Nature is the teacher at Polly Hill Arboretum

Nancy Rogers, Hudson Bausman, Sam Entner, Sam Permar, and Bo Hurwitz
Guide Nancy Rogers leads a group of West Tisbury fifth-graders (from left, Hudson Bausman, Sam Entner, Sam Permar, and Bo Hurwitz) on a fun and educational quest through the Polly Hill Arboretum. Photo by Ralph Stewart

By Pat Waring - January 11, 2007

The Polly Hill Arboretum is quiet now in the midst of winter, at least for a brief time before springtime activities begin and the celebrated azaleas and magnolias burst into bloom. Occasional visitors still come, in down jackets, wooly hats, and mittens, to walk the paths, listen to the birds, and soak up the tranquility. Although most trees are bare, the conifer grove planted by Polly decades ago remains lush and green, towering and magical as a scene from "The Nutcracker."

Only a few months ago the atmosphere was completely different. Shouts and laughter filled the air and at any turn one might spy a group of youngsters examining a leaf, checking the bark on a tree, dissecting a seed pod. Brandishing tiny magnifying glasses, children roamed the grounds with adult guides, fledgling horticulturists learning from the nature around them.

"Field trip!" Along with "snow day" and "school's out," there are few other words that bring such a rush of joy to a student's heart. And when the field trip entails heading to the Polly Hill Arboretum, youngsters know there is a good time in store. They will get to wander and romp through the meadow, wide lawns, the thick woods, the gardens, and maybe poke around in the dim old barn. If there are fallen leaves they may jump in them, and every field trip will include a game or two (fun and educational too). Most trips end with snacks at the picnic tables in the glade beside the visitors' center. What better way to spend a school day?

Sam Entner and Hudson Bausman
Sam Entner (left) and Hudson Bausman, duly amazed at one of the arboretum's exotic horticultural treasures.

Magical as it is from an adult point of view, just imagine the wonder for a child of the towering evergreens, the magnolia with its Jack and the Beanstalk-giant leaves and blossoms. Imagine the fascination of the tree that is prickly as a porcupine, the long arbor woven entirely of branches, the gazebo nestled like a secret house in the woods.

But equally exciting is what the children will learn, thanks to Youth Education Coordinator Betsy Dripps, who has a knack for making nature education fun. Last fall, Ms. Dripps welcomed dozens and dozens of youngsters from schools across the Island for the "Traveling Seeds" program. Children set out in small groups armed with hand lenses, notebooks, and envelopes for collecting seeds, leaves, and other items of interest, all fodder for educational discussion.

Come spring, just like the leaves, flowers, and songbirds, the children will be back. Beginning in May, the emphasis for school field trips will be on flowers, their life cycles, and the magic through which blossoms change to fruit. Other programs include Native Trees/Native People and Nature Journaling, both offered in spring and fall, and a spring program on tree investigation. In addition to the school programs, the arboretum offers a packed agenda of lectures and workshops for adults from springtime to fall.

Ms. Dripps taught at the elementary level for 15 years in Philadelphia, Penn., before moving to the Vineyard 13 years ago with her husband, Craig, a math teacher. She worked at the West Tisbury School as a teaching assistant and math substitute before joining the Polly Hill staff in 2004.

Katherine O'Brien
Katherine O'Brien of Grace Church Preschool gathers seeds with care.

Thanks to Ms. Dripps, the arboretum now offers an array of inspiring field study programs in cooperation with Island schools. The new job is a perfect fit. "I've always had an interest, through my own four children, in nature and the outdoors and helping kids enjoy the outdoors," she said. "I can work with young children without being confined to the classroom."

Ms. Dripps, whose ebullient personality is an ideal match for the energy of young students, explained that her role is to get out the word that the Polly Hill Arboretum is not an exclusive private garden but a public and priceless resource for all - "an outdoor field laboratory for studying trees and plants and flowers and seeds."

