By its very nature, sustainable architecture requires a different perspective.
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When teacher Christine Fawkes’ first grade class gathers in the hollow of windswept dunes on Cape Cod’s Sandy Neck Beach one bright summer morning, it marks the culmination of a season’s worth of work. Since springtime, these students from Barnstable-West Barnstable Elementary School and others schools around the state have been working with the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary to rear endangered, thumbnail-sized eastern spadefoot toads. Today, these excited seven-year-olds reach into aquariums, gently scoop more than 230 of the species into their hands, and happily watch the little toads hop away into the sandy wilderness.
With its range of freshwater, marine, and upland habitats, Cape Cod provides a living classroom for students to study and learn about the fragility of this coastal environment. More and more, schools are teaming up with local science and nature organizations to encourage even the youngest children to be aware of the world around them, starting with their own backyard of Cape Cod. From partnerships with groups including the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History, Mass Audubon sanctuaries, and the Cape Cod National Seashore, innovative teachers are bringing science alive, forging lasting connections with the community and placing the local environment in greener hands.
Spadefoot toads, which are threatened in Massachusetts due to a significantly declining habitat, are known to be found in only 32 places around the state, including the Province Lands at the Cape Cod National Seashore, and on Sandy Neck. “They prefer a habitat they can burrow into,” says Ian Ives, director of both Mass Audubon’s Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary in Cummaquid and the Ashumet Holly Wildlife Sanctuary in East Falmouth. “They spend almost all of their existence under the sand.” Records of spadefoots also exist in the boggy Ashumet area, but the tiny toads haven’t been seen there for 15 to 20 years, according to Ives, who has studied the records at the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.
Mass Audubon and its student partners are hoping to turn things around for the state’s rarest toads by reintroducing them to their native habitats. Ives says, “This is an opportunity to head-start the toads, learn how to raise them, and bring them back to their natural habitat.”
Ives says that working with the schools is a natural fit. The students feed the tadpoles fish, rabbit food, and bugs and create aquarium habitats with a pool and a mounded beach to match each stage of growth. For instance, the kids first give the herbivore tadpoles lots of water and fish flakes, but as soon as the tadpoles start metamorphosis, students add wingless fruit flies and ants to the amphibians’ habitat. “It got the kids thinking not just about the endangered toads, but it also opened their eyes to other endangered animals,” says Catherine Scibelli of Barnstable, whose daughter Alessandra took part in this project. “We live in such a beautiful spot; I think it’s great they become aware of everything they have around them and bring that into the classroom.” Such invaluable lessons from the land are being taught at other Cape Cod schools including the Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School in Orleans. Paul Niles, an eighth grade science teacher and the founder and associate director of this public school for grades six, seven, and eight, says having students understand the basic ecosystems on Cape Cod was a principal goal when the school opened in 1994. When the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History in Brewster became interested in developing school programs a few years back, the two institutions formed a partnership.
During the year, all sixth-graders from the school join naturalists from the museum, teachers, and parent volunteers to visit the area’s four major ecosystems: kettle ponds, uplands, barrier beaches, and salt marshes. They measure the salinity of salt marshes, examine pond water teeming with microscopic organisms, and meet with guest lecturers among other activities.
“We walked through the boardwalk on the marsh and learned about the special perfume that the flies like,” recalls current eighth-grader Amanda Carreiro of Harwich. They also made trail guides for the museum. Amanda’s mother, Andrea Higgins, leads nature hikes and journaling seminars at the school, activities that complement the projects with the museum. “We went walking in these wonderful spots like Nickerson Park and the National Seashore, and we wrote about them in our journals. I was so filled with hope after reading these journal writings—it was really exciting,” she says. “If they’ve fallen in love with an area, they’ll take care of it.”
