Maine Summer Ecology 2022
Reflections by Upper School science teachers John Gruber & Nora Swift
At the end of July, John and Nora took a journey to the farthest coast of the northeast United States, the Bold Coast of Maine, one of the wildest remaining stretches of North Atlantic shoreline and coastal forest. With ten students and five adults, our focus was on the unique ecology of both marine and terrestrial environments, a chance to study first hand both individual organisms and interrelationships. We were excited to be bringing students from both 10th and 11th grades and thrilled to include teachers Suchita Fiorillo and Natalie Martin from the Lower School campus. We were all looking forward to exploring the marine science and northern forest ecology that would form the backbone of our academic program. At the same time, we also wanted to be very intentional about creating a learning community that was engaging, collaborative, and reflective, offering opportunities for students to learn about themselves, to look inwardly alongside our outward gaze. It was a journey into a unique part of the country, a land rich in lichens, berries, and diverse shelled invertebrates. Below are some reflections on the experience.
John: West Quoddy Head
On our first site visit from the field station, we’ve driven to West Quoddy Head, with a brilliant blue sky and the deep green of northern conifers; the colors rise up in the midst of the strong and unmistakable aroma of balsam fir. Looking out across the salt water, we are facing Grand Manan, a 20-mile long island that is part of New Brunswick, Canada resting in the mouth of the Bay of Fundy. The view is exquisite, and the students are eager to scamper down a set of stairs to the rocky shore to get close to the waves and the tideline. It’s inspiring to see their excitement and eagerness. As beautiful as it is outwardly, it’s the littlest things that completely captivate me; One of my hopes in coming to Maine is the chance to photograph the giant pixie cup lichen, Cladonia maxima, a species I’ve read about but never observed in person. Pixie cup lichens are diverse, distinctive, and poorly understood both in their classifications and many aspects of their fundamental biology.
“Everywhere we look there are amazing forms, intricate details, unique specializations and interconnections to observe by paying close attention, by slowing down to really see what is here.”
We aren’t disappointed as we hike up the trail to the bog and catch sight of a broad patch of thin, tall, gray green fingers rising from the base of a tree trunk. It was the first of many very special sightings and stories. In the bog, the landscape is almost otherworldly – a boreal, peat-based landscape. The bog is full of treasures: carnivorous sundew plants, pitcher plants in flower, bog goldenrods, and a member of the raspberry family called baked apple berry or cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus) that I know from my favorite Icelandic Skyr yogurt flavor. Everywhere we look there are amazing forms, intricate details, unique specializations and interconnections to observe by paying close attention, by slowing down to really see what is here. Walking back towards the lighthouse along the water with students, we pause to listen to the animated, buzzy calls of a group of birds in the spruce; they turn out to be red-breasted nuthatches, and they add another auditory element to our hike.
The iconic lighthouse stands at the easternmost point of the United States and is graced with a bell and a commemorative plaque. Looking outward from here, we are closer to Greenland than West Palm Beach, Florida, and there’s very much a feeling that we are standing at an edge.
Nora: Reversing Falls
It is starting to be one of the warmest days yet as we pile into the vans after breakfast to head to Reversing Falls Park in Pembroke. It felt a bit rushed this morning trying to get through what has become our regular morning routine while also packing up lunches and snacks for later; we absolutely had to get there before the tide went out fully!
As we park and walk down to see Cobscook Falls – a narrow entrance to the Bay the Center for Ecological Teaching and Learning (CETL) is located on – my mind goes back to October when John told me a story of a place so spectacular, where the tidal change is so extreme you can hear the water rushing; see the water rising and fall within minutes. We are there!
As I walk down the pile of rocks I just know will be covered at high tide, I’m in awe at how narrow that gap for ALL the water entering the Bay is. Catching the end of the tide going out, there’s a seal playing in the surf. Eyes looking up to see a bald eagle wheeling overhead. I can already hear my name being called – “Nora, what IS this?!” – and I giggle with excitement as I scramble down the rocks, slipping a bit as the rockweed shifts under me. Looking down into Natalie’s cupped hands at a creature that looks otherworldly, I gasp in awe and surprise before pulling my phone out to confirm. It is indeed a nudibranch! Watching as the cerata, or little fronds, of this bushy-backed nudibranch drift as the water shifts, I have the biggest grin on my face.
