Nature nurturers retire from Polly Hill


“Who could imagine such a place?” said Arboretum founder Polly Hill.

Her quote began an article commemorating the 20th anniversary of Polly Hill Arboretum in the Spring 2018 issue of Meristems, the arboretum’s publication. I can’t think of a better way to begin this article about the education program imagined, designed, and implemented by Betsy Dripps and Jill Bouck, who both retired this year.

Betsy moved to the Vineyard in 1995. Jill was a summer kid who returned here to live after graduating from college. Both women were teachers, and they shared a love of nature and gardening that brought them to the arboretum as volunteers. Their enthusiasm is evident in their stated requirements for the school guides they train to work in the education program: Guides must love kids and must love being at the arboretum.

It was clear in our conversation that Jill and Betsy easily fulfilled those requirements. We spent almost two hours talking about plants, garden design, ecology, ecosystems, working together, conservation, nature walks with their own children, how they developed the group of volunteers, guides, and teachers who helped facilitate what has become an extensive program. Twice every year, spring and fall, they visited every kindergarten through fourth grade in every school on the Island, between 700 and 750 students, to present a classroom discussion and prepare the children for their site work at the arboretum. Time in between was spent refining and enhancing each program, as well as working with the guides, teachers, and volunteers.

“Kids are all scientists,” said Betsy. “We have to convince them to just walk out the door and look at things.” Observation and curiosity are encouraged, and every lesson is planned to provide high-quality learning opportunities. Each lesson aligns with current STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) curricula for the corresponding grade, and builds upon the previous year’s lessons. Betsy commented that it was a help to classroom teachers to provide lessons that were compatible with the current year’s STEM curriculum.

In last fall’s program, kindergarteners were shown seeds of local trees and plants as part of a discussion of the life cycle of plants. Photographs of plants they were expected to see when they visited the arboretum were given to each child. On their day in the field, children observed and identified the plants and seeds, their differences and similarities. Then they went to the Far Barn to draw two different seeds and package milkweed seeds to take home. By planting milkweed seeds in their yards around the Island, children can help provide food for monarch butterflies, part of a project called Kindergarteners for Monarchs, devised by Betsy and Jill’s successor, Kendra Buresch.

The first grade lesson plan examines the change of seasons and how different plants adapt. How do deciduous trees differ from evergreens? How do they survive the winter? How has nature given different adaptive qualities as each species required? What were they? As the children explored the arboretum the next day, they were expected to find and collect leaves and needles, to be separated into deciduous and evergreen groups, then to draw pictures of their specimens.

Second graders learned about the life cycle of plants, how they produced seeds that would be dispersed by wind, water, and animals or pollinating insects. What conditions are needed for them to survive? This past spring, they were introduced to World Biomes and ecosystems, a requirement of the Massachusetts State standards. Students worked with photographs of different areas of the world to learn about various climates and the plants and animals adapted to live in each.

In third grade, the study of World Biomes continued, but in more depth. Students learned about dinosaurs and the evolution of trees and plants through three geologic periods. What plants at the arboretum developed during the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods? This visit was designed like a treasure hunt, with a map to follow. The Dinosaur Plant Tour directs students to specific sites where they will find information about each specimen. Dr. Fred Hotchkiss collaborated by loaning fossils from his collection, including a dinosaur footprint from the early Jurassic period. How exciting. The fossils are on display in the Visitors Center.

Field trips to the arboretum for both second and third grades focused on the deciduous forest Biome, which is where Martha’s Vineyard lies. Students looked for native plants, animals, birds, and insects that reside in our Biome.

The fourth grade program gives students the opportunity to examine evergreen and deciduous plants using hand lenses. They will learn how certain plants adapted to the Vineyard climate and what conditions made them able to flourish. Students are encouraged to observe closely, getting right down on the ground with their magnifying glasses, then to draw the specimens they have studied.

Besides the school programs, in the summer the arboretum loans out backpacks from the Visitors Center for self-guided tours, one for families with young children, one for older kids on their own. The backpacks contain binoculars, magnifiers, a compass, a bird guide, plant guide, pollinator guide, a map of the arboretum with suggestions about what to look for at each stop, a note pad for journaling, and a drawing pad with colored pencils.

Betsy and Jill’s enthusiasm for passing along their love of natural science to the children who visit the arboretum was obvious. “To make kids excited about growing things from seeds” was a stated goal as they developed the education programs. Besides it all, Betsy and Jill clearly enjoyed working together. Jill said she had been working as a volunteer on the grounds when Betsy asked her to help. It has been a good partnership.

Although Jill officially retired at the end of this past school year, both women were honored at a party in the Visitors Center just before Thanksgiving. Among their admirers were many of the teachers and guides Betsy and Jill had worked with over the years. Tim Boland, the arboretum’s director, gave a speech filled with affection and accolades, then he presented them each with a reproduction Rietveld chair made by Tucker Hubbell. Having spent time with them, I can’t imagine those chairs will get much use. Jill has already returned to the arboretum as a volunteer on the grounds committee. Betsy is considering joining her, after taking some time off.

Learning about the program and having spent time at the arboretum myself over the years, I know I would have loved having this kind of opportunity when I was a child. Observing nature and drawing what I see, learning about plants, watching things grow, are all activities that have captivated me all my life. Every child on our Island has had this wonderful chance. Every child on our Island knows these two women who have shared their love and knowledge of the arboretum and all its possibilities.