Last updated: December 29, 2022
Teacher of the Dunes
While living in her Duneland home near Tremont/Furnessville, Emma Pitcher became renowned as a skilled educator who excelled at bridging the information gap between the national park’s science division and an eager public. She was a highly respected amateur naturalist who carefully studied the subtle intricacies of local habitats and enthusiastically relayed them through informative lectures, guided walks, and wonderfully engaging nature-writing.
Quote by her:
“Flowers, birds, seasonal changes, our special habitats – every one seems a miracle.”
Quote about her:
“For me she is a throwback to the great American naturalists who first described this continent’s wonders… a heightened skill of observation and the ability to integrate a very sophisticated understanding of a wide variety of sciences with an awe and appreciation of the beauty of nature.”
Emma Hayes Bickham was born on September 20th, 1915 in Wilmette, Illinois. Her parents were from the East; they married in New Jersey and had their first daughter there in 1910. Sometime before 1915, the young family moved to the Chicago area. Emma attended New Trier High School in Winnetka, the first in the country with a swimming pool in 1913. In the 1931 yearbook, she’s recognized on the Sophomore Honor Group page.
Emma studied at Grinnell College in Iowa for two years before finishing her degree at the University of Chicago in 1937. Her first visit to the dunes was during this time on a college visit, but for her love of nature she credited her parents “who started me on woodland paths.” She met William Alvin Pitcher in Chicago, and they married in 1938. After five years living in Buffalo, NY and another five at Denison University in Granville, Ohio; they returned to Chicago to establish their family in the area of their alma mater.
By 1953, Emma and her growing family became summer residents of Furnessville. By around 1961 she started considering herself a “birder.” Between 1962-1963, Emma and her family lived in Germany, where they studied and traveled. By 1964 they returned to Chicago and Emma started office work at her alma mater, eventually becoming Dean of Students, Graduate School of Business.
By 1975, Bickie began leading presentations, bird banding demonstrations, and hikes around the region, a passion she continued for over 15 years, even after “retiring” for a second time to Kalamazoo, Michigan. A 1977 article by skilled nature writer Glenda Daniel helps illustrate Bickie’s birdwatching prowess that aided avian research in the Dunes:
“The call of the barred owl wakes Emma Pitcher most weekend mornings in spring before her alarm clock rings. She’s out of the house by 5:30 a.m., notebook in hand, to record birds nesting on a 55-acre plot of scrub and grassland in Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. It takes her about two hours to make her rounds. She’s back home in time for breakfast. Weekdays, Mrs. Pitcher is an assistant dean of students in the business school of the University of Chicago. She has no formal training in ornithology, the science of bird study, but her research, part of a nationwide breeding bird census sponsored by the National Audubon Society, is published each year in a professional journal.”
In 1980, Bickie was acknowledged by Gerould Wihlem in his Special Vegetation report of the Dunes for assisting him with plant surveys. “Emma Pitcher… is a very dedicated and knowledgeable student of the dune flora.” She showed Wilhelm and Ken Dritz “the secret haunts of some of the rare plants” around today’s USGS Ecological Research Station on Route 12. The area was very near to her home where she had spent countless hours exploring and observing. Because of her invaluable assistance to two particular survey areas, Wilhelm recommended they be named in her honor, “The Emma Pitcher Prairies, North and South.” These sandy prairie-savanna complexes stand out along the Glenwood Dunes Trail as sunnier habitat rich with more light-loving plants like willow, prickly-pear, spiderwort, lupine and wild white indigo.
Emma retired from the University of Chicago in 1981 and became a full-time Furnessville-Tremont area resident. Bird banding, photography, field trips, breeding bird census, botany, and nature book study filled many hours. A biologist of the park praised Emma’s involvement in the Dunes:
“Emma came to visit me the day after she retired (?) from the University of Chicago and came to the Indiana Dunes to live. I was then the new Chief Scientist at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and in the midst of building a staff of professionals to approach the twin tasks to better understand and better protect the lakeshore’s natural resources. Immediately, Emma became part of that effort. She became a teacher and an inspiration to our science staff. She became a Volunteer in the Park, but what a volunteer! She conducted field studies of the flora, taught wildflower and birding classes for the Friends of the Indiana Dunes and for the Lakeshore, the local libraries and others. She banded birds, developed a unique wildflower list, participated in ecosystem restoration field studies and gave numerous slide lectures.”
