q. Can you tell me about Flybird Experience? What type of people participate in your programs?
A. Flybird is a local nature tour guide organization that promotes using nature as medicine, a prescription that will help restore and maintain your physical and mental health. Flybird will help you get the most out of the time you spend outdoors using sensory-based activities, reflection, and immersion. With a keen focus on youth, Flybird also works with many different groups and organizations including women’s groups, nonprofit organizations, schools, and congregations. Based in Oak Park, Illinois, we travel throughout the Chicago region to some of the best nature spots, including your local parks. Specific details about outings are on our website.
Q. What are some of your favorite destinations in the area, and why?
A. I have many—my go-to spots that are walkable/convenient are Columbus Park, a Jens Jensen designed park and crown jewel of the Chicago Park District; Thatcher Woods/Trailside Museum of Natural History in River Forest; Spears Woods in Palos, year round for its magnificence; South Shore Nature Sanctuary, for it intimacy and beauty; and the McCormick natural areas. Additionally, the Volo Bog area is fantastic.
Q. What are some common misconceptions that people have about nature areas in Chicago, and what are the facts?
A. Many people perceive some areas of the Forest Preserves of Cook County in particular to be unsafe. Thatcher Woods, for example, is thought of as unsafe and not to be visited unless in groups. Much of these misconceptions are based on two suicides that happened there and one awful situation, but not based on anyone being attacked. In general, the areas immediately in and adjacent to Chicago are beginning to be used frequently, especially in the pandemic. In fact, the pandemic highlighted the areas in the region that have very limited access to natural areas—a deficit that FPCC is attending to with community engagement. Much more needs to be done for these communities. I am sure you know this but the Forest Preserves of Cook County is the largest of its kind in the country. I have never experienced any unsafe circumstances either when I have been by myself or with groups.
Q. What advice would you give to someone who does not have much experience in nature, but who would like to start hiking and otherwise explore our area’s nature preserves?
A. My very first piece of advice to anyone wanting to venture outside is to start with a nearby safe place to go, such as your local park. Take a nature journal and jot down what you experience—see, touch, smell, and feel on your face and skin. If it’s a sunny day, close your eyes, feel the sun on your face, and take notice of the quiet or of the birds singing. Do simple mindful activities. Then take these habits, and go to another spot that might require public transportation or driving. The Openlands website has excellent information and resources. I don’t find the Forest Preserves of Cook County website to be as easy to navigate, but it is also a good resource.
Always wear sturdy shoes, bring water, take your phone for photos and safety, and be sure to pack a hat, sunscreen, and a snack because food always tastes better after a walk or when it is eaten outside!
Laura Derks holds the copyright to her interview text and photos.
I just published Nature in Chicagoland: More Than 120 Fantastic Nature Destinations That You Must Visit. It features amazing destinations in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Click on the title to learn more.
ABOUT ANDREW MORKES
I have been a writer and editor for more than 25 years. I’m the founder of College & Career Press (2002); the editorial director of the CAM Report career newsletter and College Spotlight newsletter; the author and publisher of “The Morkes Report: College and Career Planning Trends” blog; and the author and publisher of Hot Health Care Careers: 30 Occupations With Fast Growth and Many New Job Openings; Nontraditional Careers for Women and Men: More Than 30 Great Jobs for Women and Men With Apprenticeships Through PhDs; They Teach That in College!?: A Resource Guide to More Than 100 Interesting College Majors, which was selected as one of the best books of the year by the library journal Voice of Youth Advocates; and other titles. They Teach That in College!? provides more information on environmental- and sustainability-related majors such as Ecotourism, Range Management, Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Built Environment, Sustainability Studies, and Sustainable Agriculture/Organic Farming. I’m also a member of the parent advisory board at my son’s school.
In addition to these publications, I’ve written more than 40 books about careers for other publishing and media companies including Infobase (such as the venerable Encyclopedia of Careers & Vocational Guidance, the Vault Career Guide to Accounting, and many volumes in the Careers in Focus, Discovering Careers, What Can I Do Now?!, and Career Skills Library series) and Mason Crest (including those in the Careers in the Building Trades and Cool Careers in Science series).
My poetry has appeared in Cadence, Wisconsin Review, Poetry Motel, Strong Coffee, and Mid-America Review.