Faire play

Chico area children (and adults) learn and play at Butte EnvironmentalCouncil’s 33rd annual Endangered Species Faire

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“Feel yourself sitting on the ground, maybe [feel] the grass on your legs. … Look up at the tops of the trees—what animals could be up there?” asked Susan Tchudi, co-master of ceremonies at the Butte Environmental Council’s 33rd annual Endangered Species Faire on May 5. Tchudi had gathered the hundred or so school-age children who had just participated in the fair’s annual parade—the Procession of the Species—into a massive circle on the sunny meadow and pointed toward the valley oaks surrounding Bidwell Park’s Cedar Grove, where the fair has been held since its inception in 1979.

With a dozen or so young helpers, Tchudi pulled out a huge net in the center of the circle. “We call this connection the ‘web of life,’” said Tchudi. This short lesson on the interconnectedness of species—a new addition to the fair—capped off the popular Procession of the Species, when local schoolchildren waved their handheld papier-mâché puppets in the air and paraded across the grove among dozens of larger-than-life animal puppets, to the rhythmic beats of skillful surdu (a Brazilian samba drum) drummers and other percussionists.

Local environmental nonprofit Butte Environmental Council (BEC), inventor and coordinator of the fair, paraded its impressive great blue heron puppet, while members from local-food cooperative GRUB flapped the wings of a huge dove, complete with olive branch. Other gigantic animal creations included Shirley the chinook Salmon, a snake, a snail and a praying mantis. More than 300 children had worked in classrooms across Chico to make their own puppets of nearby endangered species, such as the Sierra Nevada red fox and winter-run chinook salmon, as well as not-so-local species (penguins, exotic cats and desert tortoises).

As part of the preparation for the fair, Tchudi—a schoolteacher, puppeteer and longtime local eco-activist—along with her husband and co-master of ceremonies, Stephen Tchudi, arranged classroom visits to create the puppets that were the focal point of the procession, said Robyn DiFalco, BEC’s executive director. “[Making] the puppets of species is a great example of how kids are learning,” DiFalco said. “The fair is a lot of fun and a great way to raise awareness.”

BEC is proud of its history of growing environmentally conscious kids in Chico. “I heard two young mothers chatting about how they used to come here as kids,” said Mark Stemen, BEC’s board chairman and a Chico State professor. “People come here because it’s part of their lives now.”

“Every opportunity that we as adults have to teach children something real about life, it’s worthwhile,” added Mark Herrera, a member of the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission. Many visitors to the fair expressed similar sentiments—that it is a unique opportunity for children to celebrate the Earth and its many inhabitants, and to learn how to protect the ones that are vanishing.

The fair began about an hour before its kickoff time of 10 a.m., with Kelly Meagher and Michael Cannon at their extremely popular plant-giveaway booth featuring hundreds of peppers, tomatoes, herbs, cucumbers and zinnias. Passersby tucked plants into stroller cupholders and ChicoBags, while the more prepared gardeners arranged starts into cardboard boxes to bring to their bicycle trailers.

The starts were all taken within two hours, when the rest of the fair had only just started—34 official booths in all, including government agencies, schools, nonprofits and local environmentalists simply interested in giving to the community. One such environmentalist, Bernadette Brockman Ross, sat behind a mound of day-old bagels donated by Brooklyn Bridge Bagel Works, tying strings to them. Interested young children could make a bird feeder from a bagel by spreading peanut butter on it and dipping it in Chico-wild-bird seed mix, a special blend from Northern Star Mills, which sold 50 pounds to Ross at cost. In front of her booth, toddlers and preschoolers played in a kiddie pool full of the bird seed.

Families strolled around to each booth, many of which featured kids’ activities like planting seeds, coloring or interactive games, all centered around plants, animals and local environmental issues like loss of habitat and farmland. Children got a close-up view of animals like Lucky the Pacific gopher snake and John the desert tortoise, who were brought in by Chico Creek Nature Center’s Jon Aull and Marilyn Gamette of Bidwell Wildlife Rehabilitation.

Musicians kept the atmosphere light. Highlights included kid-friendly tunes from Jim Brobeck and Friends about such topics as people loving money too much and the fun of riding a bike. Hooker Oak K-8 School children offered their own eco-friendly mini-performance, unique in a time when many schools are cutting performing arts, said a school representative. MaMuse members Karisha Longaker and Sarah Nutting joined an eclectic world-mishmash of a band called “Animalitos Fiesta,” with Mike Wofchuck on the Spanish cajón, Karamo Suso on the West African kora, and Gordy Ohliger strumming a banjo.

At various times, the pedal-powered stage—the local Chico Bicycle Music Festival’s amazing setup of bikes that convert human energy into electricity—was used to power the bands.

“The largest environmental fair in California is free,” said Stemen, and so he and his team at BEC held two new events—one before the fair and one directly after—in hopes that fundraiser proceeds will one day help cover the full costs of the fair. The early-morning first-ever Earth Walk, billed as “an educational stroll through Bidwell Park,” led participants to educational stations scattered throughout the park. Young participants could have their walking guide stamped on the back like a passport, and those with a full passport received prizes like Klean Kanteens and modeling clay.

After the fair ended at 4 p.m., BEC hosted an evening barbecue at the grove for donors and volunteers, to which the public could also buy tickets, re-starting a tradition of the post-fair gathering, which occurred in the early days of the event, said Stemen.

“It’s such a beautiful place to be on a spring Saturday,” said DiFalco. “You can’t help enjoy being under the oaks.”