Teach what you know

Homeschooling for Island adults at the Oak Bluffs library.

Steve Auerbach teaches an intro class, in his "Houseplant Care" series, at the Oak Bluffs library. —Nate Luce

What does Martha’s Vineyard have in common with Athens in the Golden Age and Elizabethan England? You guessed it! We’ve got a veritable surplus of talented people — people who know a whole bunch of stuff, and who ought to be put to work teaching it.

This occurred to 30-year-old wunderkind program director Nate Luce at the Oak Bluffs library. He sat at his desk recently trying to plan a winter schedule much like the ACE program, only free. Should he invite an ornithologist from the Cape? A novelist from Rhode Island? That would involve, of course, travel expenses and lodging. And for what? We have ornithologists, novelists, and perhaps even igloo builders here.

Thus was born, on a 2° day in January, the incubator moment for OBPL’s Teach What You Know workshop. A successful trial run began with Oak Bluffs resident Steve Auerbach, longtime plant specialist, who on Jan. 13 launched his three-part Houseplant Care course; the others are scheduled for Jan. 27 and Feb. 3 at 2:30 pm.

“About 20 people showed up,” Mr. Luce reported, “a great turnout for this time of year.”

Mr. Auerbach is retired but not retired, and so many of us grok this distinction. He grew up in Teaneck, N.J., graduated from Rutgers with a degree in art history, and pursued plants as a hobby. Before long he owned a plant store, but his entrepreneurial skills led him to develop an interior landscaping business in the Hudson Valley in New York.

Reached by phone at his charming antique house in Oak Bluffs, he said, “I provided plants to corporate headquarters, hospitals, hotels, restaurants to adorn their lobbies and offices with tropical plants for beauty and comfort. The goal was to make the atmosphere warm and calm, and, of course, plants are oxygenating.”

When pushed to expand on the greenery he favored, he said, “Plants we grow in the home are the same that one would have in any interior; plants that don’t do well outside.” Some of his key fauna are philodendron, cacti, and begonias. He has cacti growing inside his front walk: “It’s a family of cactus that happen to be more widespread in different climatic zones.”

Mr. Auerbach and his wife Phyllis bought their house in 1985, and retired here in 2007. They have two daughters who in turn have yielded two grandsons.

He admired the library, as all those in the community hungry for books and movies tend to do, but he quickly observed that the palatial building stood in need of greenery. He visits weekly to supply and care for the plants you’ll see in south-facing windows on the ground floor and upstairs: “Here, there, and everywhere with decent light.”

This busy Renaissance man, as he spoke on the phone to me, was hard at work cooking a coconut curry stir-fry for dinner.
Next up on the Teach What You Know program is a dynamic woman, Alicia Lesnikoski, who resides along the western shore of the Lagoon. She lives with her mother Ann, an aviatrix in England during the World War II era. Ms. Lesnikoski is a landscaper with two — yes, two — Ph.D.s in science and botany, so you know she’ll bring extensive knowledge to bear on her Feb. 24 workshop devoted to shrub pruning. Ms. Lesnikoski asks that people bring hand pruners or, for the Anglophiles, “secateurs.”

So the word is out that Island dwellers possessed of bliss-ordained expertise must now come forward to present their C.V.s and get to work making all of us just that much more capable of, say, fixing carburetors, evaluating composers of the Baroque period, or learning the finer points of algebra (I’ll be away that week).

A word about Nate Luce: First of all, yes, he belongs to that Luce family, whose names you’ll find on weathered colonial tombstones in local cemeteries. He’s a 10th-generation Vineyard Luce, his late father Billy Luce being the primary bestower of that illustrious DNA. Young Nate grew up in central Connecticut, but summered here over the years until three years ago, when a part-time circulation assistant job influenced him to settle here.

“I’ve been doing the shuffle,” he said, but in the off-season he’s entitled to lodge in the family house along the eastern fringe of the Lagoon.

And if he had some special knowledge of his own to teach, what would it be? He replied by email, “Before I got this job I led an introductory class on self-Reiki at the library (I became a Reiki master while working at the Omega Institute in the Hudson Valley), but I don’t think I would do that again — and I also did a lecture on a trip to Cuba I took last year. And, let’s see, I would probably teach a class on alternative beer history, combined with making some recipes using local ingredients like juniper and mugwort in the place of hops.” Sign me up!

Nate is a perfect example of how, when we scratch the surface of someone’s daily contribution, we find a wealth of experience worth sharing with friends and neighbors.