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Students Zero in on Harpswell’s Coastal Habitats 2016

By Tom Hall

2016-short-course-croppedOn a recent summer evening, nearly 20 students, some with graying hair, peered excitedly into tidal pools at Pott’s Point Preserve, not quite knowing what to expect.

“They’re pretty gung-ho, touching crabs, putting things in buckets – it’s a chance to be kids again,” said Janet Gannon, a self-described “ocean nerd” who led this expedition. It is one of seven sessions in the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust’s (HHLT) inaugural Short Course on Harpswell’s Coastal Habitats.

Gannon, a former Bowdoin College instructor, showed the students, all adults, the big picture by focusing on how the littlest things adapt differently to the pools left behind after a high or low tide.

“You have to investigate things closely to appreciate Maine,” Gannon said.

Pott’s Point, long known for its spectacular panoramic views, provides plenty of opportunity for exploration underfoot as well.

“This is one of the most amazing places in Maine,” Gannon said. “It’s an ancient salt marsh that shows how diverse Harpswell really is, for a town that is all peninsula, with more water than land.”

2016-6-18-jgm-2Gannon is one of eight instructors for the Short Course, which wrapped up Sept. 14.

“All the instructors are really passionate about their areas of expertise – that really fueled our curiosity,” said student Whitney Conway.

Students used microscopes indoors to see what the naked eye cannot, before venturing outdoors to see how nature unfolds.

“We really got to see the interconnectedness of all things,” Conway said, like how mussels use their “feet” to create byssal threads of protein, to attach themselves to safe places on the rocky coast.

“It was just amazing to see this happen in real time, using the marine microscope,” Conway said.

Unplanned “teachable moments” popped up occasionally, such as finding horseshoe crabs mating on a nearby beach.

“It was nice to just get caught up in the wonderment of the moment,” Conway said.

2016-6-18-short-course-jgmHHLT has a number of programs for youth, such as its popular Nature Day Camp, but this is its first such course targeting adults.

Bruce Brandt, a retired physicist, jumped at the chance to see what his granddaughter found so fascinating at HHLT’s Nature Day Camp.

“The expertise of the other [adult] students is amazing,” Brandt said. “Everyone seems really ‘with it’ and eager to learn more.”

Brandt had been to Pott’s Point many times before, but never thought much about the tidal pools – or how old the algae might be.

Brandt also enjoyed a “Reading Nature” session taught by Matt Dubel, executive director of the Cathance River Education Alliance.

Dubel took students through the woods at Skolfield Shores Preserve, learning to “see” what was there all along – subtle clues to how this historic part of Harpswell has evolved over the last three centuries.

“We found old-growth trees in a line, so it was obvious they were intentionally left uncut,” Dubel said. “But why?”

The class also tried to figure out how that stand of old-growth beech trees have somehow avoided the blight you see elsewhere from insects and fungus. “Maybe genetics?” Dubel said.

2016-6-4-jgm-26Dubel said there are four “lenses” useful in decoding any landscape: climate, topography, substrate (what’s underfoot) and “disturbance – what has changed things here – beavers? lightning?”

It’s that kind of “what’s going on here?” approach that registers with adult students, Dubel said.

“Children bring fewer preconceptions to what nature has to offer,” Dubel said. “It’s harder for adults to put on ‘fresh eyes’ to look a little closer.”

The inaugural short course was supported by a grant from the Casco Bay Estuary Partnership.

Harpswell Heritage Land Trust will be offering more short courses in 2017. The best way to find out about future offerings is to sign up for HHLT’s email newsletter, which can be done by clicking here.

 Tom Hall is a journalist in South Harpswell. He can be reached at tommyhall@earthlink.net.

September 2016