The site visits and seminars have sparked enormous interest in environmental clubs offered at the school, including a chapter of Roots & Shoots, a global sustainability network founded by Primatologist and Environmentalist Dr. Jane Goodall. Last year, the Cape Cod Lighthouse Roots & Shoots Club received the Middle School Energy Education School of the Year Award from the National Energy Education Development Project for co-hosting an energy fair at the Museum of Natural History. Nauset Regional High School and Eastham Elementary School’s ecology clubs also participated in the project. “We educated families and people around the Cape on how to save energy,” Amanda says. “And, we got to meet Jane Goodall at the Roger Williams Zoo (in Providence) and present our energy project to her.”
“Society has been good about nurturing adolescents’ impulses toward athletic and artistic pursuits, but not so good with science and the environment,” Niles says. “Here, those science and environment muscles have been exercised.” What’s more, while multiple factors may be responsible, the middle school’s collaboration with the Museum of Natural History and abundant hands-on conservation activities have coincided with higher test scores, particularly in science.
The Outer Cape’s natural beauty and the prominent science community drew John Hanlon to call Provincetown his home after moving from Framingham, Massachusetts. Hanlon, who teaches science for the town’s fourth through 11th graders, spends his summers working as a park ranger for the National Park Service, a job that has placed him at the Cape Cod National Seashore for many years. This summer job has inspired Hanlon to bring his students to dunes, marshes, woodlands and cranberry bogs during the school year to teach them science lessons on location, rather than sitting at a desk. It has also opened doors for his students to conduct internships and projects in the community.
Hanlon and his students work with the scientists of the National Seashore on projects like mapping invasive species and conducting controlled burns in Truro and Wellfleet, experiences that have helped the students learn about wildfire, biodiversity, and creating new habitats. The students have also joined the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies to study plankton and investigate the ever-changing shoreline. “If there’s a dead whale that just washed up, we can get in the bus and go look at it,” Hanlon says.
Hanlon asserts that getting students out and about to care for the environment has also strengthened their connection with the community. After seeing students testing water in Provincetown Harbor, one resident was inspired to contribute a grant so the students could grow clams, which they then donated to a soup kitchen.
Provincetown High School graduate Leo Rose, who grew up hunting and fishing with his father in Truro, says science projects with the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies and an internship with the National Seashore propelled him to pursue a degree in environmental law enforcement at Unity College in Maine with long-term plans to become a park ranger. “I learned how environmentally friendly the national park is,” he says.
Hanlon says the class expeditions cultivate an appreciation for the outdoors that other students in town never had the chance to develop. “The science is one part, but just getting outside to the trails—some kids never get that,” he says. “For many kids, school is not a positive experience; but this is something to look forward to.”
Protecting this fragile landscape and learning from those on the front lines of conservation work are real-life lessons in thinking globally and acting locally. While environmental challenges such as climate change can seem overwhelming, students on Cape Cod are learning that they can make a positive difference, one land-use policy, one habitat, and one tiny endangered toad at a time.
A stroll through the Wellfleet Community Garden yields an array of sights. Mark Gabriel’s smiling Buddha, surrounded by pink and orange portulacas, seems to bless a barrel of herbs. Across the hay-strewn aisle, a tuba overflows with purple petunias. Across the way, a bit further up, horticultural therapist Bodil Drescher has planted raised beds constructed by her daughter, Nette. Maura Condrick opted for planting her crops in geometric patterns, with a bright red chair against the fence as a focal point. “We’ve been surprised at the creativity of the gardeners,” Wellfleetian Celeste Makely says. “People are expressing themselves in their own way. It’s kind of quirky. It’s Wellfleet.”
Makely, the garden’s project director, envisioned creating a community garden in Wellfleet where people from all walks of life could gather to grow vegetables and make friends. As she had her husband, John, spread the word, they found themselves surrounded by a circle of hands, all eager to dig into the soil of the football-field sized garden in front of the Council on Aging on Old Kings Highway. The garden is a fun place to be, full of imaginative decorations and 32 cleverly designed plots. The individual gardens are as varied as the folks who tend them. “When I garden, I garden with my ancestors, and when I cook, I cook with my mother,” says Makely, who began gardening with her father in a World War II Victory Garden. “It’s a nice feeling.”
