I work as a food scientist, but deep down I’m an old-school natural historian and serious student of herpetology.
My interest in reptiles and amphibians (“herps”), especially local species, is longstanding and one of the many reasons you’ll find me outdoors at degrees disproportionate to those of many of my peers.
I’m married to my wife Aimee going on nine years and we have a four-year-old daughter, Lumen, and an eight-year-old wire-haired pointing griffon (that’s a dog), Cassius. We moved to West Chicago from Chicago, where we were born and raised, late in 2017.
Lumen Cavataio runs ahead of her parents, Aimee and Joey Cavataio, while on a hike at West Branch Forest Preserve in Bartlett.
Discovering DuPage Forest Preserves
I first discovered nature as a young child playing in my backyard on the northwest side of Chicago. Finding plains garter snakes in and around my yard sparked my interest in reptiles.
My mom often took my sisters and me camping in various parts of the Midwest, where I thrived in natural settings. I discovered DuPage forest preserves mostly as a young adult, enjoying trips to West Chicago Prairie, Waterfall Glen, and Songbird Slough, among others.
Aimee, Lumen and Joe Cavataio on a hike at West Branch Forest Preserve.
What Brings Him Back Time and Time Again
DuPage forest preserves boast an eclectic array of habitats — from original prairie to reclaimed agricultural fields, from fens to reclaimed quarries, and from old-growth groves to promising second-growth woodlands.
I’d be remiss not to mention the splendid streams that wind their way toward larger river systems, and ultimately, the Gulf of Mexico. DuPage forest preserve’s biodiversity is impressive, and it’s something we should not take for granted. On every visit I make, I learn or find something new.
Catching the Nature Bug
I caught the nature bug as a very young boy catching bugs. Bugs led to snakes, which led to frogs, and then of course all other sorts of herps. Herps have acted as an effective gateway to other areas of natural history, including plants. I’ve always felt most comfortable outdoors in nature.
Lumen Cavataio holds a garter snake found at a DuPage forest preserve.
Favorite Thing to Do in the Preserves
My favorite thing to do in the preserves is search for herps. These days I accomplish much of that with my daughter, who’s a budding naturalist herself. Together we’ll hike through West DuPage Woods where we may happen across a toad or some frogs.
We also frequent West Branch Forest Preserve, where, with some help from dad, she was able to find her first snake this spring, a common garter snake. It was truly a special moment for both of us.
At West Branch, we’ll often cap a visit by standing on one of the two piers on Deep Quarry Lake and watching the gulls above or the sunfish below.
How Nature Inspires
Living a very busy life can put a strain on your mental state. Let’s admit it — being a parent, a professional, and living in these trying times — can be nearly overwhelming.
To me, nature is the best medicine you can find. It’s available without a prescription, and the worst side effects might be a few mosquito bites (I recommend applying some bug repellent of course).
Put your phone in your pocket and utilize it only for taking photos of nature. Find a spot away from crowds and take a deep breath. Close your eyes. Listen to the sounds of leaves rustling in the breeze, and the sounds of birds. For a moment, forget your troubles.
A successful immersion in nature will “defrag” your mind. You will depart the forest preserve better equipped to tackle life’s challenges. You may also find yourself wondering why you haven’t been doing this before.
Advice to Others
Of course, the preserves are nature’s classrooms, too. Be inspired to learn more about a bird or a tree or a dragonfly you saw. Take photos and use a field guide or internet as a tool to help you better understand the world we live in and the world we are a part of.
Feel connected to the web of life and better understand your environmental impact. Look beyond yourself to find yourself.
Most importantly, just get out there and have fun.
Joey Cavataio, daughter Lumen, wife Aimee, and their wire-haired pointing griffon, Cassius.