Folx have dispersed, as I look up – spreading out along the shore; searching, chatting, soaking in the sun. As we get closer to lunchtime, we’ve found a large hermit crab, two kinds of sea cucumbers, a scallop, and many more sea stars.
“Bouncing along parts of the trail that seem to be held up mostly by root systems, I watch the sun shift through shades of green and brown, interspersed with bursts of color from fungi and bunchberries. We stop to learn about lungwort lichen.”
The water is frigid, but I find myself drawn to it anyway. The tide is starting to come back in but slowly enough that I don’t have to worry about being swept away. I know I just have to jump right in, but as I’m mentally preparing myself, I feel immense pain from my big toe – a green crab has let me know I was too close! Gasping in surprise, I tumble all the way into the water. It’s so cold I have trouble expanding my lungs all the way. I last less than two minutes before hauling myself out to lie in the sun and warm up, the salt itching as it dries. At lunch, we share chips that complement the salt layer on my skin.
An after-lunch walk through the pine forest fits the mood perfectly. Bouncing along parts of the trail that seem to be held up mostly by root systems, I watch the sun shift through shades of green and brown, interspersed with bursts of color from fungi and bunchberries. We stop to learn about lungwort lichen. Deep breath and appreciation for this place.
On the way to Western Head, we drive through the small town of Cutler and its protected harbor with lobster boats at their moorings. The fog is in, and everything is cast in a salty mist from the nearby ocean. Every dock has a ladder down to the remarkably low tide level, and I am reminded of photos I once saw in textbooks as a young student showing the greatest tidal change in the world in the Bay of Fundy, pictures that were undoubtedly taken very near to where we are driving. The fog and mist change the feel of the forest – spider webs glisten with droplets, lichens drip water from hanging branches. We invite the students to sit on a rock that will soon become inaccessible, 20 meters out to sea after the tide comes in. The rocks, both large and small, are a powerful part of the coastal seascape. Some of the students pick up rocks of distinctive shapes (spherical, heart-shaped) or remarkable colors (greens of olivine, reds and pinks from granite rich in feldspar). As part of our reflections, we invite the students to begin a process of writing collective verse, a kind of linked, collaborative exercise where one student begins a poem, another person develops the middle, and yet another wraps it up and brings it to closure. It is a perfect site and day for this writing – the quiet, the sounds, this particular moment in our trip all offer a rich array of possibilities to express in words. Everyone stops at a point on the trail where strong waves collide against the rocks and lift up splashes and spray; just a short distance further, the quiet waters of a cove lap against the shore like a saltwater lake.
Nora: Schoodic Institute
It’s our last evening in Maine all together. As we sit all together in our classroom space at the Schoodic Institute in Acadia National Park, that thought keeps running through my mind. We settle in together to share some of our reflections, learnings, and joys from the day and experience. The space feels so much like a classroom. It is a bit jarring after nine days of field study and experiential learning almost entirely outside – I keep having to pull myself back into the moment.
While chairs are being moved around (ah, how I haven’t missed that scraping sound) I think back briefly on the day – our morning hike together, slowed by munching on wild blueberries; a lesson with Ranger Vicki on phenology and birds; finding the monarch butterfly eggs and caterpillars that will become the super generation to migrate all the way down to Mexico and part of the way back; and our sunset view on the Schoodic Peninsula that ended up being more of a fog-viewing. So many moments of connection, reflection, and sharing have happened today. I think we’re all feeling and processing the coming end of the program.
“The common theme between all these stories is the excitement and joy from the students as they share; each of them chose their organism for a reason, because of some connection or experience they had with them. This is why we do what we do.”
It is finally time for the students to share their research and experience with one case-study organism they chose from our time at the CETL. We heard stories about the life cycle of the American eel; the complicated impact of several introduced species – such as the green crab – to the marine ecological communities; finishing on a light-hearted note with a detailed description of how the plentiful barnacles we saw reproduce. The common theme between all these stories is the excitement and joy from the students as they share; each of them chose their organism for a reason, because of some connection or experience they had with them. This is why we do what we do.
Click here to see more photos from the Maine Summer Ecology 2022 trip
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