I’m normally a fan of the Cook County Forest Preserves. But this holiday season, I’m tempted to send headquarters a stocking of coal. I’ve wandered many trails in Thatcher Woods since the COVID-19 shutdown in 2020. Suffering from the angst and depression that COVID brought to us, I found peace being outside in the woods. I was not the only one. In winter of 2020, Thatcher Woods trails slowly filled with parents and children looking for relief from the boredom and anxiety caused by COVID.

To my delight, I noticed what I call, “COVID cabins,” springing up alongside the trails. These were simple structures created by family teamwork, imagination, and minds free of computers, TV and, temporarily, worry. They were arranged with dead branches and logs to resemble a tepee or sometimes a domed structure.

As time passed, some budding builders added log stools, welcome signs, and other fun features. At one time, the Trailside Museum path was lined with nearly 10 of these structures, creating the illusion of a long-ago primitive village. I am not a professional, but I photographed these structures because I recognized they represented a unique time and place in our local and world history. At the same time, I thought about how often creativity comes from despair.

One cold, snowy March day, I discovered a very special COVID cabin off the beaten path, not far from Trailside Museum. It stopped me in my tracks. It was as if some woodland wizard, noticing our crushed spirits, had created a magical place of respite. The wooden doorway threshold read in hand-drawn balloon letters: Chur Shangri La. The flooring was neatly lined with discarded tree bark from the woods. Words of inspiration (Love, Grateful, COVID Retreat), adorned with carved and stenciled dragonflies and birds were placed whimsically among the carefully laid wall of branches.

There was a rope swing inside, a bucket of tennis balls, a doggie water bowl, a collection of walking sticks with a carved note saying, “Take one or add one.” There was even a guest book and pen for visitors to leave their thoughts. There were many other thoughtful, creative touches, far too numerous to recount here.

But most impressive to me, was the wizard’s memorial to COVID causalities. More than 50 COVID face masks of all kinds, colors, and messages hung in display with a sign stating, “Each mask honors 5,000 Americans that we have lost to corona virus.”

I visited this COVID Retreat often that spring, witnessing the evolving touches made by the woodland wizard: a glass garden, springtime jonquils growing in the hollowed shell of a tree trunk, a branch-lined walkway. I was impressed that someone took the time and energy to make such a special place. I wished to meet this wizard but never did.

Then one day — to my horror — it was all gone. Someone dismantled all the COVID cabins, including the Chur Shangri La COVID Retreat — sometimes using chainsaws.

Who would do such a thing? Was it mean-spirited vandals? Surely the Forest Preserves wouldn’t condone the destruction of nature-induced creativity, spawned as a refuge from a deadly virus. I never asked the folks at Trailside Museum. I was too sad and upset to say anything then.

 I still think about that senseless destruction of creativity meant to bring peace and quiet joy to a world filled with panic. Recently, I’ve noticed a few brave COVID cabins have resurrected further in the woods. I even spotted one in late summer that struck me as familiar. Words of inspiration (Humble, Grateful, Blessed) carved into the graceful curve of a large log. The beginnings of a bark floor. A chairback and seat, somehow molded onto a higher log for a lofty view of the woods. I knew instantly, it was the work of The Wizard. And yet, this past week, it has been laid to bare — yet again dismantled for no apparent reason! Mean-spirited vandals again? Or mean-spirited Forest Preserves bureaucrats?

It’s a real “whodunit?” And why?

Though I can’t be sure, my suspicions point to the Forest Preserves, which is why I’m sending them coal this holiday season. I hope I’m wrong. As for the Woodland Wizard wherever you are: Thank you! May you find a more grateful environment for your creative efforts.

It would be too sad to have a Wizard defeated by the chainsaw of bureaucracy. Instead, you should be awarded a grant from the Forest Preserves to create a program about woodland wizardry.

Susan Schroering has been an Oak Park resident for 23 years.

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