Emma’s infectious passion and influence gathered her a following that became affectionately known as her “groupies.” For a 1982 Save the Dunes event at Red Lantern Inn, today’s Lake View Picnic Area, Emma gave a lecture entitled “Autumn at the Dunes.” She was known as an “authority on areas plants and animals.” Barbara Plampin remembers Emma’s skill as a photographer, she explained that Emma often incorporated habitat into her composition to give the subject a better sense of place. Emma was well-known for her courses where a field trip would follow her lecture, and occasionally, quizzes!
Emma wrote an article for an educational booklet published in 1984, “The Indiana Dunes Story, How nature and people made a park,” where she explained plant succession and biological forces that shape the dunes. She tells of the impressive ecological record left at West Beach, “We can see in a 20-minute walk…, many phases of dune development that have taken place over thousands of years.”
That same year, the National Park Service hired Emma Pitcher and Barbara Plampin for a special project to find rare plants that were referenced in old botanical literature. “These were pre-GPS days,” Barbara recalled. They were tasked with finding Talinum rugospermum, “Fame flower,” a peculiar succulent-like plant whose vibrant fuschia blooms open only from around 3-6pm. After having no success in the location they believed to find it, Barbara and Bickie forgot about the curious Fame flower. The following August, the pair became overjoyed when they stumbled across its slender leaves on the opposite side of railroad tracks from where they had looked before. Barbara Plampin and Emma Pitcher are distinguished as the official “finders” of this rare species.
Christine Gerlach, Education Coordinator for Indiana Dunes National Park remembers “Bickie” as having enthusiastically contributed to many different training sessions for interpretive rangers at the lakeshore in the springs and falls of the 1980s. The expertise Bickie shared helped lay a firm foundation for many career interpreters at the park. Christine remembers her as “laid-back, articulate, calm, resourceful, engaging, and knowledgeable.” Dale Engquist, then superintendent of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, said of Emma; “She is a consummate interpreter. She had instilled in the young interpreters things they would not have learned otherwise. She always had high standards that were admired by the scientists at the lakeshore.”
Her passion for birds is reflected in a passage she wrote for a Michigan Audubon Society publication:
“Ask any ornithologist and she’ll quickly list for you entire bird genera dependent on trees for food, for homes, and for shelter. Birds have been a serious part of my life for more than fifty years and in that space of time, the loss of habitat at both ends of the migration routes has seriously reduced numbers of all too many species.”
Barbara wrote of the impact of her friend in 2010:
“I can still see Bickie’s eyes grow round and hear her exclaim ‘Hot dawg!’ when a hiker found an interesting plant. Flowers were FGB (“full and glorious bloom”) or PP (“past prime”), expressions still used here 25 years after she moved to Kalamazoo for health reasons. Every hike had a purpose, such as understanding an ecosystem, beyond naming the plants. We were on time; we learned Latin names. When Bickie demonstrated bird banding, she let each of us release a bird. Afterward, everyone tactfully ate the strawberries she had forgotten to wash.”
Emma’s phrases are still heard in botany circles of the region today. The following is a haiku she wrote on our native tree with varied leaf shapes:
Delight of the young at heart.
Blue seeds please black bear.”
The Friends of Indiana Dunes is a group of dedicated individuals who provide financial and volunteer support to better programs and events at Indiana Dunes State and National Parks. In 1986 she received the group’s “Founder Award,” for her “faithful service as a teacher and naturalist for the organization. That same year she was also acknowledged for her field assistance in the 1986 publication “Endangered Plant Monitoring Strategies at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore,” published by the Morton Arboretum, University of Illinois and the National Park Service.
