An illustration by Tonwen Jones
Focusing on the lore of nature: from butterflies and bees to mushrooms and the night sky

In his 1798 poem “The Tables Turned,” William Wordsworth encouraged his contemporaries to leave aside their books and head for the woods. “Come forth into the light of things,” he implored. “Let Nature be your teacher.”

More than 200 years later, those words still ring true, and they point the way toward the eight classes in our 2011 lineup of adult education offerings. Practice yoga among brilliant butterflies, marvel at the nighttime sky, explore Chicago’s inland waterways, or chronicle your outdoor discoveries in a journal. You can hunt for mushrooms, raise bees, or, if it’s a classroom you crave, learn about the landscapes of the American West or the vineyards of Burgundy. After all, as Wordsworth wrote, “Sweet is the lore which Nature brings”—particularly when it’s delivered in a wineglass.



Some people have never seen the stars through a telescope. Joe Guzmán, a telescope operator for the Adler Planetarium and the founder of the Chicago Astronomer web forum, wants to remedy that—and he will reveal the secrets of the night sky for free. His Stargazing events take place throughout the city, including a trio of upcoming programs sponsored by the Chicago Park District’s Nature Oasis.

Hosting impromptu star parties since 2004, when he first set up his telescope for a solo show outside the planetarium, Guzmán now has a substantial following—more than 80 people showed up at a recent event—and some of them are fellow astronomers who each bring (and share) their equipment and aptitude, making for an even more enjoyable experience. The group also ventures to nearby locales, such as Indiana Dunes State Park, for all-night outings and especially clear views of the Milky Way.

Guzmán’s park district events—at Washington and Palmisano Parks—were planned to coincide with good viewings of our galaxy’s two largest planets: Saturn, in August, and Jupiter, in October. (At presstime, a September date and location were to be determined.) Lots of other celestial sights should be visible, including the so-called E.T. star cluster near Cassiopeia, the Ring Nebula in Lyra, and a binary star system in Cygnus. “Many people don’t realize that you can see stars from anywhere in the country—even through Chicago’s light pollution—as long as you know where to look,” Guzmán says.

Offered by the Chicago Park District’s Nature Oasis. Meets Wednesday, August 17, at 8 p.m. at Washington Park, 5531 S. Martin Luther King Dr., or Thursday, October 13, at 6:30 p.m. at Palmisano Park, 2700 S. Halsted St. Free. Dates are subject to change based on weather. 312-742-5039. For information on Chicago Astronomer star parties (including upcoming outings to Indiana Dunes), visit


Vintage Burgundy

Once home to the Romans and Celts, monasteries and ducal kingdoms, the region of Burgundy in eastern France carries more historical weight than its small size might suggest. Also one of the world’s great wine-growing regions, its reputation springs in part from the inhabitants’ almost religious devotion to terroir—the combination of soil, climate, and topography so central to viticulture.

In his University of Chicago class Burgundy: God, Earth, Wine, Bill St. John—a writer for the Chicago Tribune’s weekly wine column who has taught about wine for more than 30 years—explores the influence of terroir on this area and its famous wines. “Nature says a lot more about a wine from the Old World than it does for the New World,” St. John says. “New World wines—from places like the Americas and Australia—are labeled by grape names that suggest a taste and aroma. But with Old World wines, it’s the earth—terroir—that informs the taste of the wine.” Never mind, for example, that the wines of Chablis—Burgundy’s northernmost wine district—come mainly from Chardonnay grapes. Instead, it’s the terroir of Chablis, says St. John, that is most responsible for the district’s predictably green, tight, and fresh-tasting wine.

Relying on the Rule of Saint Benedict, the Charlemagne Edicts, and other texts, St. John provides a historical context as students make a centuries-long journey that begins in the days of the Holy Roman Empire. He reveals, for instance, how Benedictine and Cistercian monks, who tended local vineyards for 700 years, ultimately dictated the delimitations—or demarcations—that distinguish the region’s different wine districts to this day. The class concludes in the modern era, with a look at the area’s flavorful Burgundies and richly varied cuisine. The final session includes a small sampling of regional wines.

Offered by the University of Chicago Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies. Meets Wednesdays from 6 to 8:30 p.m., from September 21 to November 16  at the Gleacher Center, 450 N. Cityfront Plaza Dr. $375 ($345 before September 14). 773-702-1722.


