by Stephen Sagarin, Faculty Chair
We study tide pool zoology—as scientists worldwide do—because it is likely that tide pools are the cradles of animal life on earth. The simplest animals—sponges—live here, and it may be that the water, sunlight, and biochemistry of the tide pools gave rise to the first simple animals. And, of the dozen or so animal phyla, almost all can be found on a good day at your feet in a tide pool. This year, the seven members of the Class of 2012, accompanied by Dr. Sagarin and by class parent Lydia Littlefield, traveled to Hermit Island, Maine, from September 18 to September 23.
Hermit Island is no longer an island. A sand bridge a couple of hundred yards wide divides the open sea from the calmer “Branch,” a salt marsh and muddy clam-filled tidal flat, so you can drive right to your campsite. On the way, you pass a general store at which you pay for your campsite and can buy everything from coffee, candy, and lantern wicks to ice and fresh lobsters. You also pass the “Kelp Shed,” a rambling ocean-side snack bar and hangout for campers in the summer—fireplace indoors, beach volleyball outdoors—and the site of our labs and main lessons each September. The non-island is privately owned. About half has been turned into campsites, and half is nature preserve and commercial fishing dock. It’s a bit more than a mile south to north and a few hundred yards wide.
At our campsite we collect picnic tables; one for the “kitchen,” one for the “pantry,” loaded with coolers and bins, and two for the “dining room.” Avia organizes everything, as she will all week. We set up our tents. The largest this year is for the five senior girls, who dub it the “Princess Palace.” Swags of mosquito netting frame the entrance.
We eat our first meal together, Phoebe’s spaghetti with meat sauce, then head to the Kelp Shed to meet 90 seniors from 7 other Waldorf high schools: Hawthorne Valley, Hartsbrook, Saratoga, Kimberton, Lake Champlain, Mass Bay, and Merriconeague. We have a safety talk, go over the week’s schedule, and wet ourselves in the cold ocean, ritually leaving behind life elsewhere and entering the life we will share for the week. We sing together and head to bed.
The next morning, we’re up at 6 for breakfast. Phoebe runs on the island’s dirt roads before the rest of us have our first cup of coffee. Alice makes us delicious fried egg, cheese, and bacon sandwiches. We head to the Kelp Shed for a two hour lecture on mollusks, presented by Dr. Sagarin and Ms. Dews, a teacher from the Lake Champlain school. We learn about the anatomy, physiology, and behavior of the tasty phylum of bivalves (clams and mussels), gastropods (snails), and cephalopods (octopi and squids), and examine and draw living specimens. Valves squirt, muscular “feet” extend, students squeal.
Then, a short break before a hike to the tide pools. We break into four groups of about 25 students each, accompanied by three or four teachers. Some students roll up their pants and wade in, searching for sea stars, anemones, and crabs. Others hang back at first, but, within 90 minutes, we have seen and identified more than 2 dozen animals and about 8 species of algae, and begin to feel at home in this cold, slippery, salty environment.
Back to the camp for lunch and, perhaps, a brief nap or conversation around the campfire. Kahlia entertains us with tales of the other students in her group. Then it’s off to microscope lab, beach and dune ecology, wave and fluid dynamics, or, for an artistic reprieve, painting or writing poetry on the beach. Each trip to and from the campsite requires a walk of half a mile or so. One student brought a pedometer and learns that we walk about 6 miles a day.
Now it is late afternoon on our first day. At supper we tell each other how tired we are, we move from the picnic-table dinner to a ring of camp chairs around our fire—it’s getting cold. We talk about the week ahead, then turn in before 10 p.m., the island curfew. When the island is quiet we can hear the surf drumming on the beach all night long.
Tuesday is gray and windy. The tide pools never really appear. Heavy surf pounds the coast all through low tide, throwing spray high onto the seaweed and barnacles. We watch in quiet awe from a distance and write descriptions of the zones we cannot approach.
Wednesday is calm and bright, the tide pools available and teeming with life. Low tide is close to noon, and the heat of the day and the colorful tide pools stun us with their bounty.
Days pass more or less like this, punctuated by a group bonfire for all the schools, a reading by local novelist Ellen Cooney, a contradance, and permeated by our growing familiarity with a new place and a new routine. Ben tells two stories at the group campfire and earns laughter and applause. Mollusks are followed by worms, arthropods, and echinoderms, and the tide pools begin to feel, well, if not like home, at least more comfortable. We have a lobster dinner on Thursday, accompanied by Saphire’s grilled eggplant, grilled corn on the cob, and stir-fry. Some students find it difficult to eat a lobster after meeting a live one in class the day before. Others identify the anatomy as they pry it apart, appreciating the organism and its sacrifice.
It rains, a drenching, soaking, terrible rain that floods the Princess Palace. The work we have to do doesn’t change, however, and our pace doesn’t slacken. We stretch a tarp over the kitchen and pantry and another over the dining room. Will uses the skill of a woodsman to light a large fire in the rain. We do what we have to do, just wetter than we were before.
Now it’s the end of the week, too soon in many ways, but also time to pack and head home, smelling of campfires, tattooed with mosquito bites, but filled with the beauty of the island and memories of the tide pools.