TROY, Maine — Wild caraway, northern flicker woodpeckers, fall dandelions and wild madder.
Where others might see green trees and dappled sunlight on a walk in the woods, 12-year-old Joel Gilb’s quick eyes catch all sorts of hidden flowers, plants, insects and birds when he steps out the door of the rustic one-room cabin in Troy where he and his mother spend their summers.
And when they are back in Tucson, Ariz., for the winter, Joel will spend those months reading field guides and making extraordinarily intricate line drawings of the things he saw in Maine.
Those drawings have gained the attention of Ellen Winner, head of the Boston College Psychology Department, who studies gifted children. She has done two research projects that have included Joel over the past two years.
“I do think he’s a prodigy,” she said Wednesday evening in a telephone interview. “He’s got incredible visual observation skills and drawing skills. They’re just off the charts. He also has an extreme talent in what I would call being a naturalist, understanding the natural world.”
Children at Joel’s level are very rare, Winner said, adding that he is possibly one in a million.
“I can only tell you, the more gifted, the more rare,” she said.
Her recent research on children in the arts — typical, gifted and “extreme” varieties — is destined to be an academic article. She also wrote a 1996 book, “Gifted Children: Myths and Realities.”
“I think it’s really basic research into the nature of human beings,” she said. “If we want to understand human nature, we have to understand the extremes at both ends. If we can understand how these kids operate, perhaps we can nurture them. Help them to grow.”
Joel’s gifts have attracted attention: He was just interviewed by a National Public Radio reporter whose story on gifted children is likely to air in the first week of October. And his mom, Joan, is clearly proud of her son, whom she home-schools.
“Actually, he teaches me,” she corrected.
But Joel doesn’t seem to be thrown for a loop by any of the interest generated by his art or his naturalist ability. Mostly, he seems like a quiet, tall child whose eyes light up when he spots something cool outside — and who is happy to share what he knows with others.
“When I was little, I always saw interesting things,” he said Monday after going on a three-mile hike. “I think the natural world is a fascinating system. All the variations, and how the ecosystem makes up a perfect balance.”
Maine not without dangers
Joan Gilb, originally from Augusta, has lived in the desert city of Tucson with her family for years. When it first became apparent Joel had a special interest in nature, she and her husband, Dan Gilb, decided he needed more exposure to the natural world. At first they started traveling to Maine in a recreational vehicle, but then decided to purchase the cabin in Troy.
“We love Troy,” she said. “The people are just amazingly friendly … they’ve been giving and open and willing to share the beautiful wild places.”
The simple cabin has no running water or amenities like television or the Internet. Its attraction is what’s outside — the miles of nearby snowmobile trails that wend through second-growth forest, old cemeteries, meadows and wetlands.
That’s a big contrast to Tucson, where Joel’s young Audubon birder’s group has made field trips to spots such as the water treatment plant.
“We’re really lucky here,” Joan said while striding through a newly mowed hayfield. “What’s really beautiful is you don’t have to worry about rattlesnakes.”
However, Maine is not without its own dangers. Joel’s sharp eyes noticed something menacing this summer in a tangle of greenery near a picnic area at Damariscotta Lake State Park.
“I noticed this plant there. I had memorized the field guide,” he said. “I told my mom that was one of the most poisonous plants in the United States.”
Joel thought it was water hemlock, which is deadly when ingested and has been mistaken for celery, carrot, parsley and ginseng. In fact, in 1992 a Massachusetts man died in Damariscotta after mistakenly eating hemlock root.
Because the plant was growing so close to the picnic area, Joel and his mom decided to tell somebody about their suspicion. Joan spoke with Mike Leighton, the regional manager for the Bureau of Parks and Lands.
“I’ve raised four kids, and I’ve never discounted things that they told me,” he said Wednesday. “It sounded like this guy knew his stuff, according to his mom, and one should be more safe than sorry when it comes to things like this.”
Park officials checked out Joel’s tip and did find that water hemlock was growing in the park.
“It’s a deadly, serious plant, and something you don’t want to mess around with,” Leighton said. “Everything turned out real well. We ended up removing the most prevalent plants that were next to the public use area. It was a good thing, to do that. We didn’t know they were there.”
Different from other children
Another Mainer who met Joel over the summer is Brad Libby, the superintendent of horticultural facilities at the University of Maine. Joel visited him in Orono, where they talked about plant taxonomy, or ways to identify plants. Libby said that it can take a person years to build up a plant database in their minds as comprehensive as Joel’s.
“Usually at that age, kids are more interested in Xbox and things like that,” Libby said. “He didn’t talk about any of those things. It seems he’s looking everywhere and enjoying and appreciating botany.”
During his visits to the university, Joel’s appreciation of nature and passion for botany really shone through. He had a mission to identify a weed and wouldn’t quit until he figured it out, Libby said.
“That’s what success is, being willing to invest the time,” he said.
According to Winner, the Boston College researcher, it can be hard to be a gifted child.
“Sometimes when kids are very much ahead of their peers, they have trouble making friends,” she said. “Sometimes kids make fun of you.”
Joel doesn’t appear to suffer from this and talks readily about his friends in Tucson.
“They’re all goofballs,” Joan said fondly.
She’s the one who contacted Winner to ask about her son, whom she had long suspected was different from other children.
“But I’m his mom. And I was trying to gauge if his skills were unusual or exceptional — or is he just a fairly talented kid?” Joan said.
Winner said that no tests are needed to figure out if a child has an extreme gift.
“You just need your eye,” she said. “Joel draws better than the average adult. Much better.”
Indeed, a colored line drawing of a rooster he made two years ago when he was 10 shows a bird with feathers so detailed it looks as if it could walk off the page and start flapping.
“I thought everybody does this,” Joel said of his visual and drawing skills. “When I found out I was a prodigy, that seemed really special.”
However, Joel doesn’t see himself as primarily an artist, Winner said.
“I think he’s more interested in using drawing as a way to understand the natural world. He’s a naturalist.”
She likened him to Charles Darwin, another youth who was attracted to nature. In the case of the evolutionary scientist, he was “obsessed with classifying insects,” according to Winner.
“These are really important people for the future,” she said. “These are people who are going to invent our future. We should be nurturing them.”