Illustration: Tonwen Jones


All the Buzz

Bronwyn Weaver grew up on an organic farm, and today she and her husband, Bob Archibald, own the 13-acre Heritage Prairie Farm. Situated in rural La Fox (about 40 miles west of the Loop), the place is a Midwestern gem, with its farm dinners prepared by an on-site chef. It’s also home to Weaver’s honey house and 26-hive apiary, which serve as the classroom for Introduction to Beekeeping (as well as for Weaver’s more advanced beekeeping class offered in September). Participants in the month-long class learn the basics of beekeeping, including bee anatomy, starting and managing a colony, and harvesting techniques.

Weaver also wants to introduce her students to a very sophisticated insect and explain its essential role in pollination. “During the course of a honeybee’s lifetime, she has many jobs,” Weaver explains. “She’s a nurse, a housekeeper, a guard, a scout, a forager.” These tasks spark some amazing behaviors and rituals, including swarming to free up the nest for a new queen, pollinating only peak-season fruit, and performing the complex figure-eight waggle dance that directs hive mates toward food. “Bee communication systems ensure that all the foragers in the hive are collecting nectar and pollinating one source at a time,” Weaver says. “This is why honeybees are such important pollinators in agriculture.”

Offered by Heritage Prairie Farm. Meets Wednesdays from 6 to 8 p.m., from September 7 to September 28 at Heritage Prairie Farm, 2N308 Brundige Rd., La Fox. $80. 630-443-5989.


An Open Book

The people who enroll in LeAnn Spencer’s Nature Writing class at the Morton Arboretum represent a wide range of ages, professions, and writing skills. But they share one common characteristic. “Each student has something to say about their experience in the natural world,” Spencer explains. “They may not know exactly how to say it yet, but they want to find out how to put their feelings and thoughts on paper.”

A former Chicago Tribune editor who has written extensively about nature and ecology, Spencer believes that the best nature writers have the power to take readers somewhere they have never been before. She drives that point home to her students by sharing work by Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Annie Dillard, and other writers. Students in the workshop-style class also spend time exploring the trails of the 1,700-acre arboretum, studying nature and improving their observational skills. From their journals to their final projects, students are encouraged to pay attention to details and to write about the landscapes and experiences that are most meaningful to them.

“Writing and journaling can be an act of self-discovery,” Spencer says. “When you link that to a personal connection with nature, you will find uncommon parallels that can uplift you or give you insight that you didn’t even know you were looking for.”

Offered by the Morton Arboretum. Meets Tuesdays from 6 to 8:30 p.m., from October 18 to November 15 at the arboretum’s Thornhill Education Center, 4100 Illinois Rte. 53, Lisle. $134 (members $114). 630-719-2468.


River Dance

Since 1976, David Solzman has seen profound changes to our inland waterways as they transitioned from the industrial era of the ore-carrying lakers (freighters) to an era that emphasizes ecological awareness and recreational opportunities. During those 35 years, Solzman—an associate professor emeritus of geography and anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the author of The Chicago River: An Illustrated History and Guide to the River and Its Waterways—has also been leading the University of Chicago’s Daylong Boat Cruise on Chicago’s Inland Waterways.

Solzman shares his expertise during a 75-mile boat tour that visits the Chicago River, the Calumet River, the Cal-Sag Channel, and the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. Participants will learn how varying lake levels, changing currents, and a fluctuating climate have impacted those waterways—and they will also get a firsthand look at an unexpected natural turnaround. “Wildlife have made a terrific comeback,” Solzman says, “not only in the more remote sections of the waterways but also in the city, where one now finds blue herons, a variety of ducks, egrets, turtles, and over 70 species of fish in the Chicago River and its connecting waterways.”

A waterway tour, Solzman says, also provides a unique look at the city. “There are always people who confess to living in Chicago all of their life and never imagining such views—never imagining this universe within the metropolitan region.”

Offered by the University of Chicago Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies. Meets Sunday, September 18, from 8:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Starts at the Mercury boat dock near the northeast corner of Michigan Ave. and Wacker Dr., south of the Chicago River. $160. 773-702-1722.


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.