Science is golden: Students return to Eagle Hill for learning, camaraderie

Posted April 14, 2017, at 1:55 p.m.
Last modified April 14, 2017, at 3:03 p.m.

This summer, more than 300 people will descend on Eagle Hill Institute in Steuben, Maine, for something they can’t get anywhere else.

That something is time with others eager to immerse themselves in natural history.

From May 21 through Sept. 2, participants will come from as nearby as Addison, Maine, to as far away as South American to attend weeklong in-depth seminars about topics such as mosses, lichens, insects, birds, bogs, mushrooms and medicinal plants.

“Eagle Hill has got to be one of the best places in the world to study natural history,” said Roger Rittmaster of Camden, Maine, who is taking “Bogs and Fens: Maine Peatlands” June 18-24. “I love natural history. It’s great to be able to spend a week on one subject with great people and great food.”

Since 1987, Eagle Hill has been inviting science enthusiasts to study on its coastal Downeast Maine campus. Students learn from top of the top experts in their field.

Eagle Hill Director Joerg-Henner Lotze likened the seminars to a “clan gathering,” where people come from all over to share their passion for the week.

“You don’t have just one instructor,” he said, adding that the students also learn from each other. “Many of your classmates can help with questions.”

Repeat seminar student Carol Lemmon of Branford, Conn., described the experience as being with “kindred spirits.” This year, she will take “Crustose Lichens of the Acadian Forest” May 21-27 with Dr. Stephen Clayden, curator of botany and mycology at the New Brunswick Museum.

“You get some of the best people in the whole country,” Lemmon said, referring to the instructors. “I’m getting information from them that I could not get on my own.”

The instructors enjoy being there to share their knowledge and because they will be challenged by the advanced seminar participants who end up teaching them.

“There’s a really nice social aspect [to the seminars],” said Dr. Fred Olday of Columbia, Maine, who teaches “Coastal and Inland Forests of Maine: Identification and Ecology of Trees and Shrubs” June 4-10. “It’s a nice mix of science and warm camaraderie.”

Olday said he retired in 2003 after teaching courses in botany, chemistry and soils at University of Massachusetts Lowell and at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine.

“After I retired I decided to go back to teaching,” he said, adding he now teaches courses in bryophyte and lichen biology at College of the Atlantic. At Eagle Hill, he enjoys not only the students but also time spent with the instructors of other courses.

Instructor Greg Marley of Rockland, Maine, said he enjoys teaching “Mushroom Identification for New Mycophiles: Foraging for Edible and Medicinal Mushrooms” July 30-Aug. 3 with close friend and co-instructor Michaeline Mulvey. Equally important, though, are the students.

“Invariably the class group is a mixture of professional teachers and ecologists melded with an equal number of hobbyists and amateur mushroomers,” he said. “Class age has ranged from teens to the 80s and we all work well as a group.”

The main goal, he said, is for everyone to have fun while learning.

Filling a niche

Not everyone who wants to study natural science in depth has the ability to attend a traditional college class — assuming one is even available nearby

Sarah Smyth of Medford, Mass., said she has lived near a 2,500-acre wooded conservation area for 30 years. She wanted to know more about the forest but was unable to re-enter college to take botany courses. Another option was evening classes with the New England Wildflower Society but those also were also difficult to fit into her schedule.

“I was searching for a way to learn the information I wanted — outside of traditional college courses, and without having to attend evening classroom sessions,” she said.

She learned about Eagle Hill through a Boston Mycological Club newsletter.

“I looked up Eagle Hill online and found so many courses from which to choose,” said Smyth, who is taking “Spiders: Identification, Biology, and Ecology” July 23-19 with Kefyn Catley, professor of biology at Western Carolina University.

Smyth said her first seminar, on flora of the Eastern Maine Coast, was such a positive experience that she keeps coming back.

“By far … the best thing about each seminar has been the enthusiasm of every instructor and the obvious joy they derive from teaching us about a subject in which they are not only knowledgeable but also very interested,” she said.

The seminars have helped her to become more aware of what is around her when she walks in the woods near her home.

“Each instructor has always let us know that we can call them if we ever have a question, and they have provided an e-mail and/or phone number. That action is just further evidence of their dedication to helping all their students,” she said.

Eagle Hill seminars also fit the bill for Miriam Sharick of Delhi, N.Y., who is also taking Catley’s spider course this summer.

A few years ago, Sharick was looking for an outdoor, summer biology seminar series that was both of personal interest and relevant to the courses she teaches in zoology and botany at SUNY Delhi College of Technology.

SUNY Delhi considers the Eagle Hill seminars to be professional development courses and picks up part of the tab every year, she said.