Wellfleet’s first community garden in 50 years came to fruition when the town’s board of selectmen approved the Makelys’ proposal to use land in front of the Council on Aging facility for that purpose. “We started with a half-acre of scrub pines,” says Makely, whose enthusiasm and drive have steered this year-long effort. She was assisted by several local businesses: Dennis Murphy of Murphy-Nickerson, Inc. cleared land; Bartlett Tree conducted soil testing; Capello Well Drilling drilled a well; and many others donated their services to make the project a reality. “This is a community effort,” Makely says. “A lot of people donated their time, tools, and money to make this happen.”
The 32 gardeners lease their plots; a 20-by-20-foot plot is $30 a year, 10-by-20-foot plots are $15. One plot is set aside for seniors who want to garden from throughout the community and from the Council on Aging (COA). Gardeners planted blueberry bushes so those inside the COA building facing the garden have a pleasant view; soon gooseberry bushes will be planted. All of the available plots filled up immediately, and now there is a waiting list. The group is largely self-governed; five gardeners called the “Cabbage Heads” mediate disputes that arise. Some gardeners supplement their income with the vegetables they’ve grown. Others donate their surplus to the Mustard Seed Kitchen, the Wellfleet Food Bank, and the COA’s Iris’s Café.
Some plots have traditional rows while others plant in geometric patterns. One gardener sculpted a raised flower with petals that soon will bloom. Cedar and Ennie Cole, created a meandering path of log steps surrounded by sedum with driftwood adding vertical interest. Their scarecrow with a mannequin’s head stands guard with outstretched arms.
Further up the path, a gaggle of plastic dinosaurs circle Rich Sobol’s herbs. Sharyn Lindsay and her son, Caleb Potter, have built an elaborate driftwood arbor leading to a rustic bench surrounded by begonias and foxglove. A landscape designer, Sharon’s garden is a mix of flowers, lettuces, cabbages, tomatoes, and herbs. A Grecian urn filled with nasturtium and purple salvia flanks the bench while a stone birdbath beckons feathered visitors.
Claudia and Bruce Drucker have made a planter from a clam rake filled with moss, green beans, and thyme. Their garden has a criss-cross pattern with 48 varieties of plants. “I try to plant unusual varieties and different colors of plants,” said Claudia. She has yellow and purple peppers and tomatoes, golden beets, candy-striped radishes, and purple carrots. All the flowers are edible including nasturtium, calendula, pansies, and corn flowers. Claudia also has lovage, a perennial that she says “tastes like celery and smells beautiful.”
Gardening is an activity that benefits people of all interests and abilities. For more than 45 years, former horticultural therapist Bodil Drescher has helped the physically and mentally disabled garden. “Anybody can garden, you just need the right tools,” says Bodil. Her garden paths are wider for better accessibility and she has constructed special tools to accommodate the disabilities of her gardeners, She hopes to establish gardening programs at the senior centers in Wellfleet and Eastham.
This beautiful garden is generating a lot of interest in the community. The Makelys have given tours to people from all over who are interested in community gardening. The gardeners partnered with Wellfleet Preservation Hall for its June garden tour. As a master gardener, Celeste and other experienced gardeners are available to help beginners.
Perhaps the most gratifying aspect of the Wellfleet Community Garden for the Makelys has been the good friends they’ve made along the way. “This is a people place,” said Celeste. “You walk down that aisle and people are happy. Gardeners are nice people.”
Julie Olsen’s hair flutters in the wind as she drives a huge John Deere 5520 tractor. As farm manager at The FARM Institute on Martha’s Vineyard, Olsen is still pursuing a passion for agriculture that she has nurtured since growing up on the Cape in Dennis. After graduating from Sterling College in 2007 with a degree in sustainable agriculture and then traveling around the world to find her dream farm, she found herself working as a farm hand at The FARM Institute in 2008. “The executive director would ask me to do these super-human things,” she recalls joyfully. Apparently, her boss thought her strength was on par with that of the much-larger lead farm hand, and once asked her to “reorganize” a collection of cut telephone poles. She stuck it out and moved up to farm manager last fall. “When I first came here, it just didn’t feel like work,” Olsen says. “I can’t believe I get paid to do this.”
