Chautauqua Nature Pilgrimage

(This column was first published in the July 12, 1999 Buffalo News.)

    Most of us know the Chautauqua Institution for its concerts and its lecture series that deal with religion, education, music, art and drama. We also know it for the lovely gardens and grand old Victorian buildings that enhance this private enclave at the north end of Chautauqua Lake, that Finger Lake-like enhancement to far western New York.

    Historians on the other hand know the Chautauqua Institution for the important role that it played in creating a distinctive American culture and in molding late 19th and early 20th century public opinion. Growing out of a Methodist-Episcopal church camp in 1874, its ten week summer sessions rapidly expanded beyond religious studies to encompass all of education and entertainment. Its goals and activities were widely copied until early in the 20th century the chautauqua circuit was developed. This was a series of programs that rotated through the local centers. William Jennings Bryan was among the speakers who captivated "chautauqua" audiences across the country.

    Now the Chautauqua Institution's Bird, Tree and Garden Club is extending the institution's educational programs into the field of natural history. On Saturday, August 7th, the club will host its second Chautauqua Nature Pilgrimage. Several friends who attended the first last year have characterized it as a delightful family experience.

    This year the program will begin at 7 a.m. with an optional bird walk. Regular registration at 8 a.m. will be followed by a full program of classes and demonstrations. Participants will select five to attend from a roster of 21. The opportunities range from ornithology to entomology, from a program on bats to one on plants with healing powers, from tree identification to lake and stream ecology, from conservation to salamanders, and from butterflies to story telling for children. Undoubtedly there is something for everyone.

    Two new outdoor nature classrooms will be dedicated during that day. The Mable Powers Campfire Circle will honor the author, feminist, and lecturer on Indian lore. And the Roger Tory Peterson Classroom will be dedicated to this Jamestown wildlife artist and author, who is best known for his popular field guides. Jim Berry, president of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute, and others will speak about Peterson's contributions as a naturalist to the Chautauqua Region.

    In addition, the newly restored Thunder Bridge Natural Area will be presented as the Bird, Tree and Garden Club's contribution to the Chautauqua Institution's 125th birthday celebration. Begun five years ago, the ravine restoration project has involved countless hours of volunteer labor and an investment of over $20,000.

    Completing the day will be a presentation that will include live hawks and owls by the staff of the Hawk Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of East Aurora.

    The Chautauqua Nature Pilgrimage is, of course, the second regional program of this type. It joins the Allegany Nature Pilgrimage which this past Memorial Day weekend met for its 40th annual session. That pilgrimage is sponsored by the Audubon Societies of Buffalo, Jamestown and Presque Isle (Pa.), the Burroughs Nature Club of Rochester and the New York State Office of Parks and Recreation, Allegany Region.

    The Chautauqua Institution enjoys an interesting connection with the Allegany program. It was O. Gilbert Burgeson, the institute's naturalist for 37 years, who founded the Allegany Pilgrimage and William Mealy, its current naturalist, who brought the concept to many other locales across the country. Now the idea has finally come home to roost.

    Pre-registration for the August 7th program is $20. In addition to the nature classes, this fee includes admission to the institution, morning coffee and lunch. To obtain registration materials write to Chautauqua Nature Pilgrimage, Box B, Chautauqua, NY 14722-2202. -- Gerry Rising