“But the most important benefit is that a topic of passing interest becomes an abiding fascination: mosses and liverworts the first year, dragonflies and damselflies the second year, ferns and their relatives last summer,” she said. “I can continue to identify organisms and learn their biology on my own, and this greatly informs my teaching.”

She also praised the Eagle Hill instructors for being “knowledgeable, personable [and] accommodating to a group’s varied abilities and needs, and dedicated to teaching.” The other students are also “delightfully diverse” and include people of people of many backgrounds including those with non-scientific careers, retirees. One year, a high school student boy from Chicago who had fallen in love with liverworts was among her classmates.

“Being a part of a group like this, listening, contributing, has become special to look forward to,” she said. “I’m also looking forward to the usual mix and camaraderie of equally eager fellow students, the fabulous meals, and the pleasant interlude of a working vacation.”

Carol Govan of Ashland, Mass., who is taking “Boletes and Other Fungi of New England” with Alan and Arleen Bessette July 16-22, said the experience at Eagle Hill is unique.

“Eagle Hill offers an amazing and unusual opportunity to completely immerse ourselves and explore various aspects of natural history from some of the foremost authorities in their fields,” she said. “We get a place to sleep for the week, get fed some wonderful meals, and enjoy the company of the faculty, other students and staff. All that is left to do is learn about things that fascinate us without having to bother with the daily necessities that take up time at home.”

An ideal setting

In addition to enjoying shared time with kindred spirits, Eagle Hill seminar participants said they love the setting in coastal Downeast Maine.

“I love the beauty of the [boreal] woods,” said Lemmon.

She described Eagle Hill as “silent,” in contrast to her home in Connecticut where one cannot escape the sounds of modern life such as vehicular traffic. She also enjoys the smell of the sea and conifers, as well as the flora and fauna.

“I just love it all,” she said.

Rittmaster also said he loves the setting.

“It’s so much fun. I bring my kayak with me,” he said.

Even the instructors are impressed with the approximately 150 acres situated just a few miles off Route 1.

“I just absolutely love the facility. I think all of the equipment is excellent,” said Alan Bessette of St. Marys, Ga., who teaches the boletes and fungi class.

Calling the area “spectacular,” he noted three different habitats for study are located conveniently nearby.

“The people are wonderful to work with,” added Bessette, professional mycologist and distinguished emeritus professor of biology at Utica College of Syracuse University.

He praised Eagle Hill Director Joerg-Henner Lotze, saying Lotze “goes out of his way” for seminar participants and this is one of many reasons he continues to come back.

“I don’t remember how many times I’ve been there,” he said. “It’s been quite a few.”

Robbin Moran, Ph.D., of Flight Plains, N.Y., who teaches “Taxonomy and Biology of Ferns and Lycophytes” Aug. 20-26, also enjoys the setting.

“Coastal Maine is a beautiful place to teach,” he said, adding he enjoys the waterways the class visits during the course.

“We spend a lot of time looking for quillworts (Isoetes), submerged aquatic plants,” he said. “We wade into scenic lakes and streams looking for them. A beautiful way to botanize on a hot August day!”

Eagle Hill also offers superb classroom facilities, participants and instructors said.

“Among these are enough microscopes, both dissecting and high-powered, for each student,” said Moran, who serves as Nathaniel Lord Britton Curator of Botany at the New York Botanical Garden. “This is a big plus when we examine the specimens collected during field trips.”

Marley also loves the “incredible location on the Downeast coast of Maine,” adding it is close to a variety of interesting ecological habitats.

Govan said she is also interested in the connection between art and science.

“Each instructor has been kind enough to let me and my friends draw as many items as we can while we learn about them,” she said. “We have thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated each course.”

Smyth said she will continue to take summer seminars at Eagle Hill.

“My only regret,” she said, “is that I did not learn of Eagle Hill sooner.”

Sidebar

Eagle Hill offers much for the public

Those who aren’t professional scientists will find Eagle Hill has a lot to offer.

The summer science seminars are open to novices, said Director Joerg-Henner Lotze.

“If you don’t mind being in a class with people who have considerably more experience than you, you will be fine,” he said.

During the summer seminar series, instructors often present short lecture programs, usually on Thursday evenings, that open to the public. While these programs are offered on the same topic as the seminar, they are geared to a more general audience.

Saturday programs are also presented for the local community. These cover a variety of subjects such as math, literature and art.

Eagle Hill’s restaurant, the Aerie, is also open to the public during the summer

Is the restaurant open to the public during the summer?

During the winter, Eagle Hill hosts concerts and dinner combinations that are also open to the public. Hiking trails are also open year round.

For more information, call 207-546-2821. Ext. 4, visit eaglehill.us or email office@eaglehill.us.

 

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