Growing little scientists

One bright November morning, a pack of little explorers from Grace Church Preschool in Vineyard Haven arrived. Snug in sweatshirts, puffy jackets, and decked out with boots, hats, and mittens, the little ones clustered around as Ms. Dripps handed out lenses.

"We're going to see all the great trees and plants that Polly Hill has given us," promised Ms. Dripps, in the engaging tone of someone starting a fairy tale. "Open those eyes, look around, then every one of you are scientists."

The youngsters split up into three small groups, each with an attentive adult guide. Then they set off to find seeds that might be carried by birds, blown by the wind, or otherwise moved to fertile ground. Each seed discovered went into one of three envelopes marked "wind," "birds," and "mystery."

Ms. Dripps picked a holly berry, and split it open. "It has one little seed inside. How is this seed traveling?"

The children are well prepared for their scientific missions. By the time students arrive here, Ms. Dripps has already visited their classrooms, giving a hands-on introduction to the concept of "traveling seeds," or whatever the program's theme may be. Later, children and teachers are sent back to school with follow-up activities to pursue so the new knowledge will not be lost.

Children from Grace Church Preschool
Children from Grace Church Preschool tramp happily down the path in their search for more seeds and other treasures.

Along with seeds there were other wonders to discover that day - a huge leaf, soft green lichen on a gray stone wall, bushes with funny names, a shrub with glossy berries, a tree with a camouflage-like bark. Whatever the discovery, Ms. Dripps makes it all magic. "We call this the octopus tree because it looks like an octopus," said Ms. Dripps in a hushed, "Believe It or Not" voice. "And somebody said it looks like lava flowing down!"

Ms. Dripps made sure that the arboretum's dedicated founder, Polly Hill, was never forgotten, reverentially telling the children how she had started the arboretum, introduced unusual plants, and cared for them lovingly over the decades.

Gretchen Snyder, one of several trained guides, led her group to a sunny spot beside a stone wall. There they settled down in the grass to make notes on what they had seen.

"This is what a scientist does," said Ms. Snyder earnestly. "He or she goes out and collects things. When they have so many things, so they won't forget, they draw a seed, or a leaf, or an animal."

Betsy Dripps
Betsy Dripps, Youth Education Coordinator for the Polly Hill Arboretum, shows off an impressive discovery.

A woodland quest

Another day, West Tisbury fifth-graders undertook the Polly Hill quest, exploring the Arboretum as though they were on a treasure hunt, learning history, horticulture, and local lore as they went. The elaborate and elegantly written clue sheet was the creation of a group of teachers, an early prototype of the student-written challenges found in "Quest Martha's Vineyard," recently published by the MV Times Press.

The journey began at the visitor's center, again with small groups heading out to solve natural mysteries. As they walked, the youngsters took turns reading aloud from the clue sheet, a document richly packed with information and poetic to boot. Clues were challenging and colorful. The students were asked to find "beech trees with elephant feet," "an owl box," certain dogwoods, "weeping" evergreens, "Polly's Play Pen," along with many exotic plantings, "a tunnel that has no door," and much, much more. A clue directing questers to "the best bathrooms in Dukes County" (found at the Visitors Center) brought plenty of giggles.

Though it was complicated enough to stump a savvy adult, the students, with encouragement from their guides, were adept at finding their way through the quest. Ms. Dripps and her colleagues meanwhile took every opportunity to add horticultural tips and insights - pointing out names of trees, unusual seeds, leaves, shrubs, and calling attention to birdsong.

Like the littlest visitors, the fifth-graders ended their trip with a game, outdoor snacks, and an open invitation from Ms. Dripps to come back any time. Best of all, they headed back to school with a comfortable familiarity with the arboretum, and a sense of accomplishment, and the exhilaration that comes from spending a few hours in Polly Hill's beautiful garden.

For more information, visit pollyhillarboretum.org or call 508-693-9426.