Nature Writing At Chautauqua

Sometimes things in your life are so special that you feel like you are living in a dream. This happened to me a few weeks ago at Chautauqua Institution. I was hired to teach a poetry class and a nature writing class as part of a new program for youth writers, aged 13-15.

At this Writers’ Camp, the students started their day with a session on fantasy writing and then attended a daily lecture with a student intern.

After a lunch break, everyone came back to the classroom to write about pop culture.

Next came my two classes. Every day, students had the option to request private conferences with teachers to get feedback and extra help with their writing projects.

At the end of the week, we had a readers/writers’ forum where the students shared their favorite pieces with family and friends. I was so proud of my students and their work that I had to hold back tears of joy and pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.

My poetry class was held inside, but I wanted to take the students in my nature writing class outside.

On the first day, Katie, our amazing student intern, and I took the class over to Thunder Bridge Ravine for a writing lesson using your five senses. If you are not familiar with Chautauqua Institution, the ravine is named for the wooden-decked bridge that spans its width.

When you walk or bike over the bridge, it sounds like a roll of thunder from one side to the other.

You can really hear it if you are down in the creek area under the bridge, and it is a very cool experience.

We hiked down a well-worn trail to find some wooden benches, a few tree stumps and numerous rocks to sit on near the creek in the ravine.

A sweet, little bubbling stream meanders from side to side, over smooth shale bedrock, into clear pools and then over miniature water-falls as it completes its journey down to the lake.

The old growth hardwood forest of Sugar Maples, American Beech and Red Oak provides a high canopy of leafy greens, which makes it both cool and comfortable there. The bright sun occasionally peeks through holes in the trees, casting golden beams onto the water, making it sparkle like millions of diamonds. The pleasant musty smell of dry leaves, mossy growth, damp soil and decaying vegetation permeated the air – engulfing you in an “earthy” experience. It is truly a perfect place to pay close attention to what you can see, smell, hear, touch and imagine you could taste.

The students’ notes, which we used the next day to create a “setting” for a story, included things like seeing pale green oak leaves and feeling the rough grayish bark of a majestic maple.

They could see and feel the rusty red foundation of the bridge and observed dusty cobwebs. The sounds of children laughing in the distance, the buzzing of a stray mosquito and the bubbling of the brook were all jotted down. You could imagine eating a juicy strawberry or tasting the zing of a fresh, tart blackberry as you popped it into your mouth, followed by a drink of cool, clear water.

The calm silence mellowed their souls, and we all left the gorge with smiles on our faces.

When we reconvened on Tuesday, I was impressed with the quality and the quantity of the students’ notes. Their experience in the ravine was a positive one, and I hoped their observation skills were heightened.

One of my main goals was for them to be able to use real details in their writing, whether it was scientific journals or fantasy. One of my students surprised me with the following poem, and it made me feel that maybe I was on the right track as a teacher and student mentor. It’s title is “A Note to the Scientists from the Dreamer” and was written by Vivian.

“Logic and facts, learning it right. There are lines between telling and teasing, and humor and bite. Pandas are sweet, but they also fight. Just like humans, like toddlers, like children alike. Tell us your knowledge, then we’ll open up your mind to aliens, unicorns, goblins and you’ll find, Imagination is one of a kind.”

I am one lucky woman to be able to do what I do and if this is a dream, don’t wake me up. And go outside and experience nature.

Susan M. Songster Weaver is retired teacher, nature lover and longtime CWC volunteer and supporter. The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local nonprofit organization that is dedicated to preserving and enhancing the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. For more information, call 664-2166 or visit or