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8 Classes that Connect with Nature: Stargazing, Beekeeping, Mushroom Hunting, and More

CURRICULUM VITAE: Nature can often be the best teacher, as these courses will demonstrate

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The Mythic Frontier

“Representations of nature and landscapes are often very constructed,” insists the art historian Patricia Smith Scanlan—a viewpoint she will share at her Newberry Library fall seminar, Reframing the West: Changing Visions of the Landscape and Frontier Life in American Art. Students will investigate a range of visual representations of the American West, from the early 19th century to the early 20th century.

Utilizing the Newberry’s rich resources—including sketches by the Swiss painter Karl Bodmer and other images of Native Americans in the library’s vast Ayer Collection—students will look at paintings, sculptures, and photographs; they will also examine more popular forms of expression, including periodicals, prints, illustrations, advertisements, and railroad calendars, all of which provide a comprehensive visual perspective of the American West.

Along with these works, students will explore the forces that motivated artists more than 100 years ago as they tracked the course of westward expansion. They will also develop a sense of nature as both a physical space and a conceptual canvas that artists can shape and modify. “Our interactions with nature in these visual representations really change over the course of the 19th century,” Scanlan says. “There are a lot of different agendas being pursued.”

Offered by the Newberry Library. Meets Wednesdays from 6 to 7:30 p.m., from September 21 to November 16 at the Newberry Library, 60 W. Walton St. $200 (10 percent off for seniors, students, and Newberry associates). 312-255-3700.


Foraging for Fungi

The Chicago area is home to more than 1,000 species of mushrooms, but most residents haven’t got a clue. “You can’t really get excited about something if you don’t know it exists,” says Greg Mueller, who hopes to clear up some of the mysteries surrounding the fleshy fungi in his Introduction to Mushrooms. He’s clearly the right man for the job: The former chairman of the Field Museum’s Department of Botany and currently the vice president of science and academic programs at the Chicago Botanic Garden, Mueller is the author of six books and countless articles on mycology (the study of fungi).

Students will spend the first two sessions in the lab, learning the basics about mushrooms, including their biology, features, and where and when to find them. Mueller focuses less on naming mushrooms and more on how to identify them. “We’ll look at fresh and dry mushrooms,” he explains, “discussing their characteristics and colors, the role they play in the environment, their edibility and toxicity, and why it’s so hard to identify them.”

For the third session, students head out to the woods to look for mushrooms. “It’s like a treasure hunt,” Mueller says. “You never know what you’re going to find.” Whether students find anything will depend on numerous environmental factors, but there is one guaranteed bonus: They can piggyback the final session with a visit to the Illinois Mycological Association’s annual fungus show, scheduled at the Chicago Botanic Garden for the same day.

Offered by the Chicago Botanic Garden. Meets Mondays from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., August 22 and August 29 at the Plant Science Lab in the Regenstein Center, at 1000 Lake Cook Rd., Glencoe. Final session meets Sunday, September 4, from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. at an outdoor location to be determined. $124 ($99 for members). 847-835-5440. (This class will be repeated during the summer of 2012.)


Leapin’ Lepidoptera!

Looking for a new “Om” for your weekly workout? Consider signing up for Butterfly Haven Yoga at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Lincoln Park. Monthly classes run throughout the year and allow participants to contort themselves into esoteric poses inside the museum’s butterfly habitat. “There’s something about the tropical setting that really does make you feel like you are someplace else,” says Jessie Young, one of the class’s instructors.

On any given day, the museum’s haven houses approximately 1,000 butterflies, including vivid blue morphos from South America, understated chocolate pansies from Asia, and elegant white lady swallowtails from Africa. Students will also see and hear a variety of birds, such as the purple honeycreeper (another South American native) and Australia’s rainbow-hued Gouldian finch. Add lush trees and flowers, pools of water, and a warm climate, and the site becomes as much a hangout for winter-wary Chicagoans as it is a refuge for colorful Lepidoptera and exotic avians.

Another twist comes when students execute the savasana, or corpse pose, the very relaxing, sleep-inducing posture used to conclude a session. Typically, silence and stillness are encouraged during this pose, but Young takes a different tack in her classes. “The haven is always so vibrant and alive that participants want to stay aware and take in their surroundings,” she says. “So we try to embrace this beautiful moment of aliveness rather than fight it.”

Offered by the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. Meets Saturdays from 8:30 to 9:45 a.m., from August 6 to August 27 or September 10 to September 24 in the Judy Istock Butterfly Haven at 2430 N. Cannon Dr. (Sessions are usually repeated every month.) $15 per class; $48 per series. 773-755-5100.


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