Down a winding dirt road in the island community of Katama, past tourists sporting brand new Martha’s Vineyard sweatshirts and gripping melting ice cream cones, The FARM Institute sits on 162 acres of emerald pastures speckled with Belted Galloways, the FARM’s signature cattle. Surrounded by the lively animals as well as bountiful vegetable and herb gardens, and farm workers tending to daily tasks, students of all ages pull carrots out of the ground for the first time, watch cows give birth, and learn about preserving the Vineyard’s natural resources. It’s a working and teaching farm that provides an atmosphere of total immersion, instilling a new generation with a love of the land like the one that took hold of Olsen in her childhood. The hope is that in the coming years, the FARM Institute could be a prototype for agricultural education throughout the country.
The FARM Institute’s origins can be traced to a 1999 chance encounter at the West Tisbury Farmer’s Market. Vineyard resident Sam Feldman struck up a conversation with agriculturist and teacher Glenn Hearn about his dream of starting an educational island farm. Hearn shared similar conversations with islanders Mike Kidder and John Curelli, and brought all the parties together. Though they were “just four guys without any expertise,” Feldman says, “we just hit it off. We all had a common dream about establishing a farm school.”
A year later, the seeds of the FARM—which stands for Food, Agriculture and Resource Management—were sown with the intention of extending the island’s agricultural legacy. “Through this working farm and through teaching children in the community about sustainable agriculture, we are trying to educate and empower the future leaders of our community,” says former executive director Matthew Goldfarb. Every educational program offered at the FARM teaches the elements of sustainable farming, creating emotional and lifetime connections between children, the land, and its resources.
A key element of the institute’s sustainable agriculture program is its method of grass-based farming. From April to December, the FARM’s cows, sheep, pigs, goats, and chickens eat around 75 percent of the grass in a pasture before being rotated to a fresh one, ensuring the grass is evenly used and will come back bountifully the following year. The FARM also cultivates hay every June or July to sustain the animals during winter months. The same principle is applied to crops, and the corn, eggplant, kale, squashes, and other vegetables are rotated every season to maintain the soil’s exceptional health. The FARM grows this wide variety of produce thanks to the abundance of “Katama loam”—soil that is extremely fertile as a result of glacial silt deposits from the island’s formation thousands of years ago. All of the crops are organically grown, without pesticides or chemicals.
On most summer days, the FARM sees around 100 students learning the secrets of sustainable farming. While children as young as two participate in the Wee Farmers program, older children can sign up for all-day programs that revolve around Concepts of the Week, a set of changing, farm-wide educational themes that range from land preservation to the culture and history of Vineyard farming. The institute also offers several classes for more seasoned agriculturists, with topics like composting, alternative energy, and even beer brewing.
FARM students are involved with the island’s community supported agriculture (CSA) program, which directly links farmers with consumers and reduces goods brought in from off-island sources. “For the FARM Institute, the purchase of our food helps to brand us as both an educational facility and a working farm that grows food for our community,” says Development Assistant Cathy Verost. In addition to selling shares of the FARM’s produce, the Institute recently established a meat CSA program, which provides cuts of FARM-raised beef, chicken, turkey, pork, and lamb.
Julie Olsen, a self-described “conscious omnivore,” who prefers to eat meat raised by herself or a friend, proposed and established the new CSA after learning about a similar venture in Hardwick, Mass., at an organic farming conference in 2009. The community’s positive response has been staggering, even off the island: The FARM had to double the number of CSA shares offered to Falmouth residents, and 27 people are still on the waiting list.
In the future, Olsen would like the FARM to be completely self-sustaining. Education, however, remains the FARM’s highest priority: When students learn about the benefits of practicing local and sustainable agriculture, they take those lessons to heart. Awareness—just like kale or squash—is the product of a hard day’s work.