In 1987 through Shirley Heinz Environmental Fund and financial assistance from Friends of the Dunes, the Flora Richardson Foundation and others, she published Up and Down the Dunes; a collection of articles she published weekly for Dunebeat from 1985-1986. In it she wrote how a feeling of wonderment pervaded her life in the dunes, “Flowers, birds, seasonal changes, our special habitats – every one seems a miracle. A frost crystal, a great Oak monarch, a tiny Horned Bladderwort, the breaker dotted blue of Lake Michigan, a whirring Hummingbird – each has a charm that has enriched my life.” She also expresses thanks to a number of individuals for their help and encouragement, including Barbara Plampin, Charlotte Read, Sylvia Troy, Ruth Osann, Kay Franklin, Norma Shaeffer, Glenda Daniel, and Irene Herlocker[-Meyer].
“Ah, Spring! The cardinal trills lustily ; the mourning dove mourns melodiously , the titmouse peter-peters relentlessly ; the chickadee whistles enthusiastically. The silence of winter has its own charm, but the day-by-day increase in variety of bird calls in spring… It’s high time for you to tuck your daily cares in the closet and go fill your lungs with spring air.”
In 1987 she moved to Friendship Village in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Barbara Plampin remembers that upon Bickie’s departure from Duneland, she carefully selected individuals to carry on a field of study pertinent to their skills and interests. One was to order books for the local nature store, another to lead bird hikes. She assigned Barbara as botanist. At her farewell, dubbed a “migration party,” friends gathered to see Bickie off to her next adventure. A young student who attended one of Bickie’s classes said:
Emma always gently encouraged her botany students. After one less-than-spectacular class performance on a quiz on the parts of the flower, she said “Well, there’s lots of room for growth here.”
At the event, Emma said, “What I’ve done I’ve done for me because I loved it. The fact that other people have enjoyed it is pure gravy.” Fellow birder and author Ken Brock said of Emma’s departure; “Her influence was felt far and wide. She is a most giving and sharing person. I don’t know what we’ll do without her.”
In Michigan, Emma became very involved; she taught and participated in the Michigan Botanical Club, Wild Ones, Kalamazoo Nature Center, Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy, and Audubon Societies of Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan. She also wrote columns for the Kalamazoo Gazette and published three small books on nature study.
Emma spent summers in the 1990s conducting nature study on Baffin Island in Nunavut, Canada during the seven weeks each summer the area would thaw. Here she had the opportunity one year to watch Arctic birds for two weeks while tent camping on sea ice 100 miles away from shore. In 2001, she traveled deep in the western Pacific Ocean to Midway Atoll to study seabirds like albatrosses and petrels, as well as seals and sea turtles. Beginning in 1998, residents at Friendship Village began establishing their nature preserve on a five acre patch of woodland; Emma relished participating in its development. Some of Emma's varied arts interests included close-up photography of birds and flowers, poetry by Emily Dickinson and Mary Oliver, paintings by Tasha Tudor and Georgia O'Keeffe, and woodcuts by Albrecht Durer.
Emma passed away on April 15th, 2010 in Kalamazoo, Michigan at the age of 94. Her namesake prairies along the Glenwood Dunes Trail are a wonderful place to connect to her memory and legacy.
BibliographySeptember 10, 1976; Special Evening Program at Lakeshore, Vidette-Messenger of Porter County, Valparaiso, IN – Page 7
March 2, 1977; Sciences get helping hand from outdoor hobbyists, Glenda Daniel, Chicago Tribune, Chicago, IL
October 17, 1982; South Bend Tribune, South Bend, IN
“Save the Dunes unit to mark 30th year with dinner, slides” ; Page 12
March 19, 1987; Vidette-Messenger of Porter County, Valparaiso, IN
“Farewell party for Pitcher” by Beverly Overmeyer ; Page 12
The content for this article was written by Joseph Gruzalski, a researcher with Indiana Dunes National Park. Funds were made possible by a National Park Foundation grant.